A Philosophy Of Evil

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"Can we imagine a human world without evil? Since evil is human, I seriously doubt such a thing is conceivable. In this world, we may all be victims of evil, but we also inflict evil on others. There are many reasons for this, not least being that we are moral creatures, and therefore tend to divide everything we see in the world into good and evil--whatever threatens or harms us is labeled evil. We want to make the earth a habitable place, and therefore reflect on how we can gain control of evil. We're always on the lookout for evil, and when there's no immediate threat, we often try to go out and get a jump on it. We localize evil so that we can fight it, and often imagine that we must be good since we're fighting the good fight."

The quote is from A PHILOSOPHY OF EVIL, a new book by Lars Svendsen, professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bergen, Norway (translated by Kerri A. Pierce and published by Dalkey Archive Press). Svendsen may be an academic but he writes in a lucid, jargon-free way that makes for easy reading. It's not that he avoids complexities, just that he's got the knack of analyzing and unravelling them in deft, down-to-earth fashion.

"This isn't a history of evil," he cautions, "even though I do track changing notions of evil through my historical sources. A complete history of evil from the Old Testament (or even earlier from the Epic of Gilgamesh) to the present day would prove a far too comprehensive task. Instead, I've chosen to limit my discussion to certain topics and theories that I find especially relevant."

The essence of Svendsen's 234-page philosophical rumination on evil is this: we don't need a theory to tell us that things like murder, the destruction of life, starvation, poverty, torture and homelessness are evil. "Every theory that concludes that these evil are not in fact evil will be wrong...Such evils must be fought. This is the basic presupposition behind every known moral stance, and ought to be one for all political stances as well. Though different concepts of the good can lead to different priorities in the struggle against evil, all people agree on one thing: these evils, and others like them, must be opposed. What matters now is finally doing it."

Svendsen's previous books, which include A Philosophy of Boredom, Fashion: A Philisophy, A Philosophy of Fear and Work have been translated into twenty-two languages, making him one of the most popular and important philosophers alive.