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Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for "scientific" experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. May 7, 1945. Lt. A. E. Samuelson. (Army) NARA FILE #: 111-SC-204480 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1103

We don’t know why different people have different moral thresholds. Why some scruples melt under fire, why others are steeled by it.

For Hannah Arendt, the social scientist who studied German complicity in the Holocaust after the Second World War, the difference in German reactions to Nazism was the “surprise of [her] life.”

Nothing, she wrote, could be expected. No prior knowledge of friends and acquaintances was enough to predict who collaborated and who did not. We succumb to evil at different rates. No psychological studies have been able to predict them. Some family structures, some forms of education nurture reliance better than others. But every so often a moral hero appears without the benefit of any of them. That’s what human freedom means.


Some People


Neither Arendt, nor the social psychologists whose research confirmed her theses, retreated into despair.

To the contrary, Arendt thundered against the idea “that there is a law of nature compelling everyone to lose his dignity in the face of disasters.”

The lessons of individual stories of heroism were simple for Arendt. “Politically speaking, it is that under most conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not.” 

For Arendt, even small numbers matter.

Social psychologist Zimbardo argues that we all underestimate our vulnerability to “the toxic effect” of bad systems and other situational forces.

Becoming aware of this frailty is “the first step in shoring up resistance to such detrimental influences and in developing effective strategies that reinforce the resilience of both people and communities.”

His approach “should encourage us all to share a profound sense of humility.”

The word evil by itself need not dehumanize. But only if coupled with analyses that show that ordinary humans with ordinary motives get caught up in it.




If your reaction to these insights is the quiet murmur – There but for the grace of God go I – you have missed the point entirely.

Humility is no excuse for resignation. Realising that any of us might collude in evil is just the other side of realizing that any of us might oppose it. This kind of humility is anything but passive; it should function as a call to action.

The work of philosophers like Arendt and psychologists like Zimbardo focuses on what we do rather than what we are. And it shows that most of us are capable of doing the worst. Thus it undercuts the tendency of political and polemical figures to see the world in black and white terms. 

That one side is as good as the other is evil, and to assume that any action their side engages in must therefore be good as well.

The problems with a black and white view are not just scientific. The concept of evil has a history. Much like the definition of beauty or the concept of justice have changed over time, so has what is considered evil.  It also comes in too many forms to reduce to an essence.

The only way to identify it is to engage in careful analysis that goes case by case.

These doubts should not prohibit us from discussing evil, but they should prohibit us talking about evil people.




Labelling people evil is controversial. Worse than that, it presumes a familiarity of the human soul, where there no such right. According to Kant, I don’t even know my own.

This is not a philosopher’s expression of ultimate ignorance, or a matter of general scepticism. On the contrary: We know, in general, quite a lot.

We know that our capacity for error is great, and our capacity for deception even greater. That our motives are usually mixed. And that we’re strongly inclined to see our own behaviour in the best possible light, weakly inclined to see other people’s in the worst. We also know that we are free.

While the chances are we will never become heroes, if given the opportunity we might do just that. Face to face with a moral dilemma, we may find there is more – or less –to our character than we suspected. Given all that we do know, humility about what we don’t know is not an epistemological, but a moral imperative.




However well you know me, you do not know my future, nor how I might redeem myself in it. And even after death ends the opportunities for active redemption, there may be reasons for excusing or blaming me that you will never guess. Evil people are irredeemable, and not even God, in some accounts, can be certain of that.

To call someone evil is to size up her soul, and none of us will ever be in a position to do that. To call her actions evil is another matter. If you want to encourage people to make moral distinctions rather than throwing up their hands in despair, here is where to draw the line.

Have the courage to judge actions, even those committed by the highest authority. Don’t have the presumption to judge agents, even those of the lowest appearance.

Kant’s profound recognition of the opacity of our intentions never leads him to question the role of intention in determining whether an action is good or evil.


Two Men

Read Human Nature - Open to Manipulation Essay

If two men act in exactly the same good humane way, one for selfish reasons another out of honesty and kindness:  We’d call only one of these men truly good – if we were in the business of passing judgement on their souls.

But we’re not. We have no right to do so, and it doesn’t even matter. The fact that both men’s behaviour is good and kind should be enough– after all that’s the type of behaviour we want in the world.

Why not focus on specific behaviour instead of whole lives – which we live with intentions mixed through and through. For social and political purposes, intentions hardly matter at all.

It’s even clearer when we remember how often intention and consequence disconnect. Good people do bad things almost as often as bad things happen to good people.

Shakespeare’s continuing appeal to liberal societies, despite his feudal settings, lies in his ability to create characters that intend no harm and end up covered in blood.

In the twentieth century, through greed and lack of foresight, great wars were fought, genocides perpetrated and tyrannical state experiments orchestrated. All justified on good intentions.

Intentions are the least of our responsibilities. For if crimes can be committed with all kinds of intentions, we are responsible, finally for what we do.

Perhaps you didn’t mean it; it rarely matters.

We are concerned with what you did and what you can still do.


This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Susan Neiman, particularly her book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists. If you’re interested in learning more click here.


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