Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education is a special issue reflecting on “An Era of Ideas”
To mark the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, The Chronicle Review asked a group of influential thinkers to reflect on some of the themes that were raised by those events and to meditate on their meaning, then and now.
The result is a portrait of the culture and ideas of a decade born in trauma, but also the beginning of a new century, with all its possibilities and problems.
- SHELDON SOLOMON
- STEVEN PINKER
- ALEX GOUREVITCH
- TERRY EAGLETON
- SCOTT ATRAN
- VICTOR DAVIS HANSON
- MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM
- TODD GITLIN
- LAWRENCE WESCHLER
- MARJORIE PERLOFF
- RICHARD SENNETT
- BARBARA L. FREDERICKSON
- OMID SAFI
Terry Eagleton examines the philosophical distinctions between evil and wickedness. Beginning with the events of 9/11/2001 and 9/11/1973 (in which the US military overthrew democratically elected leaders in Chile to install a dictator), Eagleton argues:
What happened on both occasions was a moral obscenity and wicked, but it was not, in a technical sense, evil. There is a distinction between evil and wickedness. It is wicked to destroy innocent people for one’s political ends, as Al Qaeda did that day in New York and the United States has done in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other places around the world. For an act to be evil, however, means that the destruction must be done simply for the hell of it—for the sheer obscene pleasure of the thing, rather than for some functional end.
Evil is an assault on the meaning and value of human life. It takes a savage delight in annihilation, even if there is no point to it.
His distinctions and arguments are thought Why is it important to study both wickedness and evil? Why is it dangerous, according to Eagleton, to conflate the two? For the Christian, it has me thinking about where to locate these categories with the added category of SIN.
Marth Nussbaum provides the essay on global justice challenging our understanding of both justice and compassion:
Indeed, shortly after September 11, 2001, I wrote that it might be that disaster itself that would force people’s imaginations outward, getting Americans, often so insular, to learn more about the developing world and its problems, since now those other parts of the world had impinged on our own safety.
But here are two discouraging facts about the moral imagination: It is typically narrow, focused on people and things that affect one’s own daily life. And it is easily engaged by sensational singular events, rather than by long-term mundane patterns. Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, drew attention to both defects when he talked about how an earthquake in China would initially arouse great compassion in a “man of humanity” in Europe—until daily life returned with its predictable self-focused events and that same man found himself caring more about a pain in his own finger than about the deaths of a million people he had never met.
. . .
We saw the good and bad in compassion on 9/11: the strong surge of interest and concern for the people, of many races and backgrounds, who died; the new curiosity about nations far away from us. But we also saw the distressing shortfall of the compassionate imagination: As soon as things returned to “normal,” most people went back to their old habits and their daily lives, continuing to put themselves and their friends first in the old familiar ways. Moreover, the intense compassion that was generated by the disaster never got translated into a keen interest in the mundane and boring problems that actually kill so many more people in the world than terrorism, or even war: hunger, malnutrition, chronic diseases, lack of sanitation and clean water, sex-selective abortion, and infanticide. We didn’t even learn to care passionately about the right to education for all the world’s children, a theme much emphasized after 9/11 apropos of the women of Afghanistan.
Her focus on compassion often makes her philosophical ethics a fruitful dialogue partner for Christian ehtics (as evidenced by the work of Fordham theologian Maureen O’Connell). Through her use of contemporary science and psychology provides an insightful essay from which to continue the conversation about why we engage in selective compassion and engage in making judgments of who is deserving and undeserving of our compassion.
Each of these essays is worth reading and will provide much food for thought for Christian ethics as we reflect back on a decade after the 9/11 attacks.
I thought Eagleton was a bit of a Thomist, and perhaps he’s trying to be one here, emphasizing the privation aspect of ‘evil.’ Or maybe he’s trying to force acknowledgment of agency into the actions of Al Queda or the US government, by pushing for ‘wickedness’ as the appropriate description. Fair enough. However, a Thomist typically sees people as almost always acting for some intelligible purpose – there must be one if we are to make sense of it and typically need it to assign moral responsibility – so Eagleton’s category of ‘evil’ seems rather narrow and of relatively little desciptive help here. But again, perhaps that is his point.
John, I have not read Eagleton’s ON EVIL. I would like to. I’ve only read short pieces by him. However, I think that is exactly his point – that we overuse EVIL as a “get out of jail free card” that ends the conversation. If the action or group is EVIL then I do not have to do further investigation into causes, purposes, etc. Thus, I think, he is making a distinction between wickedness and evil. At least, that is what I thought he was saying and I think he makes a very interesting point. Particularly, as it relates to terrorism post 9/11, I think he has a valid point.
Hi Meghan, I haven’t either. I was going on what you’d written and knowledge of his long friendship with Herbert McCabe, as well as a few articles he’s written. I sense we’re interpreting him in very similar ways.