Outside the context of a particular argument, calling a nation or regime evil doesn't entail any particular action in relationship to it. It's not like saying someone has pneumonia or swine flu. A variety of people in the United States and Europe could agree that a regime (say, that of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov) is evil without agreeing on any action that should be take in relation to it. But the term's iconic status means... that if someone does try to justify a course of action by invoking evil, it becomes more difficult than usual to reject that course of action.
As to the first part of this passage, it's not only calling a regime evil that doesn't entail any particular action; calling it bad or tyrannical, unjust or oppressive, incompetent or wasteful, comical, murderous, tottering, doomed, also doesn't. So once again the term 'evil' finds itself in plenty of company, wordwise. As to the second part - nonsense. When, ever, did use of a single word block off the possibility of rejecting the view of which it is a part? Did you notice how little criticism George Bush got for his talk of an 'axis of evil'? Yes, I did too. He got a little nearly every day.
John B. Judis, editor and scholar, and utterly out of his depth.
Evil is... often associated with the notion that a particular individual or regime is unredeemable - not subject to change by persuasion or conventional inducement. But none of these attributes is defining. One can always find counter-examples. For instance, some people might believe that the financier Bernie Madoff is evil without thinking that he is beyond rehabilitation. Or one can think Stalin was evil without thinking that he wasn't amenable to negotiation.
He's right: use of the term 'evil' can be intended to deny the possibility of the evil agent's reforming or the usefulness of negotiating with him. But then, as Judis goes on to note himself - with examples - one doesn't have to use 'evil' with this implication in mind. One may think the evildoer redeemable and/or amenable to negotiation. Judis thereby lets the notion of evil off the hook of his putative criticism. It only may, but doesn't have to, be deployed to close off the prospect of either change or dialogue.
Judis has some eccentric notions about meaning. He says at one point: 'The proper question to ask about this term ['evil'] is not what it means - as if there were a distinct substance that it referred to - but the kind of activities or individuals that it is used to condemn.' Does he think that to have a meaning a word has to refer to a 'distinct substance'? Then the word 'chocolate' would have a meaning, as would the words 'oxygen', 'snow' and 'velvety material'; but many other words and expressions, lacking any referential substance, would have no meaning - like 'gadzooks', 'beware', 'hello', 'being older than', 'afterwards', 'four', 'get the hell out of here' and 'be my love'. Poor JBJ. People use words that don't refer to a distinct substance every day of the week, every minute of the day, and they understand each other, they know the meanings of the words.
Within a community, or nation, there can be agreement at the very extremes about the term's use - for instance, most Americans believe Hitler was evil - but little agreement on most examples. For instance, a considerable number of liberals, but very few, if any, conservatives, would describe Dick Cheney as evil. Some wacky conservatives think Obama himself is "the epitome of evil in every sense of the word."
And so? Are we to take it that disagreement about who is and who is not evil is itself a problematic symptom? In which case, say a fond farewell to some other expressions in the language: like 'good movie', 'right', 'wrong', 'illegal under international law', 'wise counsel', 'tasty morsel' and 'the holiday of a lifetime'. People disagree in the way they apply terms of approval and opprobrium. 'Evil' is such a term. That I think Judis's observations about the term 'evil' are egregiously poor may not harmonize with the judgements of others, but 'egregiously poor' is a perfectly serviceable expression, for all that.
[T]here is no fixed meaning for the term "evil." Like the term "beautiful" - which expresses high praise for how someone looks but doesn't imply whether they are a blond or a brunette - the term "evil" expresses condemnation of an individual or institution without implying clearly what they have done wrong.
Ouch! I've got news for you, Johnbo. If this is supposed to be a shortcoming of the word 'evil', it's one it shares with a zillion other words. Not only 'beautiful', as you note, but also 'wrong' itself. And then 'impolite', 'inconvenient', 'inconsiderate', 'unkind', 'courageous', 'cute' and 'dull'. And yet, these words all have determinate meanings, and so does 'evil'.
Judis confuses the meaning of the word with its range of (normal) reference. We don't generally use 'evil' to mean a little offputting, or mildly amusing, or helpful in winning at chess, or baffled or badly dressed. We use it (generally) of things we consider to be exorbitantly bad, and that this use might apply, variously, to genocide or torture or gang rape or some other egregious act of cruelty, is a simple reflection of the fact that there is a range and variety of exorbitantly bad things, as there is a range and variety of games, human habitations and family holidays. It is not a problem with the word 'evil'.
'[T]he term "evil"', John Judis writes, 'has a religious connotation suggesting that people are possessed by it. Moreover, when one says there is "evil in the world," one seems to be referring to a something and not merely a passing quality or affliction - such as, say, unhappiness.'
Yes, the term 'evil' can have a religious connotation, but it doesn't have to. And unless we think we can do without the concept of evil, those of us who aren't religious had better be prepared to defend a secular notion of what evil is; because otherwise we're going to have to describe as merely 'wrong' the very worst cruelties and horrors that people perpetrate against one another, and which I was going to exemplify by quotation here, but on consideration will spare you from having to read about, and just leave to your imagination and your knowledge of the world. Anyone who has some knowledge of the world knows how rich the human record is in actions and events that scald the mind and rip the soul; and not to have a word for and a concept of these, other than 'wrong', is to be landed with an impoverished moral vocabulary.
Must one, as Judis implies, believe in a metaphysical 'something' possessing people, in order to think that they are capable of evil? No, of course not. But neither are we obliged by his suggested alternative - 'a passing quality or affliction'. Evil, unfortunately, has not proved itself to be all that passing, historically. An evil impulse in you or me, in Alan or Anita, may certainly pass before it comes to anything. But evil as the product of a diversity of bad human impulses that are liberally scattered across human populations is alive and kicking. One may think of it like that: neither as a metaphysical substance nor as a merely 'passing quality', but as a bundle of human impulses and dispositions that, when not restrained, can cause terrible suffering.
At the beginning of December, Barack Obama gave a speech at West Point in which he explained why the US was at war in Afghanistan. His explanation, in summary, was this: he said that America had had to respond to the attacks of September 11, 2001; and he said that the country's security was still at stake in Afghanistan. Some 10 days later, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, Obama delivered another speech. In it he alluded to the explanation he had given in the earlier address, speaking of...
... a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 43 other countries... in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.
He then went on to say why he thought war is sometimes necessary and justified, the 'deep ambivalence about military action' in many countries notwithstanding. In doing this, Obama made reference to the concept of evil:
[A]s a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation... I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaida's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In an article published in the The New Republic a week after Obama's Peace Prize speech, Judis wrote that he didn't 'care for' these lines of Obama's, and he set out his reasons why. They are not very impressive. In fact, you'd have to search energetically to come up with so poor a collection of arguments gathered together in one place. In virtually every paragraph Judis offers something uncompelling or irrelevant - something misrepresenting Obama's purpose, or philosophically obtuse, or otherwise inconsequential. John Judis's thoughts about evil may be treated, accordingly, as a compendium of 'do-nots' for thinking intelligently about this subject. I shall use them so, seeing out the old year with a short series on how not to think about evil (don't follow Judis's example). Consider this post a first instalment.
Judis gets off on the wrong foot by allowing himself a nice ambiguity in his opening criticism of Obama's speech in Norway: the president, he says, 'ventured onto dangerous terrain by invoking the existence of evil as a justification for war'. Does Judis mean justification for war as sometimes being necessary (and as was Obama's meaning)? Or does he mean justification, specifically, for the war in Afghanistan (as wasn't)? You have to read on to find out, and what you find out when you do is that Judis thinks Obama was indeed wanting to justify the US presence in Afghanistan by reference to the existence of evil. Twice he writes as if for Obama the existence of evil suffices to justify America's war there. Many Europeans, Judis says, 'believe Al Qaeda is evil, but they don't believe that sending 40,000 more troops to Kabul will get rid of the group' - as if the president, for his part, was relying on the evil of al-Qaida independently of any strategic or other calculation. And he says - Judis - that those passions that lead to evil actions 'don't necessarily justify going to war against an adversary'.
Well, to be sure, no, they don't. But it is idiotic to imagine, without some credible evidence, that Obama thinks the existence of evil just as such might justify a specific war. Here's an analogy. Ogilvie thinks that imprisonment is sometimes necessary and justified. He thinks so because of the persistence of crime, which he doesn't believe will disappear in any foreseeable future. But Ogilvie doesn't, on that account, suppose that the imprisonment of Alan or Anita, in particular, can be justified by reference to the existence of crime. No, he thinks it matters what Alan and Anita have done. He points out, therefore, that Alan has committed murder and Anita has stolen funds from the children's home. His appealing to the persistence of crime is designed only to meet the scepticism of those who would prefer there to be no prisons; it is not a justification for imprisoning Alan and Anita.
Mutatis mutandis Obama. He has offered specific justifications for America's being in Afghanistan. One may or may not agree with these. But to present him as a man who would say, 'There is evil, therefore we can go to war in [name country of choice]' is a nonsense.
Gene Sharp and Iran - some connection? No, me neither. But two pieces from the US press have looked into the question, this one and this one. From the second of them: 'These regimes always present themselves as all-powerful - absolutely omnipotent, so that resistance becomes futile... But if you learn this regime has these five... or 20 weaknesses - and you can deliberately aggravate those weaknesses - it weakens the regime. It helps it fall apart.'