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Susan Neiman


Susan Neiman (born March 27, 1955) is an American moral philosopher, cultural commentator, and essayist. She has written extensively on the juncture between Enlightenment moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics, both for scholarly audiences and the general public. She currently lives in Germany, where she is the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.

In her book Evil in Modern Thought, Susan Neiman writes:   

Every time we make a judgment this ought not to have happened, we are stepping onto a path that leads straight to the problem of evil.

Neiman does not think that an all-encompassing definition of evil is possible. She could have but did not support this position by asking whether abortion is evil, whether evil is inherent in capitalism or in communism, whether Lenin was evil. All-encompassing definitions of evil would have to contain political philosophy, and Neiman is not writing a political tract.

Neiman avoids the kind of simplistic definition that goes: evil is anything that creates unnecessary suffering. Neiman is too careful of a philosopher to make such a statement. Such a statement begs for drawing a line between suffering that we can do something about and suffering that we can do nothing about – unless we bring God as a responsible party into the question.   

Neiman is not writing a political tract. She is writing a history of what philosophers have thought about the problem of evil. But she does assume that Adolf Eichmann was evil – the man who made trains run on time in the delivery of Jews to Hitler's death camps. Here she speaks of banality, of Eichman's petty ambition to be a good bureaucrat. Eichmann can be said to have been an evil man with little passion. She mentions Hannah Arendt's opinion that at Eichmann's trial the prosecution's attempt to prove that Eichmann was not normal and Eichmann's defense to prove that he was perfectly normal were wasted efforts. Like Arendt, Neiman believes that evil and crime can arise from people who can be considered normal.

Here I would like to say something about evil rising from passion from otherwise normal people – a point about which Neiman said little. This is about people over-reacting, acting on impulse and emotion in response to conflict and frustration. Conflict is endemic among humans, and the more intense the conflict the more emotions are stirred – as in the fighting between German and Russian armies during World War II and the killing of prisoners and civilians, mutilations and rape. Evil arises when restraints are off. Restraint was off in the conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, allowing some Serbs to rob and rape while trying to drive Albanians out of Kosovo. Restraint was off, too, among Croatians when they massacred Serbs during World War II. Restraints were off for those Hutus who wanted to rid themselves of Tutsis and started doing so by hacking with machetes any Tutsi they could find. Whatever restraints Hitler had before the World War II regarding Jews were off during that war. The fervor that arose from Hitler's disappointments regarding World War I and led to his disregard for international agreements contributed, in my opinion, to the evil that was World War II. The fervor of bin Laden and his team contributed, in my opinion, to the evil of September 11, 2001.

Neiman would probably agree with me. I too am working without an all-encompassing definition. Moreover, Neiman, like me, believes in approximation rather than the capture of big absolutes. She writes that behavior can be acknowledged as evil "without insisting that evil has an essence... Thinking clearly is crucial; finding formulas is not."  

She borrows from Arendt in writing that "Crimes like Eichmann's depend on thoughtlessness, the refusal to use reason as we should." I would add that crimes like Eichmann's depend on small-mindedness. Fascism, Mussolini's and Hitler's was a product of small-mindedness. Everyone should broaden his social empathies.

In her history, Neiman begins with Alfonso X , King of Castile (reigned 1252-1284), who was accused of blasphemy for remarking,

If I had been of God's counsel at the Creation, many things would have been ordered better.

Then comes the Lisbon earthquake, which in 1755 shocked people more than earthquakes have since the 19th century. In response to the Lisbon earthquake, people wondered how God could have allowed so much suffering. The mathematician-philosopher Leibniz defended God, describing the earthquake as nature doing its thing, God as the author of nature and that everything would work out for the best. According to Leibniz, everything that looks like evil leads to the good of the larger whole and "the universe in its immense diversity was necessarily created by supreme wisdom." The philosopher Voltaire responded to Leibniz with disgust and wrote his book Candide, with Leibniz as one of the characters: Dr. Pangloss. 

Some, of course, described the Lisbon quake as God's reaction to sin, and Neiman mentions orthodox Jews who described the murder of Jews by Hitler's regime as God's judgment, as collective punishment on European Jews for having turned away from traditional Judaic law.

Collective punishment as God's response to sin is an old and common idea, but Hitler as an instrument of God? Of course, the Old Testament has the Assyrians as the instrument of the God Jehovah – so here is another example of the extremely devout contributing nothing sound to the discussion about evil.

Neiman writes a lot about Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Hegel, Bayle, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Marx. Toward the end she stays with the matter of human choice and separates evil from natural events like earthquakes and from God's punishments. She advocates combating evil rather than passivity. She believes in choice. She is not a fatalist. She writes that "History leaves space between necessity and accident, making actions intelligible without being determined."

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