Saturday 29 October, 11.30am until 1.00pm, Courtyard Gallery
The hurried and secretive disposal of the body of Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US special forces in May was explained on strategic grounds, but there was an unmistakeable sense of fear, even superstition, attached to the operation. It was as if the corpse of the man who had personified evil in the Western imagination for a decade threatened to leak malice into the atmosphere. Certainly this kind of thinking seemed to be at play in England in 1996 when the ‘house of horror’ of child murderers Fred and Rosemary West was demolished and its rubble ground up so no traces remained. This process of ‘expunging the sense of evil linked to the place’, as the BBC put it, was repeated in 2004 with the home of Soham murderer Ian Huntley. Evil is a word applied not just to houses and child murderers though. It is regularly applied to countries (the ‘Axis of Evil’), religions (Catholicism, Islam), ideas (racism, homophobia) and the people who hold them (AIDS, Holocaust and climate-change ‘deniers’). Not to mention greedy and self-interested bankers. Why is a word so redolent of medieval thought, of demons and Inquisitions, a word one might think was killed off by the Enlightenment, so current today?
Terry Eagleton has described evil today as a backlash against the blandness of societies in which nothing seems to mean anything; where much may be permitted in our behaviour but there is little moral authority. The nihilism of young gunmen and suicide bombers is born of a desperate frustration to show ‘absolute acts are possible even in a world of moral relativism’. For Eagleton, real evil is complete disinterest: it has no point; is beyond reason; unspeakable. For Simon Baron-Cohen, meanwhile, true cruelty lies at one far end of a scientifically graspable ‘spectrum of empathy’; evil might be defined as ‘zero empathy’. Is evil actually a source of certainty in a fearful and uneasy world? What Slavoj Žižek has called ‘the fashionable elevation of the Holocaust into an untouchable transcendent Evil’ is one example of how evil can grant us a moral mooring. At least we know it was Wrong. The ideology of evil flattens out complexity: it is commonplace to equate Stalin and Hitler as evil twins; Auschwitz and Rwanda were equally evil. Do we need to know some things are Wrong so we can be Right?
Perhaps Enlightenment thinkers were naïve to try to submit the world to rational explanation rather than moral condemnation. Have things gone so far that we now need the vocabulary of saint and sinner, the blessed and the damned, to make sense of the world? If so, what happens to those who disagree? Will dissent from modern social norms be branded heresy? After all, there can be no argument for tolerating Evil. Have we become less rational, or is Evil a real force abroad in the world?
Listen to session audio:
|Professor Simon Baron-Cohen|
director, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge; author, Zero Degrees of Empathy
|Professor David Jones|
director, Anscombe Bioethics Centre; co-editor, Chimera's Children: Ethical, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives on Human-Nonhuman Experimentation
writer and broadcaster; author, From Fatwa to Jihad and The Quest for the Moral Compass (forthcoming)
journalist; author, God: all that matters and The Big Questions: God
head of external relations, Institute of Ideas; chair, IoI Economy Forum; convenor, The Academy
What are angels? Where were they first encountered? Can we distinguish angels from gods, fairies, ghosts, and aliens? And why do they remain so popular? And what about demons?
David Albert Jones, Oxford University Press, 27 October 2011
Today, the Führer is universally recognized as the embodiment of evil and the most convenient example of a truly terrible human being. Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?Brian Palmer, Slate, 4 October 2011
‘Morality is as important to the left as it is to the right, though for very different reasons’. It is important to the left because ‘There is no possibility of a political or economic vision of a different society without a moral vision too.’Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium, 4 October 2011
Neuroscientists suggest there is no such thing. Are they right?Ron Rosenbaum, Slate, 30 September 2011
The invasion of Dale Farm by everyone from the UN to Amnesty to Fergal bloody Keane shows how desperate activists are for a Bosnia replay.Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 20 September 2011
The problem of evil is one of our oldest intellectual conundrums.Alan Wolfe, Chronicle Review, 11 September 2011
Chapter Five of the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought explores the idea of evil within monotheistic religion. It opens with the Book of Job, in my eyes the most eloquent book in the Bible, and the one that gets to the heart of the problem of evil for a faith that believes in a omnipotent, omniscient, totally benevolent God: how could such a God allow the righteous and the innocent to suffer?Kenan Malik, Pandaemonium, 19 June 2011
Simon Baron-Cohen, expert in autism and developmental psychopathology, has always wanted to isolate and understand the factors that cause people to treat others as if they were mere objects. In this book he proposes a radical shift, turning the focus away from evil and on to the central factor, empathy. Unlike the concept of evil, he argues, empathy has real explanatory power.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Allen Lane, 7 April 2011
For many enlightened, liberal-minded thinkers today, and for most on the political left, evil is an outmoded concept. It smacks too much of absolute judgements and metaphysical certainties to suit the modern age. In this witty, accessible study, the prominent Marxist thinker Terry Eagleton launches a surprising defence of the reality of evil, drawing on literary, theological, and psychoanalytic sources to suggest that evil, no mere medieval artefact, is a real phenomenon with palpable force in our contemporary world.
Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 1 April 2011
A psychological paper which claims to explain the religious account of evil is troublingly simplisticMark Vernon, Guardian Comment is free, 11 June 2010
If Terry Eagleton is right that evil is literally, supremely pointless, and also reassuringly rare in a world full of human purpose, then why are we discovering it everywhere we look?Angus Kennedy, spiked, 26 March 2010
'Privacy is Dead. Long Live Privacy?'
"In few places does the free exchange of views take place on so wide a range of issues as at the Battle of Ideas. Whatever the headlines of 2011 prove to be, the Battle of Ideas is where they will be most robustly debated."
Andrew Copson, chief executive, British Humanist Association