Europe in Search of Europeans   /   Spring 2014   /    Essays

Grappling with Evil in Our Time

Paul Hollander

Car bombing in Beirut, Lebanon; © AFP/Getty.

The idea of evil in our times produces ambivalence.

At a time when a growing moral relativism in the Western world coexists with the global rise of Islamist extremism, there are good reasons to reflect on the prevailing notions of evil—not that evil ever ceased to be a morbidly fascinating subject. The best reason for thinking about evil has always been the hope that understanding it might help to reduce its most alarming manifestations. But the fascination with evil also stems from the dismaying record of human actions undertaken to create a better world that led to untold human suffering. Even more disturbing are the types of evildoing that seem to give pleasure to perpetrators who seek neither lofty political goals nor material gain from the infliction of pain, suffering, or death.

It is not only serial murders, bloody civil wars, the spectacle of rampaging mobs, and bombs exploding in crowded restaurants and marketplaces that prompt reflections on evil. Notions of good and evil that invite and urge moral judgment seem deeply embedded in human nature and thinking, and in the life of communities. Both literature and language reflect the reality that “in virtually every human culture there has existed some word for ‘evil.’” Attempts to understand evil lead to the vexed questions of human nature, free will, and various types of determinism.

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