Talking about Evil
Susan Neiman is a moral philosopher with an interest in exploring the persistence of Enlightenment thought and reinterpreting past thinkers for contemporary contexts. She is the current Director of the Einstein Forum, having previously taught at Yale University and Tel Aviv University. The Wall Street Journal called her 2008 Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists “an argument for re-engaging with the moral vocabulary of the country.” Her 2002 work, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, explains philosophy’s quest, touching on Kant, among others, as one perpetually in search of a perfect understanding of evil. Born in Atlanta, Neiman received her doctorate degree from Harvard University.
Question: Who is history’s most evil person?
Neiman: I think the question is mistaken and I’ll tell you why. I don’t think we have a right to talk about evil people. If we could see the inside of people’s souls, we might have a right to do that but if anybody can do that it’s God and on some accounts even God doesn’t know how people are going to act. And certainly on Kant’s account and on Freud’s account we don’t know our own souls very well. We are subject to self-deception. We tell ourselves that we’re doing things for all kinds of reasons that aren’t true. So talking about evil people I think completely misses the mark. Where an awful lot of progressives go wrong is that they see that and they see that things are complicated and then they say, “Well, we can’t talk about evil at all,” and I think on the contrary we can as long as we talk about evil actions. And I think it’s not hard to come up with a whole list of evil actions and I think pointing it to the Nazis is too easy. I think there are a whole bunch of other evil actions that we can point to. We have to realize that they can be committed by people who not only may not have evil intentions but sometimes have good ones and certainly very often have mediocre ones.
Susan Neiman discusses how best to examine people in regards to evil.
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