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A perspective on evil

By John Töns - posted Friday, 10 October 2008

In an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu George Negus (SBS Dateline, October 1, 2008) asked why the ANC had not translated its promise of better living conditions into practice. Tutu’s response was simple “original sin”. In a secular age this seems an anachronistic response and indeed Negus treated it as such and he did not follow it through.

Evil or Original Sin has become a rather old fashioned concept. The concept of evil is, for many, linked with ideas about God. In the absence of a belief in God can we still have a discussion of evil? My argument here is that even for atheists like myself the concept of original sin is invaluable when one attempts to develop a framework for global justice.

If one is an atheist then one still needs to take account of the various religious texts that have been used by people to construct a framework for morality. On such a reading original sin is a human explanation of the origin of evil. It is clear that the concept of original sin is not confined to the so called “people of the book” (Jews, Christians and Muslims) a cursory reading of the work of people like Eliade (in Myths, dreams and mysteries : the encounter between contemporary faiths and archaic reality) and Fraser (in The Golden Bough) shows us that one of the biggest problems that faced early societies was the question of evil. How does one begin to account for the existence of evil?


When the enlightenment project shone its white light of reason in all the nooks and crannies of human thinking the concept of God, and with it Evil, was exposed and flushed out so that we could transform the world simply by applying cold hard reason to all human endeavour.

With respect to political philosophy, the enlightenment project’s aim came to be “that of securing agreement on principles of justice that allow for peaceful co-existence in a constitutional democracy of persons having divergent and sometimes incommensurable conceptions of the good life and views of the world.” (Gray, J., Enlightenment's Wake Politics and Culture at the close of the modern age.) But as Tutu made so clear what failed in South Africa was not due to any weaknesses in the principles on which the ANC attempted to govern but rather on something far more fundamental: original sin.

Machiavelli (in The Prince) saw evil as an instrument of statecraft. While it may be unfashionable to admit as much in the 21st century it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is still very much part of any politician’s agenda. In addition we have seen another side to the evil equation. The 20th century saw the introduction of a new concept “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” as a self conscious, deliberate policy of state.

Arendt looked at both the international claims of Fascism and Communism and their willingness to sanction mass murder not in the Machiavellian sense of ends justifying the means but as a perfectly respectable and acceptable way to act. “Present totalitarian governments … operate according to a system of values so radically different from all others, that none of our traditional legal, moral or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us come to terms with, or judge, or predict their course of action.” (Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.)

The reason that a discussion of evil needs to be incorporated in any discussion of global justice and globalisation is that we cannot pick and choose who will be part of a system of global justice.

Yet for all that any discussion of the concept of evil in the context of global justice is hard to find. When President Bush talks about an “axis of evil” in his 2002 state of the union address we stir uncomfortably as it is too much like fundamental Christian rhetoric for it to resonate with those who do not share that religious perspective.


On the other hand when much the same material was discussed in the 1993 Oxford Amnesty lectures we are forced to recognise what appears to be a fundamental reality of the human condition: evil. As Richard Rorty put it in Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality: “… Serbian and murderers do not think themselves as violating human rights. For they are not doing these things to fellow human beings, but to Muslims.” In the Balkan conflict we saw how this distorted view of humanity enabled people to justify to themselves the atrocities that they were committing.

However, there is another side to that coin. It can also lead to a failure to make sense of domestic politics. Thus Alexander Downer when Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs justified Australia’s decision to join the war on Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had murdered thousands of his own people. The inference was that because these were his own people the act was somehow more reprehensible than had they been enemy combatants. However, as subsequent events have highlighted, Iraq is a plural society - Hussein murdered Iraqi citizens the vast majority of whom were not his “own” people. This does not diminish his tyranny but it is clear that we need to build into any attempt to develop a system of global justice an understanding of the role of “original sin” or “evil” in motivating people.

For me the most telling insight into the nature of evil is Hannah Arendt’s observation of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann had been the architect of the holocaust and while Arendt supported his execution she was also struck by his ordinariness: “he merely to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing …That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent to man - that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem.”

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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