03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Radical Evil"

Richard Bernstein, professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, has written an important philosophical inquiry into the phenomenon of evil (Bernstein 2002), an inquiry that will be of great value to psychoanalysts as they confront the problem of evil both in their consulting rooms with their patients and in their personal lives as citizens of planet earth. The
writing of this book was motivated by the need to comprehend the unprecedented atrocities wrought by totalitarianism in the twentieth century, as epitomized by the horrors of Auschwitz. In agreement with Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, and Emmanuel Levinas, Bernstein claims that "Auschwitz signifies a rupture and break with tradition, and that 'after Auschwitz' we must rethink both the meaning of evil and human responsibility" (p. 4). To that end Bernstein embarks on a series of "interrogations" or "critical dialogical encounters" (p. 4) with the conceptions of evil developed by Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Nietzsche, Freud, Levinas, Jonas, and Arendt. The inquiry is a hermeneutic rather than a metaphysical one, aiming not at a theory of evil but at a conceptual understanding of what we mean by evil. In the process, Bernstein gives us a wonderful overview of the history and basic concepts of moral philosophy and moral psychology.

Kant's lasting contribution to moral philosophy, according to Bernstein, was his uncompromising insistence that moral responsibility presupposes transcendental freedom--specifically, the absolute freedom to choose between good maxims (those that conform to the moral law) and evil maxims (those that fail to). Further, contrary to any theory of psychic determinism, Kant held that why a human agent makes the choices he or she makes is "inscrutable"--i.e., unknowable and inexplicable. Thus, although he coined the phrase "radical evil" to refer to a universal human propensity to defy the moral law and adopt evil maxims based on self-love, Kant always insisted on the freedom of a human being to choose to resist this propensity.

Kant did not address a problem that has plagued moral philosophy throughout its history--the question of theodicy, of how to reconcile the existence of evil with faith in an omnipotent, omniscient, all-beneficent God. More broadly, theodicy is the effort to justify evil, whether the
form such justification takes is religious or nonreligious. In Hegel's secular theodicy, evil, rooted in egoism and existing in dialectical opposition to the good, is justified as a necessary moment in the evolution of human spirit toward greater unity. Against Hegel and the whole tradition of theodicy, Bernstein argues forcefully throughout his book that "after Auschwitz" any such effort to justify evil must be recognized as "hollow" and "obscene."

Against Hegel's theodicy and in contrast with traditional conceptions of evil as the absence or privation of goodness, Schelling's contribution, in Bernstein's view, was to affirm evil's reality as a principle of darkness manifesting in the grandiose exaltation of "self-will." In so doing, he opened the way to new understandings of evil such as those found in Nietzsche and Freud.

At the core of what Nietzsche meant by evil was the concept of ressentiment--a particularly virulent form of resentment born of impotence. In his genealogical account of the ascendancy of Judeo-Christian morality, Nietzsche traced its origin to the seething hatred experienced by a class of slaves in consequence of prolonged deprivation, domination, and powerlessness. Judeo-Christian morality, in this account, exacted "spiritual revenge" through a "revaluation of values" in which the powerful and the noble became evil and the weak and the lowly became good. But evil motives like hatred and a thirst for revenge only beget more evil. Thus a negative morality motivated by poisonous ressentiment could lead only to destructive consequences, such as a self-lacerating asceticism, an aversion to life itself, and, ultimately, a succumbing to what Nietzsche called "suicidal nihilism," the most dangerous malady threatening the existence of modern man.

Nietzsche's account of evil as the violent manifestation of festering ressentiment born of impotence was a contextual and historical one. Freud's, by contrast, in Bernstein's portrayal (which relies substantially on Freud's myth of the "primal horde" and dual instinct theory), located ineradicable evil in a universal psychic ambivalence lying permanently at the core of human instinctual life. Bernstein suggests that Freud thereby gave substance to Kant's conception of "radical evil" as a propensity to evil inherent in human nature. The contrast between Freud's instinctual determinism and Nietzsche's contextualism and historicism parallels contemporary psychoanalytic debates about whether human destructiveness is to be comprehended primarily as a manifestation of an innate aggressive drive (later Freud and Melanie Klein) or primarily as a reaction to frustration (earlier Freud) or narcissistic injury (Kohut). I have recently proposed (Stolorow 2009) that large-scale human destructiveness can often be grasped as being reactive to collective trauma.

The remaining three of Bernstein's philosophical interlocutors--Levinas, Jonas, and Arendt--were directly and decisively impacted by the atrocities of twentieth-century totalitarianism. All three thinkers addressed the fundamental problem faced by moral philosophy "after Auschwitz"--in Bernstein's words, "how to think about evil when we no longer have any confidence in traditional theodicies, when the very idea of seeking to 'justify' evil is obscene, and when there is no possibility of reconciling ourselves to the brute existence of evil" (p. 165).

Bernstein contends that Levinas's entire philosophical project can be understood as an ethical response to the evil and nihilism that erupted in the twentieth century, a response that emphasized the human being's "infinite responsibility" to and for the other. Evil, from this perspective, is an "excess" that constitutes a complete break with such ethical normativity and responsibility. Evil as excess "transcends" and "ruptures" human categories of understanding. The evil symbolized by Auschwitz defied comprehension or integration and, according to Levinas, thereby put an end to theodicy.

Jonas, too, attributed the upsurge of evil in the twentieth century to a nihilism that eradicates ethical normativity, but it was Arendt who fleshed out what such nihilism entails. Bernstein's inquiry essentially begins and ends with his reflections on Arendt, as it was she, more than any other philosopher, who undertook the rethinking of the very meaning of evil demanded by the horrors of totalitarianism and the Nazi period. According to her analysis, totalitarian domination eventuates in an absolute evil that can no longer be deduced from humanly comprehensible motives. Invoking Kant's phrase but giving it a very different meaning, she referred to such absolute evil as radical evil. Radical evil involves much more than acting on the basis of familiar "sinful motives." It involves making human beings as human beings "superfluous" and dispensable--by nullifying what makes human life distinctively human, by liquidating human freedom, spontaneity, individuality, and morality. Using the example of Nazi "desk murderers" like Eichmann, Arendt described how radical evil took on a kind of "banality," whereby monstrous, massive crimes against humanity were committed as if they were "standard behavior"--mundane, normal activities of everyday life. Such was the nature of the total moral collapse that Arendt tried to capture in her elucidations of radical evil and the banality of evil.

In his conclusion, Bernstein emphasizes that "interrogating evil is an ongoing, open-ended process" (p. 225). New, unanticipated, and more horrifying forms of evil continually appear. Closest to home for Americans, no one who witnessed the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, along with the counter-atrocities that have followed in its wake, can think that radical evil was brought to an end with the defeat of the Nazis. Bernstein's penetrating and accessible contribution to moral philosophy gives us philosophical ideas and tools that can help us and our patients gain our bearings in an era that can rightfully be called an "Age of Trauma"(Stolorow 2009).


Bernstein, R. J. (2002). Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Stolorow, R.D. (2009). Identity and resurrective ideology in an age of trauma. Psychoanalytic Psychology 26:206-209.