26 January 2004

professor burke's newest blog article is called "evil." i suggest you read it, because it raises some interesting points. for my part, i'd be incredibly interested to hear about burke's faith history -- just 'cause evil is such a tough word for us liberal christian types. he seems to have an easier time with it than i.

burke takes as a primary example the cover story in this week's new york times magazine, which i mistakenly tried to read while eating lunch. let me give you a clue: the headline includes the phrase "sex slave" and the cover photo is a nose-down shot of a girl in a catholic-school-esque uniform sitting on a bed. knees foreground. the article, even more than the cover, is an immensely disturbing look at something that is, yes indeed, evil. imprisoning a child, and then raping and abusing it for profit, is clearly evil.

like crashing passenger planes into civilian business centers is evil. like causing the deaths of thousands by orchestrating an unjustified war is evil? that's a harder one.

tim burke writes, "Most human suffering isn?t something that one person does willfully, with foresight and understanding of the consequences, to another...[E]vil is a term I?d reserve in this context for exceptional circumstances where the connection between particular actions and the serious suffering of particular individuals are clear and are known to the actor and known in advance by him or her to be morally indefensible."

i.e., systems can't be evil; concrete individual actions can. in a certain sense, this means that the more widespread the bad, the more difficult it is to define as evil. i don't know what i think about that.

relatedly (i think): i'm also not sure how to respond to burke's argument that mystifying or un-understandable acts and circumstances and motivations cannot be labeled evil. my sense is that he's wrong on this, but again, that might be my religious tradition speaking. i believe in evil as an active force in the world, and i also believe that i can discern many acts of evil -- but i lack the authority to label actors, themselves, evil. when burke discusses the difference between evil and not, he is suddenly speaking of persons rather than the "acts and ideologies" he refers to earlier.

if we restrict ourselves to acts (and maybe ideologies), do things get simpler? and can we make a case for evil that goes beyond the immediate -- beyond suicide bombers and serial killers and the logisticians of genocide and, yes, sex-slave traffickers -- and touches the conditions that make suicide bombers, serial killers, genocides, sex slavery? i think yes.

on that more diffuse definition, i'd say that willful misunderstanding of a sort that causes widespread death and suffering is probably evil, and that the bush administration has committed an evil act. just sayin'.

unrelatedly...man, catherine mackinnon is really not useful as anything other than a foil.