A Good Look at Evil

A Good Look at Evil. Abigail L. Rosenthal,Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2016.

 

Abigail Rosenthal is a professor (emerita) of philosophy, which is not the same thing as being a real philosopher. Indeed, there are few enough books written today by genuine philosophers. This is one. Like Socrates, she also conducts conversations with the many non-philosophers, but unlike him, she does so over the Internet in an online column, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column.” Any book with the title, A Good Look at Evil looks to be heavy going, but Rosenthal’s treatment of an undoubtedly important philosophical problem is remarkably accessible to anyone who still retains a hold on commonsense.

To begin with, she takes the view that “good” is the ability to work out one’s own story, the story of one’s own life, what she calls a corrigible nonfiction narrative. And evildoing is the deliberate prevention or interruption of working out your own life-story, whether you do it to yourself or to somebody else. Stories, literally, reveal who I am –as when, having been offered a bribe of some kind—money, a promotion for considerations, a #MeToo opportunity—one says: “that’s not who I am.” This is, then, a genuine and practical philosophy of existence, a recovery of the understanding of philosophy as a way of living. Moreover, it is devoid of the high sounding and usually empty words we often associate with philosophy, words that properly speaking are the verbal coin of the realm for intellectuals, sophists, PR flacks, and similar frauds.

Rosenthal relies on Aristotle, Kant, and other great predecessors for what we now call a philosophical anthropology, that is, a philosophical understanding of human being, as well as upon more lightweight contemporary moral philosophy. She draws some delightful portraits of contemporary miscreants –the gambler, the rake, the seducer. She tells us a good deal about why politicians, as distinct from statesmen, are rightly held in contempt, and not just in America, but in Canada, Europe, Latin America, Russia, Africa, Asia. Everywhere! Why? Because, she explains in detail, they are invariably sell-outs. One way or another they betray the trust that reposes in their office and do so for unworthy motives. And everyone, including them, knows it. It happens on the grand stage of world politics and the petty stage of academic politics. Political correctness is just a recent instantiation.

Hard cases may make for bad laws but also for very interesting philosophical problems. For example, evildoers do bad things by spoiling life-stories but some are worse than others. Deliberate evildoers are worse than impulsive ones, for example. Moreover, when one moves from doing bad things to individuals to doing bad things to populations, the latter is worse than the former. Harming populations for loot or glory is worse than doing so to defend one’s own culture. But even in the second case, as when the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch among British Columbia First Nations because it involved the large-scale slaughter of slaves, it still involved what the Chief Justice of Canada called “cultural genocide.” The government still had restorative responsibilities, which they failed to live up to. In other words, while it may be a good thing in general to leave other cultures alone, sometimes you cannot live within your own culture, where it is not okay to kill you slaves for prestige, without interfering with cultures for whom killing slaves for prestige is okay. This is also the context within which the current (heated) debate on residential schools for aboriginal children needs to be conducted.

One of the first conclusions Rosenthal reached regarding these very difficult examples is that some genocide practices, in this case, cultural genocide, can be legitimately defended. This is not to say they can be exonerated. Restitution, consideration, promise-keeping, kindness must follow when practices such as killing slaves, headhunting, or human sacrifice are prohibited. Prohibiting such practices, however, is not the same as capturing children and discrediting the culture of their parents. In the case of aboriginal residential schools, religious conversion from traditional belief to one or another form of Christianity is hard to distinguish from acquiring loot. That is why religious persons sometimes speak of a “harvest of souls.” Besides, there were other ways of converting than by capturing children: by converting through good example, for instance. Worse than cultural genocide in order to harvest souls is genocide carried out for ideological reasons where the practice is supported not by, say, religious conviction, but by an imaginary notion of historical warrant that even the defenders know is bogus. This is why residential schools are sometimes defended because some of their graduates became “productive members of society,” that is, non-aboriginal society, a society that (somehow) was on the right side of history. It’s even true that not a few aboriginal graduates of residential schools might agree. Even so, genocide was still involved. And Rosenthal’s point is that aboriginal children did not make the story of being on the right side of history. They had, or would have had, their own stories to tell.

The paradigm case where genocide is linked to mass murder is the Holocaust. Inter-tribal destruction, even the example where Western cultures extinguished aboriginal cultures by killing the aboriginal population, as in Tasmania and Newfoundland, do not compare to the Holocaust because the numbers of human beings murdered is not comparable. Moreover, butchery motivated by desire for loot and power or by cultural contempt is (or seems to be) less malevolent than the meticulously planned and executed Nazi murder of so many millions of Jews. Here we have a genocidal holocaust, not mere mass murder or cultural genocide. That is about as evil as it gets. Worst of all, it took the teamwork of the Germans, either active or passive, to get the job done. Under such circumstances, Rosenthal argued, the only appropriate response is to do whatever one can to survive.

The last chapter of the original (1987) edition described what it would be like to think (if that is the right word) like a Nazi. Obviously, it is not acceptable to take Nazi words at face value and entertain some allegedly “higher” notion of good and evil. We, like Rosenthal, suppose that all along the Nazi knew he (or she) was in the wrong. To the claim that they were entirely ordinary, Rosenthal agreed. She adds that they were also quite determined not to know what was going on, which is another way of saying that they knew perfectly well what was going on. Their unctuous evasion was contradicted by their cooperation with the German government and churches to ensure the Holocaust went smoothly. The notion that the Holocaust was entirely the responsibility of the Leader is likewise evil nonsense because everybody (including Nazis) knows that human beings simply cannot sign over their liberty to another. The Nazis were never victims. So far as the very boring Eichmann was concerned, “being that boring is the symptom a persistent and thickly insulated untruth.”

For many readers, the most interesting part of Rosenthal’s book will likely be her discussion of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. I will not go into details because Rosenthal’s discussion deserves to be studied on its own. All I will say is that Arendt was not “taken in” by Heidegger. Nor was she just a young woman in love with her prof, and Heidegger was not simply an opportunist with a roving eye. Arendt’s amply documented life, with which Rosenthal is entirely familiar, details a life story that began exceptionally and wonderfully, and “regrettably she spoiled it.”

Readers of Voegelin’s Hitler and the Germans will find an echo in Rosenthal’s book. They will also find an echo in her view that God is a co-author of one’s story. If one is to “have a care for one’s story,” as Thomas Mann put it, “it is helpful to take seriously the idea that God’s still-present activity is discernible in the plotlines of one’s life.” Rosenthal tells a story from her own life to illustrate what she meant.

 

Lee Trepanier’s review of the same book is available here.

Barry Cooper

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Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of more than thirty books and has published over one hundred and fifty papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.