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I’ve begun reading Terry Eagleton’s new book, On Evil (Yale University Press, 2010). Eagleton is Professor of English Literature at the National University of Ireland, Galway, Distinguished Professor of Cultural Theory at Lancaster University, and Professor of English Literature at Notre Dame. He is the author of many books, including Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.

I’ll try to offer chapter by chapter exposition. Please don’t expect evaluation because it’s my firm conviction that exposition must always come before evaluation. Comments will offer an opportunity to evaluate. Here’s my exposition of the introductory chapter where the main argument is constructed.


The book opens with a crime that happened 15 years ago when “two ten-year old boys tortured and killed a toddler in the north of England. There was an outcry of public horror, though why the public found this particular murder especially shocking is not entirely clear. Children, after all, are only semi-socialized creatures who can be expected to behave pretty savagely from time to time” (p. 1).

Evil actions are commonly viewed as “unintelligible,” “without rhyme or reason,” and “without a cause.” Why? It is “a preemptive strike against those who might appeal to social conditions in seeking to understand why they did what they did. And such understanding can always bring forgiveness in its wake” (p. 2)

Eagleton observes “there is a kind of tautology or circular argument implicit” in this view: “people do evil things because they are evil.” “We have thrown out a determinism of environment only to replace it with one of character. It is now your character, not your social conditions, which drives you to unspeakable deeds. And though it is easy enough to imagine an environment being changed – slums demolished, youth clubs set up, crack dealers driven out – it is harder to imagine such a total transformation when it comes to the question of human character. How could I be totally transformed and still be me? Yet if I happen to be evil, only such a deep-seated change will do” (p. 4).

Both views – determinism of environment (held by liberal structuralists) and determinism of character (held by conservative behaviorists) – exonerate the actor from doing the action. If social conditions are solely responsible for the evil action, you are innocent. If “bad blood or malevolent genes” are solely responsible for the evil action, you are innocent. And herein lies the irony: the condition which damns you succeeds only in redeeming you. “If terrorists really are mad, then they are ignorant of what they are doing and therefore morally innocent.” If men and women are “helpless victims of demonic powers,” should they to be pitied or condemned? (pp. 5-6).

A third response to evil – beyond social conditions and character – is to claim that the actor is evil because of his own free will, similar to Shakespeare’s Richard III (“I am determined to prove a villain”), Milton’s Satan (“Evil, be thou my good!”) or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Goetz in the play Lucifer and the Lord (“I do Evil for Evil’s sake”). This response often lapses into a determinism of character: “You might always claim that people like these, who consciously opt for evil, must already be evil to do so.”

Against all these responses, Eagleton argues that evil actions are rationally explicable because “reason and freedom are bound closely together.” Lest we fear that explaining evil is excusing evil, he writes: “To explain why I spend my weekends cheerfully boiling badgers alive is not necessarily to condone what I do. Not many people imagine that historians seek to explain the rise of Hitler in order to make him look more alluring.” In short, “explanations may sharpen moral judgments as well as soften them” (emphasis mine) (pp. 7-8).

Too often, our responses to evil are simplistic: “evil human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them” (p. 8). Neither viewpoint, Eagleton argues, is true.

There is no absolute distinction between being influenced and being free. A good many of the influences we undergo have to be interpreted in order to affect our behavior; and interpretation is a creative affair. It is not so much the past that shapes us as the past as we (consciously or unconsciously) interpret it. And we can always come to decipher it differently. Besides, someone free of social influences would be just as much a nonperson as a zombie. In fact, he or she would not really be a human being at all. We can act as free agents only because we are shaped by a world in which this concept has meaning, and which allows up to act upon it. None of our distinctly human behavior is free in the sense of being absolved from social determinants, which includes such distinctively human behaviors as poking people’s eyes out. We would not be able to torture and massacre without having picked up a great many social skills. Even when we are alone, it is not in the sense in which a coal scuttle or the Golden Gate Bridge is alone. It is only because we are social animals, able through language to share our inner life with others, that we can speak of such things as autonomy and self-responsibility in the first place. They are not terms that apply to earwigs. To be responsible is not to be bereft of social influences, but to relate to such influences in a particular way. It is to be more than just a puppet of them. “Monster” in some ancient thought meant, among other things, a creature that was wholly independent of others (pp. 11-12).


Four responses to evil:

  1. Determinism of environment: social conditions are solely responsible for evil actions (usually held by liberal structuralists).

  2. Determinism of character: human behavior is solely responsible for evil actions (usually held by conservative behaviorists).

  3. Free will: evil actions are chosen by the individual (lapses into determinism of character).

  4. Interplay of environment and character: evil actions are the result of social conditions and human behavior (Eagleton’s position).

Major implications of fourth response to evil:

  • Evil is performed by a social actor – not an autonomous actor. “Pure autonomy is a dream of evil” (p. 12).

  • Evil affects the private realm and public realm.

  • Evil has ethical and political consequences.

Key questions:

  • Is evil intelligible?

  • Is evil caused?

  • Is “evil” a conversation-stopper?

  • Is evil ordinary or extraordinary?

  • What is the relationship between evil and sin?

  • Is evil natural or supernatural in origin?

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