The question is asked in very different ways in two recent articles. The first, by Ron Rosenbaum at Slate, asks whether, in the terms of neuroscience, evil can be said to exist. He’s unsure about this:
As for evil itself, the new neuroscience is unlikely to end the debate, but it may cause us to be more attentive to the phenomenon. Perhaps evil will always be like the famous Supreme Court pronouncement on pornography. You know it when you see it. I don’t like its imprecision, but I will concede I don’t have a better answer. Just that we can do better than the mechanistic, deterministic, denial of personal responsibility the neuroscientists are offering to “replace” evil with.
Meanwhile, Alan Wolfe has a new book on political evil. In his review, also at Slate, Michael Ignatieff largely agrees with Wolfe that there is often method to the madness of “evil” politics, that there are levels of evil, and that calling others’ politics evil can often be more about smug self-righteousness than effective moral action. Yet:
It is when Wolfe moves on from these general sentiments, which seem both admirable and true, to detailed examples of “fighting politics with politics,” that the questions about his approach begin to arise. What would Wolfe do differently? No to the war in Iraq certainly, no to the torture memos. That much is obvious, but on other issues, his skeptical liberal realism is less clear as a guide to action than he supposes. Is Wolfe saying no to intervention in Libya, on the grounds that Qaddafi, while a thug, posed no strategic threat, and his crimes, while vicious, did not rise to a level that had to be stopped? Is Wolfe saying no to an intervention in Darfur, on the grounds that the killings did not rise to the level of genocide?