This morning, I picked up a copy of Susan Neiman’s “Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy,” and have so far gotten through the introduction. [Amazon]

The book appears to hold promise; it has had some interesting and favorable reviews, and despite some regrettable and unfair swipes at the Bush administration, the early pages are easy to digest. But one thing troubles me, already: Neiman’s work seems to assume something that perhaps cannot be so easily accepted. To wit — that descriptions of the moral content of actions must admit to either/or classifications.

I am not criticizing the good professor’s work, after having completed less than 10 percent of the volume. I may soon learn that my ascriptions of her positions are either incorrect or imprecise; such is the joy of philosophical investigation. But the introduction alone presupposes a false dichotomy between “morally good” and “morally evil” that warrants some reflection here.

The challenge is wrapped in Neiman’s firm insistence that the Holocaust is evil, and the actions attendant to the Final Solution are “evil” on an unspeakably horrible level.

I do not deny this, for the record. But ….

Why is it not possible, from the context of pure philosophy, to evaluate much of the Holocaust as an exercise in amorality? Granted that the mass murder of millions is not morally praiseworthy, must it nevertheless follow (as a matter of logical necessity) that it’s unequivocably evil? This dovetails into Hannah Arendt’s thesis that much evil is mere banality — a point that Neiman spends much early ink addressing.

Can we characterize as good or evil any action not intended to be good or evil? If I return a lost wallet because I wish to bring some benefit to its owner, isn’t the virtue of my action greater than if I returned the wallet out of a sense of reluctant duty, or because a police officer saw me pick it up? And likewise, if I engage in any action without any specific intent to bring harm or benefit to another, to what extent can conscious moral responsibility be ascribed to that action?

These questions are relevant to Neiman’s undertaking, methinks. There seems to be a sense shared by most people that actions performed with nefarious intent are evil. But what about actions performed without specific intent? Yes, there is some degree of culpability for those who suspected that an action could be harmful but performed it anyway (e.g., cases of avoidable negligence or moral cowardice) — yet what about when a good end is desired as an outcome to an action perceived by others to be evil? Or, what about playing a fungible and non-essential role in the perpetration of evil? Were the secretaries at Auschwitz moral fiends?

This is tap-dancing around a profound challenge to ethicists. Consider an executioner at Auschwitz. To any properly liberal contemporary thinker, including Neiman, the actions performed by that executioner constitute pure and unmitigated evil. But what if the executioner truly believed that Jews were parasites who deserved to be killed to make room for the Aryan master race? Surely, he is convinced that his actions are, in fact, morally proper — even necessary. Can we nevertheless condemn his as being evil, instead of being merely misguided?

This challenge is not intended to be an exercise in relativism. Rather, it’s intended to raise the all-important question of intentionality.

It’s a commonplace of moral philosophy that the moral status of an action depends on several factors — among them, whether the actor intended for an action to result in an outcome that, on balance, he believes to be substantially harmful. Thus, my attempt to render aid to a choking victim is nevertheless laudable even if, being inexperienced in resuscitation, I crack his sternum and inadvertently puncture his lung, leading to his death. Since I intended to do good, I cannot be condemned for my action.

Neiman’s thesis presupposed a universal morality that recognizes that some actions are intrinsically and objectively evil.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. But I’m not sure it can be as assumed as unquestionably as Neiman seems to do. And I’m not sure that it’s safe to side with Arendt in assuming that banal actions that contribute to evil actions must therefore be evil-in-themselves.

It all comes ’round to the secretaries. Did the women who processed the death statistics at Auschwitz engage in morally blameworthy activity? And, similarly, did the janitors? The cooks? It would be hard to ascribe to these people an intention to do evil, absent individual testimony to that effect. And yet, their actions contributed — however marginally — to the extermination of more than six million Jews.

Moral judgment is a complex endeavor. It seems, so far, that Neiman is willing to accept the conventional-wisdom judgments about political evils (the Holocaust, 9/11, etc.) without seriously considering whether those judgments are fair. Again, I could find that I’m mistaken about this as I dive deeper into her book.

A second point bears discussion. Moral reasoning is not an either/or proposition. There are not just two good/evil states that can be attached to any given action, because some actions lack substantial moral content. They are, in short, amoral.

Those secretaries at Auschwitz — could we not reasonably characterize their efforts as being intrinsically amoral? Surely, there is no lasting and direct moral outcome attendant to typing up a death certificate or requisitioning additional rations for the camp guards. To hold otherwise is to impose an impossible requirement of moral analysis on people.

To be sure, Neiman seems to be raising some fascinating questions. And perhaps I’m nit-picking a bit. Yet Neiman is insistent that the Holocaust represents objective and unquestionable moral evil. I don’t disagree — but the philosopher in me recognizes that this position is the conclusion to an argument. And any argument is subject to criticism. By pretending that the argumentative conclusion is actually a fact, Neiman does a disservice to the cause of moral inquiry that she seems so eager to engage.

I hold out hope that my judgments, thus far, are in error.

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  1. The whole good/evil question when you bring up the “wallet” situation makes me wonder if perhaps good and evil are defined by location rather than by action. If you returned the wallet due to whatever reason, you can see yourself as having done good. If you were the recipient of the action, you may or may not perceive the action as being an act of good (depending upon whether you discarded the wallet on purpose, had it returned with less money than you thought you had, or honestly just left it) or say the location is the wife of the guy who returned the wallet who is struggling to make ends meet and doesn’t see the “good” act of returning the wallet because that was their one chance of actually putting food on the table.

    Anyway, just a thought. We all really know good and evil is defined by whether or not you voted for Bush.

  2. An interesting point, Duane. To be sure, moral analysis cannot be wholly divorced from one’s locus of perception; my willingness to praise another’s moral actions can sometimes depend on my own unique combination of ethical sensibilities. But that notwithstanding, we DO try to apply as non-subjective an apparatus as possible to the evaluation of moral content, and reducing moral analysis to such a subjective level calls into the question whether a lot of Ph.D’s are just blowing smoke.

    Which, of course, is not to suggest that you’re wrong. Merely that many professional ethicists, in my view, prefer to maintain the fiction that their work is capable of some degree of non-subjectivity. 🙂

    And yes, your voting records are a strong clue as to your commitment to moral rectitude. 🙂

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