06 June 2006


In honor of 6/6/06, I offer you a meditation on the question of evil.

When I was a teenager, I read Jeremy Levin's strange comic novel of ideas Satan: His Psychoanalysis and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. There's a scene which has stuck with me and surfaces in my thinking more and more these days. Kassler asks Satan about the nature of evil and Satan becomes very sharp with him. Don't get too interested in evil, warns Satan. It only leads to trouble. Hitler, after all, was a man determined to rid the world of evil.

I often say that moral certainty is an ethical failure. It's moral certainty that allows you to decide to crash a plane into a building, blow up an abortion clinic, hand AK-47s to children, and so on. A little uncertainty about your own righteousness is essential to ethical behavior.

J. David Velleman at Left2Right has a similar meditation on the nature of Hitler's evil that contains an elaboration of this point.

Rosenbaum develops his thesis in response to a remark that was made to him by the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper


Trevor-Roper had developed a strong conviction about the nature of Hitler's mind. It was a conviction I evoked with a question that evening in the Oxford-Cambridge Club: “Did Hitler know he was doing wrong when he was committing his crimes? Did he know his acts were evil?”

“Oh, no,” Trevor-Roper told me with great asperity. “Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude.”


Rosenbaum has overlooked the most important word in the remark that haunts him. What Trevor-Roper said to him is, not that Hitler believed in his own rectitude, but that he was certain of it. And self-certainty of this kind, far from a mitigating factor, is a profound moral flaw, since it blinds one to one's own fallibility, to the ever-present risk of unwittingly doing wrong. To say that Hitler was certain of his own rectitude is not to excuse him from condemnation; it is a form of condemnation — an especially damning form. Certainty of his own rectitude is the flaw that we might also charge against Osama bin Laden: it's the flaw of the fanatic.

Just so.

And I found this via Nate at de crapulas edormiendo, whose follow-up to Velleman is also interesting ... and worth visiting if only to see the subtitle of the blog.

1 comment:

Reya Mellicker said...

Certainty about anythingcreates problems.