Autumn-winter 2004


  Autumn-winter 2004

  Keith DOUBT
Evil is difficult to comprehend theoretically. Socrates avoided the task, and it is important to understand why. No one does wrong knowingly, Socrates asserted. When someone knows that an act is wrong (truly knows that it is wrong), someone does not willingly commit the act. Doing wrong is a matter of ignorance and nothing else. Evil is merely ignorance of good.
Socrates' refusal to theorize evil as an oriented commitment exasperated his interlocutors. In Gorgias, Polus asked Socrates why he argued as if he was unaware of evil: "Don't they kill whoever they want to, and expropriate and expel from the cities whoever they think fit?" Socrates replied that, while such tyrants do terrible things, they have "the least power in the cities; for they do practically nothing that they want to, but do whatever they think best." Polus asked, "And isn't this having great power?" Socrates answered no and in return asked, "Do you think it is a good if someone does whatever seems best to him when he has no intelligence?" Socrates became empathetic, "I say that they don't do what they want. So come on, refute me." Socrates' dare extends not only to Polus but to modern philosophy itself.
In Ethics, as a friend of Socrates, Aristotle states the axiology that supports his refusal to theorize evil: "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has been rightly declared to be that at which all things aim." If evil is an act, toward what end does evil aim? Action, given the structure of what action is, must aim toward good. Here is the problem: insofar as evil is action, it, too, must aim toward good. If evil, however, is indeed evil, it cannot aim toward good. In order for evil to be what it is, it must aim toward evil. If evil aimed toward good, it would cease to be evil. Once evil is action, it no longer is evil.
For Socrates, this paradox exonerates philosophy from accounting for evil. It would be irresponsible to explain evil as if it were action. If, however, we could report to Socrates the crimes against humanity that were inflicted upon four million people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, would Socrates reply that Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic "don't do what they wanted"? Would he say that, during their campaign of genocide in the country-side and cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Karadzic and Mladic had "the least power"? Would he say that Karadzic and Mladic did practically nothing that they wanted but only what they thought best?
In Gorgias, Polus eventually agreed with Socrates' position. Such is the idealism of the Platonic dialogue, and it is worth noting the exchange.
Socrates: Then it is in pursuit of the good that we both walk when we walk, thinking it is better, and on the other hand stand still when we stand still, for the sake of the same thing, the good. Isn't that so?
Polus: Yes.
Socrates: Then don't we also kill, if we kill anyone, and expel and expropriate them, thinking that it is better for us if we do it than if we don't?
Polus: Yes, quite.
Socrates: Then it is for the sake of the good that those who do these things do them all.
Polus: I agree.
Socrates: Now didn't we agree that whatever things we do for the sake of something, we don't want the things we do, but the thing for the sake of which we do them?
Polus: Absolutely.
Socrates: Then we don't want to butcher or expel from the cities or expropriate, just like that, but if these things are beneficial, we want to do them, but if they are harmful, we don't want to. For we want good things, you say, but we don't want the neither good nor evil things, nor the evil things. Is that right? Do you think what I say is true, or not Polus? Why don't you answer?
Polus: It's true.
Socrates: Then since we agree on this, if someone kills a man or expels him from the city, or expropriates him, whether he is a tyrant or a rhetor, thinking it is better for him, when in fact it is worse, he presumably does what he thinks fit. Isn't that so?
Polus: Yes.
Socrates: Then does he do what he wants to, if the things he does are in fact bad? Why don't you answer?
Polus: No, I don't think he does what he wants to.
Does this line of argument extend to Karadzic and Mladic? When Karadzic and Mladic killed, expelled, and expropriated thousands of thousands of people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, were they thinking that it is better for them if they did it than if they did not? In what sense were the murders of thousands of thousands of people in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the sake of the good? To ask this question is in itself unthinkable. It, however, is necessary to ask this question in order to grasp the character of Karadzic and Mladic's war crimes.
Karadzic and Mladic, one must acknowledge, were at some point human beings in their relations to themselves and others. As human beings, Karadzic and Mladic wanted good things rather than neither good nor evil things and rather than evil things. When they walked, they walked because they thought that it was good. When they stood still, they stood still because they thought that it was good. No evidence is needed to prove this point. Human beings seek what is good rather than what is neither good nor evil and rather than what is evil. Consider this report from Adil Zulfikarpasic on Karadzic at a joint meeting with the Muslim Bosniak Organization and the SDS in Zvornik before the war started in 1991.
That meeting was very important for the fact that the main representative of the Serbs, Karadzic, said that Greater Serbia was a wonderful dream but could not be achieved in Bosnia, that the Serbs should know that, and that real life differed from such dreams. He then said quite reasonably that in those parts of Bosnia where Serbs and Bosniaks lived together, in half of the municipalities the Bosniaks were the majority, and in the other half the Serbs, so that where the Serbs had the majority they should protect the Muslims, and where the Muslims had the majority they should protect the Serbs. The only prospect for the future lay in living together. Even today, when visitors to the Bosniak Institute watch our video recording of that meeting they say it is astonishing the degree to which the Serbs . . . renounced the idea of Greater Serbia.

Neither is evidence needed either to prove that the mass murders in Srbrenica and so many other places throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina were not good. The conscience of the world knows this fact as if it were a matter of immediate acquaintance for which no rational proof is required. The superegos of Karadzic and Mladic also know this fact as if it were a matter of immediate acquaintance for which no rational proof is required. There was nothing good in the crimes against humanity for which Karadzic and Mladic are individually and directly responsible.
If, then, we could report the crimes of Karadzic and Mladic to Socrates, would he reply that, although Karadzic and Mladic were doing what they thought best, they were never doing what they wanted? Would he state emphatically, "I say that they don't do what they want"?
Hannah Arendt is distinct in contemporary philosophy in that she shows solidarity with the Socratic understanding of evil with the term, "the banality of evil." It is worth citing directly from Arendt.
It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never "radical," that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is "thought-defying," as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its "banality." Only the good has depth and can be radical.
Arendt claims that evil is never radical. Evil cannot be radical because it cannot want what is good. To be radical, to have depth (and to be radical one must have depth), one must seek good. Evil is "thought-defying" because it is impossible for evil to seek good. Evil is thus banal, and this notion debunks the competing and alternative notion of radical evil. Arendt sustains the Socrates' steadfast refusal to theorize evil affirming that radical evil is an untenable notion.
During the war Karadzic and Mladic gave many interviews to international journalists. The question that journalists would ask of Karadzic and Mladic, in one way or another either implicitly or explicitly, was what was their motivation? What reasoning guided their conduct? There were two ways that Karadzic and Mladic might haved answered. First, Karadzic and Mladic might say that they were doing what they thought was best, say, for "their people" or for the idea of a "Greater Serbia." This response exemplifies the banality of evil; while Karadzic and Mladic may have been doing what they thought best, they were not doing what they wanted. When they planned, provoked, and executed genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there was nothing good in what they were doing. Second, Karadzic and Mladic might have said that they were doing what they wanted. They wanted to inflict mass murder, genocide, and even sociocide upon the people and society of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This response would exemplify the notion of radical evil, a notion that is untenable for both Socrates and Arendt.
In the absence of a thoughtful, that is, non-vain, response to their question, journalists would construct imagined responses from Karadzic and Mladic to their question. The hypothetical response that journalists favored was that Karadzic and Mladic were doing not what they thought best, but what they wanted. Karadzic and Mladic wanted genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Moreover, through the global audience that international journalists would bring to them, Karadzic and Mladic would convey the message that they were doing exactly what they wanted. To a significant degree, this stymied opposition to their crimes. If Karadzic and Mladic were doing what they wanted and if, as human beings, they could only want good, who could stop them and on what basis? Few journalists entertained the possibility that the activities of Karadzic and Mladic in Bosnia-Herzegovina were banal. Understanding their activities as radical evil, however unfathomable, was a better story line.
It is important to consider the significance of each imagined response and how each informs the rationalizations behind the world leaders' understanding of Karadzic and Mladic's war crimes. Consider the syntax of the first. If evil is not an act because it must aim at good to be an act and if evil is incapable of aiming at good in that it is evil, evil then is only a behavior and not an action. Behavior, which is the subject that psychologists study, is a reduction of what action is. Concretely, behavior and action may be the same. Analytically, they are different. One can behave with no motivation. One can behave without wanting the good. One can behave like other species in the animal kingdom by just doing, by just being one with one's life activity. One can behave without making one's life activity an object of reflection. The term, psychopath, is a modern clinical term, the clinical term for this understanding of evil qua behavior.
Consider now the syntax of the second, that is, that Karadzic and Mladic wanted genocide. Radical evil assumes the anti-Socratic idea that a person wants something evil and that a person's action may be guided accordingly, that is, according to evil. Is radical evil possible? Can a human being do evil truly knowing that it is evil rather than good? Socrates would say no, that it is impossible. This muse, however, haunts contemporary thought. Slavoj Zizek asks after the possibility of an ontology for evil when he writes, "Is there a specific kind of knowledge which renders impossible the act, a knowledge which can no longer be co-opted by cynical distance (I know what I am doing, but I am nevertheless doing it.)?"
Let's translate this formula to the present discussion. Can I know that I am doing evil and nevertheless do evil? Is there a specific kind of knowledge, namely evil, which renders impossible the act? Also, what is cynical distance? Does Zizek mean by cynical distance what Karl Marx means with the phrase that defines the human species-being, "to make one's life activity an object of reflection." Is sincerity, then, being one with one's life activity in the same manner that other species are one with their life-activity? Can human beings forfeit what distinguishes their human species-being from other species-being and remain human? What is the allure of this "specific kind of knowledge which renders impossible the act"? Here, then, is the postmodern answer to Socratic refusal to theorize evil. Evil is oriented in that the good toward which evil aims is that evil does not aim at the good. Evil then represents the good of not aspiring toward the good and herein is the substance and character of the commitment to evil. The commitment, however, only has substance and character, that is, depth, in so far as the commitment defines itself as aiming at the good, in the case of postmodernism, the good of not seeking some good (metanarrative, totalizing discourse, and so on).
Whenever human thought seeks to grasp the notion of radical evil, the skepticism of Socrates implicitly haunts the discussion. Consider the following passage from Georges Bataille in Literature and Evil, "We explore Evil in as far as we think it Good, and, inevitably, the exploration is doomed to failure and ridicule. But this does not make it any the less interesting." Socrates' objection stands. Bataille, while recognizing the Socratic motivation for understanding any subject, nonetheless proceeds. It is interesting or so it seems. How can what is thought-defying be interesting? In what sense is evil an oriented commitment even when it is, by definition, a non-action?
Karadzic and Mladic have not been arrested for their crimes against humanity and war crimes. Do world leaders see Karadzic and Mladic as evil persons or do they see them as persons who did bad things? How this question is answered influences how their war crimes are responded to. If Karadzic and Mladic are seen as evil persons, it may then seem futile to arrest them. It may be concluded that they are incorrigible. If they are incorrigible, what would be the pragmatic point of arresting them? If Karadzic and Mladic, however, are seen not as evil persons, but as persons who committed heinous crimes out of ignorance, it becomes imperative to arrest them immediately. It becomes imperative to arrest them not only for the sake of their victims, but also for the sake of Karadzic and Mladic as well as those who joined him in the war crimes they inspired. Whenever possible, Karadzic, Mladic, and their loyal followers including clergy in the Serbian Orthodox Church display the memory of their grotesque deeds unabashedly to those who suffered them. To fail to arrest Karadzic and Mladic perpetuates a fatalism to which not only Karadzic and Mladic but also leaders of the international community seem fixated and which continues to paralyze the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Consider an incisive account of Karadzic. Semezdin Mehmedinovic writes:
I rarely thought of Karadzic during the war; I was much more occupied with the problem of simply surviving. Only on days when things in Sarajevo became truly intolerable did I remember that my life had been made unbearable through Karadzic's will.

Mehmedinovic then recalls a conversation he had with Karadzic before the war started.

We were in the Writer's Club one summer afternoon and he was telling me, with great enthusiasm, about a movie he had seen the day before. The movie was Sophie's Choice, and Radovan, speaking from the professional perspective of someone concerned with the human psyche, interpreted in great detail the various aspects of Meryl Streep's spiritual state in the scene where a German officer presents her with the following choice: which of her two children should be saved, since one would have to be killed. Underground, my hair stood on end as I remembered his rational analysis of Sophie's choice.

Notice that Mehmedinovic uses Karadzic's first name, Radovan in order to recollect his memory of Radovan as a human being. Is Radovan a person fascinated by evil or an evil person? If he is fascinated with evil, at what point does this make him an evil person? At what point did Radovan want what is evil rather than what is good? Mehmedinovic continues, "The ghastly scene from Sophie's Choice was endlessly repeated in Bosnia: Karadzic's soldiers put mothers in the same position in which Meryl Streep found herself in the cinematic reconstruction of events that took place in a German concentration camp."
Socrates and Arendt refuse to accept the idea of radical evil. Socrates insists, "I say that they don't do what they want." What then would Socrates do in the case of Karadzic and Mladic? The task that he would undertake if he were to engage Karadzic and Mladic in conversation (as he did Thrasymachus in The Republic) would be to try to persuade Karadzic and Mladic that, even if they were doing what they thought was best, they were never doing what they wanted. Karadzic and Mladic do want what is bad. Karadzic and Mladic would admit, if they were thoughtful, that the activity referred euphemistically to as ethnic cleansing was not action insofar as action, to be action, must aim toward good, and the activity referred euphemistically to as ethnic cleansing was void of good. The mindless murders, immense cultural destruction, unconscionable bad faith, and unthinkable injustices that Karadzic and Mladic inflicted upon people in Bosnia-Herzegovina exemplified ignorance. Even if Karadzic and Mladic imagined that they were doing what they thought best, they must admit that they were never doing what they wanted. Despite the way journalists sensationalize Karadzic and Mladic's cunning, they, in fact, were ignorant.
Here is the pressing question: If exposed to Socratic questioning, would Karadzic and Mladic blush in the same manner that Thrasymachus did in Book One of the Republic?
Now, Thrasymachus did not agree to all of this so easily as I tell it now, but he dragged his feet and resisted, and he produced a wonderful quantity of sweat, for
it was summer. And then I saw what I had not yet seen before--Thrasymachus blushing.

Why did Thrasymachus, once he sees that he is refuted, blush? Why does he not get angry, threaten Socrates, and walk away? Why does he not merely refuse to answer any more of Socrates' questions? "What is being said in a Platonic dialogue must be watched most carefully: every word counts; some casually spoken words may be more important than lengthy, elaborate statements." This statement from the Platonic scholar Jacob Klein recommends treating the seemingly superficial exchanges between Socrates and the interloculars as crucial aspects of the Platonic dialogue, equal if not greater in importance to the philosophical arguments.
Thrasymachus' blush is an expression of his particular experience upon being refuted. While involuntary, the blush comes from within Thrasymachus; it reveals him. Thrasymachus' blush exemplifies that Thrasymachus has is a conscience. It is a sign. The conscience of Thrasymachus realizes that it is caught within a significant contradiction. The blush reveals Thrasymachus' awareness of the contradiction between what he was arguing for, namely, that the unjust are stronger and therefore more good than the just, and what Thrasymachus knows, namely, that Thrasymachus himself wants good and injustice is not good. Thrasymachus' blush surprises Socrates; it reveals that Thrasymachus is endowed with reason and thus capable of suffering a refutation.
Are Karadzic and Mladic capable of blushing? The followers of Karadzic and Mladic do not want their leaders to be arrested and taken to the Hague because if Karadzic and Mladic were to blush, it would mean that they are not evil men. It would mean that they did what they thought best and not what they wanted. It would be mean that they were lacking intelligence when they planned, provoked, and executed genocide in Bosnia. It would meant that the followers of Karadzic and Mladic were equally lacking in intelligence.
The world is waiting for Slobodan Milosevic to blush at the Hague Tribunal. Here is the psycho-social drama of the trial, especially for the cynical intellectuals who support Milosevic. The idealism of the Hague Tribunal is that, at some point, Milosevic will blush and that the world will witness this blush. The followers of Milosevic are unconsciously hoping that Milosevic will never blush, that he will never suffer a refutation in the way that Thrasymachus did before Socrates. The followers of Milosevic are also afraid that he may blush because they recognize that he, too, is a human being.
If Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic, however, are incapable of blushing either at the Hague or anyplace, their crimes have so permanently damaged their souls that they are incapable of suffering a refutation. This does not mean that they are evil, according to Socrates. It does means that they are incorrigible, no longer subject to education, reason, or their innate desire for the good. To avoid the nightmare of waking up, their conscience remains asleep. And international leaders hum the lullaby of radical evil which keeps their conscience from awaking.