Paper delivered at the Moral Evil in Practical Ethics Conference, Oxford 2012.
This paper aims to investigate and connect aspects of two questions that may be raised about the idea of evil: firstly, the extent to which we can allay doubts about the legitimacy of the concept of evil; and secondly, the role played in our understanding of evil by the phenomenology - that is, by the nature of our distinctive response to evil-doing. Objections to attributions of evil may be moral, or metaphysical, or both; and they often lead to doubts about the legitimacy of the concept. Such doubts can take the form of (a) denying that anything falls under the concept; or (b) accepting that some cases do fall under the concept but claiming that they can be reduced to cases of less morally or metaphysically troubling forms of wrongdoing; or (c) claiming that the concept is itself an incoherent one. There are various ways of trying to establish whether a concept is legitimate: I canvass several of them, and focus on the investigation of what work the concept of evil does for us. I propose that the work in question is to capture a phenomenological distinction: the concept of evil marks off a discrete class of wrongful actions, namely those which produce in us a phenomenologically distinctive response of moral horror, rather than, say, the more ordinary disapproval (or fear or disgust) which other kinds of wrongful acts typically elicit. This focus on the phenomenology enables us to answer some of the doubts about evil mentioned above; but it does not, so it is argued, introduce an unwanted subjectivity into our attributions of evil. The paper concludes by considering what implications this view might have for a range of issues, such as the question of whether there is a qualitative or a quantitative difference between evil and other kinds of wrongdoing; the extent to which we can be mistaken in our attributions of evil; the relation between evil-doing and forgiveness; the attribution of evil to psychopathic actions; and our understanding of our own capacities for evil.