Writing in connection with Holocaust Memorial Day, Owen Jones takes the Nazi genocide as showing that evil doesn't exist:
The Holocaust should teach us that evil does not exist. An odd, perhaps ludicrously offensive statement. But to dismiss such atrocities as "evil" is to abdicate responsibility, to comfort ourselves by pretending somehow it was not human beings committing such sickening acts, but monsters who are nothing like us. Germany was one of the most advanced countries on earth at the time. Studies suggest that only about 1 per cent of humans are genuine psychopaths. Millions helped the organised slaughter of Jews – as well as Roma, disabled people, socialists, Slavs and so on – and they were thinking, feeling human beings capable of grief, love and fear, however distressing it may be to accept that fact.
The atrocity teaches us about what it means to be human. As a socialist, I am compelled to have an optimistic view of humanity, to believe we are not all motivated by greed, selfishness or hate. But what the Holocaust reveals is the almost infinite malleability of humanity: that we have the capacity to do wonderful things, and yet to perpetrate the most unimaginable horrors.
Some of what Owen says here is true: that the crime was committed by ordinary human beings, by and large, and human beings are capable of terrible things. But the inference he draws from this, that evil doesn't exist, is mistaken. At first, I assumed he must mean it doesn't exist as a separate metaphysical entity, as it were governing the actions of people from without. But, clearly, that isn't his meaning or his whole meaning; he wants, rather, to insist that what we think of as evil acts come from ordinary, that is, psychologically normal, human beings, with their virtues and their failings. The same has been said by many witnesses and scholars of the calamity - Levi, Arendt and Bauman among them.
From the fact that evil is not a separate entity outside human individuals, however, it doesn't follow that evil doesn't exist. We wouldn't say that compassion and intelligence don't exist, even though neither of these is a disembodied force acting outside and upon individual persons. There are human aptitudes and impulses and outcomes to which the relevant words can properly be used to refer. Why not, then, the same for 'evil'? It may not be a single human impulse even, but there are instincts, emotions, weaknesses, vices, limitations, all of them human in standard ways, that in certain combinations and circumstances lead people into atrocious acts against others; and there seems no reason not to have a name for what this collection of attributes can produce. Nothing, finally, in use of the word 'evil' need entail abdication or discounting of moral responsibility.