Updated: 5/16/2006; 12:22:37 PM.

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daily link  Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Foreign Policy: War on Evil: A brief note from Robert Wright on how absolutist notions of evil (like, apparently, Bush's) are dangerously misleadling. "Some conservatives dismiss liberal qualms about Bush’s talk of evil as knee-jerk moral relativism. But rejecting his conception of evil doesn’t mean rejecting the idea of moral absolutes, of right and wrong, good and bad. Evil in the Manichaean sense isn’t just absolute badness. It’s a grand unified explanation of such badness, the linkage of diverse badness to a single source. ..

For the forces of good [a] unity of badness greatly simplifies the question of strategy. If all of your enemies are Satan’s puppets, there’s no point in drawing fine distinctions among them. No need to figure out which ones are irredeemable and which can be bought off. They’re all bad to the bone, so just fight them at every pass, bear any burden, and so on.

But what if the world isn’t that simple? What if some terrorists will settle for nothing less than the United States’ destruction, whereas others just want a nationalist enclave in Chechnya or Mindanao? And what if treating all terrorists the same—as all having equally illegitimate goals—makes them more the same, more uniformly anti-American, more zealous? (Note that President Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” formulation didn’t court this danger; the Soviet threat was already monolithic.)

Or what if Iran, Iraq, and North Korea are actually different kinds of problems? And what if their rulers, however many bad things they’ve done, are still human beings who respond rationally to clear incentives? If you’re truly open to this possibility, you might be cheered when a hideous dictator, under threat of invasion, allows U.N. weapons inspectors to search his country. But if you believe this dictator is not just bad but evil, you’ll probably conclude that you should invade his country anyway. You don’t make deals with the devil.

And, of course, if you believe that all terrorists are truly evil, then you’ll be less inclined to fret about the civil liberties of suspected terrorists, or about treating accused or convicted terrorists decently in prison. .. Abandoning such counterproductive metaphysics doesn’t mean slipping into relativism..  You could believe that somewhere in human nature is a bad seed that underlies many of the terrible things people do. If you’re a Christian, you might think of this seed as original sin. If you’re not religious, you might see it in secular terms—for example, as a core selfishness that can skew our moral perspective, inclining us to tolerate, even welcome, the suffering of people who threaten our interests.

This idea of evil as something at work in all of us makes for a perspective very different than the one that seems to guide the president. It could lead you to ask, If we’re all born with this seed of badness, why does it bear more fruit in some people than others? And this question could lead you to analyze evildoers in their native environments, and thus distinguish between the causes of terrorism in one place and in another. "

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Last update: 5/16/2006; 12:22:37 PM.