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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Evil...more or less

Over the past few days I have been working with Jonathan Justice of the University of Delaware on the final "fixes" for our co-authored article on "Accountability and the Evil of Administrative Ethics". The paper was accepted for publication in Administration and Society, but we have taken seriously the task of addressing one reviewer's criticism of our conclusion as well as the need to shorten the manuscript (a daunting task from my point of view; while some may see it as unwieldy, I regard it as 'tightly' argued). But in the process of checking on citation and sources, I have come across Michael Ignatieff's excellent little book, The Lesser Evil : Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. So, instead of being focused on shortening the manuscript, I am trying to "make room" for some of the points Ignatieff raises.

My own view of "evil' is quite different from Ignatieff, and so in one important (conceptual) sense our analyses are quite different. For me, the concept of evil is a social construct that has to be taken seriously for what it is: that is, the label we apply to behavior and actions so horrific that they fall outside out moral comprehension, i.e., they are unfathomable. Ignatieff's "lesser evil" is set at a lower threshhold, and he is explicit in admitting that this is the case. He holds that lesser evils are those acts of coercion involving "necessary harm" that must be undertaken -- that is, are "justifiable" for the greater good (I am paraphrasing here, so some of the nuances are going to be lost; see his discussion on pp. 17-19). For Ignatieff, applying the word "evil" to such harms is necessary in order to emphasize that the acts are committed with the knowledge that they are morally problematic. This is key to his prescriptive stand in the book, for once designated and acknowledged as such "lesser evils," these acts are legitimated as temporarily acceptable within the bounds of active vigilance and opposition allowed by a liberal democracy.

In contrast to Ignatieff's focus on such 'lesser evils', we focus on those acts that start out as unfathomable (because they are gratuitously harmful or unacknowledged as horrific by their perpetrators) but are eventually encompassed by various political, legal, social, etc. mechanisms designed to bring them within the realm of moral comprehension and the range of collective counter action. We then establish that this very process sometimes leads to actions that are themselves unfathomable from the perspective of different moral communities. (Our modal case is the witch hunts and trials of the 14th-17th centuries that were undertaken as highly moral responses to a perceived source of evil in their day, but which we regard today as evil acts unto themselves.)

Where our analyses join is in the conclusion that the most effective solution to both problems -- that of Ignatieff's lesser evils and our own paradox of ethical evils -- is found in the effective operations of the modern liberal state....

As usual, more to come....

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