A Toast to Evil!


/1/ – Kant’s Nightmare?

The question that (arguably) haunted Kant, that, according to some critics he could not face, was the possibility of radical evil. For Kant, evil is, in the most general sense, when one chooses their will over the moral law. It is when pathological or self-interest overcomes our sense of duty, of doing that which we should do because we should do it.

Radical, or diabolical evil for Kant on the other hand was the possibility of doing evil deeds simply because they are evil, because they infringe upon moral law. Kant denies that humans are capable of radical evil, that they cannot do evil simply for the sake of it, that that is a strictly a demonic capability.

Nightmarish evil

In her wonderful text Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation Joan Copjec states that most critiques see this declaration as a defensive move, that the possibility of radical evil sent Kant in a shuddering retreat and that he stated its human impossibility to defend human will (p. 138). Against this Copjec argues that in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone Kant shifts evil from being a lack or result of human finitude to being a choice, to a result of free will (Ibid. p. 139). The radical result of Kant’s shift could is that instead of evil being a failure, a weakness of the fabric of humanity, evil can be pure decision, it can be a bad choice and simply a failure constituted by weakness and temptation. The conclusion that Kant draws from this is that all our actions, even those that are in alignment with the good, with our duty, are tainted by pathological desire, poisoned by self interest. It becomes, more then a little difficult, to attempt to draw out the possibility or non-possibility of radical evil.


An easy example here would be one of the Holocaust. As Slavoj Žižek states in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? there is a desire to find an explanation for the holocaust but at the same time to say that it was diabolical evil (p. 64-66). The horrifying fact of the matter is that while one can tarry with the enigma of the holocaust endlessly and poke through the personal life of Hitler ad infinitum, historicism breaks down, it encounters the real, the irreducible negativity of being in all its horrendous weight. The point though is not to take this kind of silence as a depoliticization of the event, of the void, but that it is a silence that needs to constantly be enunciated not as justification for various political attacks etc, but as a truth of the negativity of being.

/2/ – Guilt’s erasure

But, still what is the problem with diabolical evil? Against Žižek and his friend Zupancic, who has also written on Kant, Copjec argues that radical evil is an internal split in the will of the subject and that through projection onto an outside other, one is capable of radical evil. The infinite possibility of the ‘evil person’ is created through the subreption (concealment, disavowal) of the split of their being, of the guilt of freedom. The nazi, torturer etc, by assuming complete finitude sees its infinite capacity through a fantasy – of being part of the Third Reich, of fighting terrorism and so forth (Imagine There’s No Woman p. 149-150). However, as I have stated in other entries, both Žižek and Zupancic argue that the highest good, and diabolical evil have the same form, in that in both cases the subject is to act with a certain disregard for their surroundings (Ethics of the Real p. 91). Žižek, in “Kant and Sade: The Ideal Couple” points out that the Sadeian fantasy of the indestructible body, of the girl who can endure endless brutality, calls to mind the immortal soul needed by Kant so that the work towards the highest good can be completed after death in the eyes of God. Copjec’s position regarded evil could be validated through the following comment made by Žižek:

“The decisive question is: is the Kantian moral Law translatable into the Freudian notion of superego or not? If the answer is yes, then “Kant with Sade” effectively means that Sade is the truth of the Kantian ethics. If, however, the Kantian moral Law cannot be identified with superego (since, as Lacan himself puts it in the last pages of Seminar XI, moral Law is equivalent to desire itself, while superego precisely feeds on the subject’s compromising his/her desire, i.e. the guilt sustained by the superego bears witness to the fact that the subject has somewhere betrayed or compromised his/her desire), then Sade is not the entire truth of Kantian ethics, but a form of its perverted realization. In short, far from being “more radical than Kant,” Sade articulates what happens when the subject betrays the true stringency of the Kantian ethics.”

Sadeian bodies

Copjec’s claim that Sade is not the truth of Kant (p. 208) can be found in the latter part of the above quote – in that Kant remains more radical than Sade because, for Copjec, Sade’s transgressions do not show the crack in the law itself but only gain enjoyment from the irreducibility of that law. Put another way – if one allows the super ego victory by violating the law only to the point where it remains intact structurally or one could say in spirit, then one has not followed through on one’s desire.

As Žižek goes on to argue in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, the act of ‘diabolical evil’ is not to violate the maxims of good for the sake of it but to follow the maxims for pathological reasons, to enjoy the letter of the law as such. Opposed to Sadeian violation, this form of evil violates the spirit of the law while sustaining it formally to the T (p. 171). Copjec, on the other hand, in the introduction to her text Radical Evil, Copjec seems to differentiate between diabolic and radical evil (opposed to Žižek’s conflation of the two). Radical evil for Copjec is, to borrow from The Shadow ‘the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.’ It is to disregard the guilt of freedom, I had no choice. Diabolical evil on the other hand, which is impossible for Kant, is indeed impossible for Copjec because there is no ultimate One-All of the law. Ultimately, for Žižek, diabolical evil is possible because one can enjoy the law as law whereas for Copjec, this is only at the level of radical evil because the law is ruptured by the subject’s own enjoyment and law as law cannot be enjoyed as such because it has no content. I would argue that the problematic possibility of this complete adherence to law can be seen in Javert’s suicide in Hugo’s Les Misérables . Javert kills himself because he cannot decide between legality, which he has always treated as absolute, and respecting Valjean because he saved him.

Les Miserables
Les Misérables

/3/ – Villiany!

So, through villains, we can discuss of typology of classic, radical and diabolical evil. The classic villain is the one who is evil, who commits evil acts because of his attachment to external objects. Darth Vader is evil in this sense: he turned to the dark side because he feared his wife and children would die and so be agreed to betray his teachers and friends to gain immortality for his loved ones etc.

Radical evil (for Copjec anyways) can be summed up by the disturbing villain who utilizes the ‘Nuremberg defense – “I was only following orders.” If we follow Copjec, there shouldn’t be any true examples of diabolical evil. Even being very literal and looking and demons, looking at the brooding and querulous creatures in Milton’s Paradise Lost the very fact of the matter is that Satan and his generals are violating the specific content of the divine law. Of course the very phrase diabolical evil can arise from the fact that there is no difference between the content of God’s law and and the form of law as such since his will is purportedly universal and total.

Joss Whedon’s Serenity

The limitations of radical evil as, in a superegoic way, ‘enjoying the law’ are complicated by several characters we can point out. For example in Joss Whedon’s excellent science fiction film Serenity the villain known as The Operative (he has no name or rank) appears at first, as the mindless tool of the Alliance (a totalitarian parliamentary government with which several of the film’s heroes waged war against in a battle for independence). The Operative (played by the exceptional Chiwetel Ejiofor) kills because he believes in a greater good but he has no illusions about the evil he does and he states that, as kind of a dark Moses, that he will never see nor should be exist in the world he is hoping to create. After the Operative realizes that the alliance’s concept of a better world is not his own, Mal warns him that he would kill him if he saw him again. The Operative responds “There is nothing left to see.”

Isn’t there a difference here between the Operative and the nameless Nazi who is ‘tortued’ by the weight of his ‘duty’ to massacre? The superegoic injunction does not require any reasoning or any actual belief. Several times in the film it is pointed out that the Operative is ‘a believer.’ As evidenced in Hitler’s last days, when the fantasy was faltering, when the Red Army was breaching the outskirts of Berlin, almost everyone turned against Hitler. Here the possible cause of Nazism didn’t outweigh the possibility of death. For the Operative, prior to his conversion, death was worse than failing to work towards the dream of the alliance. The Operative’s actions match the ethical declaration of Lacan “Do not give up on your desire!” which is why formally, there is no difference between good and evil.

/4/ – What of the Good?

To discuss the good we must make a bit of a detour back through guilt. In Ethics of the Real Zupancic shows the differing versions of guilt. As the aforementioned comparison to Kant and Sade suggests, the ethical is always in excess of legality (p. 12). To demonstrate this Zupancic sets up a scenario which we find over and over again in thrillers and comedies. Instead of using her scenario we can use the form it takes in The Simpsons titled “The Boy who knew too much.” For those unfamiliar – Bart, while playing hooky, witnesses a clumsy waiter clumsily injure himself and blame it on the affluent and obnoxious Freddy Quimby. According to Zupancic, via Kant, Bart has three options:

1 – He can do nothing because Freddy Quimby is a bad person and he does not owe him anything. For Kant this is to act pathologically.

2 – Bart can testify because he believes he has to, this sacrifice will perhaps force Skinner to not punish me for playing hooky. This is also self interested and therefore pathological.

3 – Bart can testify (as Lisa suggests) because it is ‘the right thing to do’ because it matches the form of the moral law. This is the ethical act because it does not rely on the content of the situation (it doesn’t do it out of possible benefits) but only to serve the very form of that situation.

This is why, for Kant, there is no connection between the ethical and the legal. The ethical always takes the form of an excess. Alain Badiou agrees with Lacan that the ethical statement is to not give up on one’s desire, but where he differs from the aforementioned thinkers in that he does not accept the concept of radical evil.
This is because for Badiou there is no concept of pre-existing evil. As Badiou writes in Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil “there can be Evil only in so far as there proceedes a Good” (p. 71). For Badiou Evil only exists as a form of failed/flawed truth.

So the question is one that many of us faced way back in early highschool or middleschool, one that draws to the old debate between Rousseau and Locke and the like: are humans bad or good? Are they corrupted, do they become evil or do certain ideological and material apparatuses simply magnify that which is already present in human faculties? In this case, and to borrow Badiou’s language, we have the relationship between two excesses: that of the state (the apparatus) and that of the ethical (the act). This is why when Badiou’s sense of politics is discussed the relation to the state is pinnacle. Does one work with or directly against the state or is it necessary to create a kind of separation from the state, to create a state within the state, a sub-state? Badiou answer to this has become less distinct as he initially stated that complete separation was necessary.

What Badiou’s thought illuminates in Kant’s work is the tension of how the good relates to the subject in the following way: Is the good, the non-pathological action a little interior voice or is the good always in the form of an ultimate Law coming from the voice of the Other?

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