“Evil? What Do You Mean, ‘Evil’?”

Adolf Eichmann, 1961
Nazi official in charge of The Holocaust at his trial

“Evil?  What Do You Mean, ‘Evil’”?

Back when the first edition of A Good Look at Evil came out, I told a Maine neighbor that I had written a book about evil.  He was a carpenter who had done a fair amount of skillful repair work for our family.  He smiled humorously, looked at me and said:

“What do you know about evil?”

He was not questioning my competence as a philosopher.  It was a Downeast compliment!  He meant, I was a good person.

Still, his question seems a fair one.  Aside from my personal encounters with it, and study of some of the cases that made history, what do I know about it?

Let me stand back and give The Doubters houseroom, as they voice what may well be the temper of the times. What would they say about my claiming I can give evil “a good look”?

Here’s my conjectural list:

  1. Everybody is excusable because either preconditioned or else conditioned by impinging circumstances. People do what they do non-deliberately.

  2. Anyway, we “know not what we do,” since our consciousness is just the visible tip of a vast unconscious force or combine of forces.

  3. The conceit of self-caused motivation, or of action that’s self-starting, is a side effect of privilege — class privilege, money privilege, leisure privilege, indulgence from peers and freedom from persecution.

  4. To call an act or an agent “evil” is judgmental. The judging person elevates herself to a level higher than the one she is judging.  She’s at least self-righteous.  She’s pretending to be holier-than-thou.   Since she’s emotionally invested in her own moral superiority, she’s an interested party and should recuse herself.

  5. Experimental psychology demonstrates that people are herd animals. We are hard-wired to do what everyone else is doing.  The apparent exceptions are programmed either by prior indoctrination or their own psychological abnormalities.

  6. People who believe they have the right to condemn others typically exhibit hardness of heart, narrowness of outlook and a capacity for cruelty that we associate with the great tyrannies of history.

  7. Anyone you know who was raised around people using words like “right or wrong,” ““good or evil,” will show near-allergic aversion to those very words! Survivors of such families have seen first hand how guilt can be exaggerated for the purpose of micro-managing a child’s every word and deed.

  8. Cultures differ about what they deem right or wrong, true or false. These differences tell us that there is no fixed standard to which individuals in their disparate cultures can repair in order to find out what is universally right or wrong, true or false.   “Good,” like “evil,” becomes a matter of perspective.

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner.

To comprehend all is to forgive all.

Let’s see: not to take this personally, but what have I been called, so far, by implication?




privileged and over-privileged,

out of touch with my real unconscious motives,

indoctrinated or psychologically abnormal,



potentially cruel,

a recruit for tyranny,




and unforgiving.

And I’M supposed to be the “judgmental” one?  Actually, friends, the most insultingly personal condemnations that have come my way in recent years, were reprisals for voicing a judgment.  One time, when a normally mild-mannered woman friend had finished her tongue-lashing of me in the terms itemized above — which I told her did not come near to describing who I am — she finished by confessing that she’d been finding excuses for times when she’d fled from outbreaks of wrong-doing that she should have confronted and opposed.

Even if we can’t help making judgments, isn’t the question still worth asking, whether “evil” – the word — stands for anything objectively real?

Well, let’s look at our other judgments, for starters.  Our doctor can judge accurately that we suffer from anemia.  We can judge that we’ve been tactless.  Or that we’ve stepped in smoothly to repair an awkward social situation, bless our hearts.  None of these judgments seem moral as such.  They look like judgments of fact, though the facts may be measurable in the medical case and more nuanced in the social cases.

Can we also judge that someone is being mean?  Deliberately mean?  Malevolent?  Dangerous?  Dangerous because out of control?  Dangerous but cunningly concealed?

If and when we have to make judgments like these, we will bracket our “nonjudgmentalism” and mentally move to figure things out.  We sift evidence.  We consult intuition.  We share impressions with people whose track record and common sense we trust.  We ask ourselves whether this is “projection” or, in the opposite case, “denial.”  Both are possibilities.

Well, we could be missing the mark, couldn’t we?  Yes.  We could continue to hope for the best when the worst already looms.  Or we could fear the worst when there is much to look for that is promising.

Doesn’t this mean that life is morally dangerous?


 Interesting but dangerous.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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