A GOOD LOOK AT EVIL takes a view of good as the working out of one’s own life story, and a contrasting view of evil as the deliberate thwarting of that work, whether in oneself or in another.
The sorts of worked-out life stories advocated here are not to be thought of as fictions. Ideally, they exhibit a serious commitment to practical reason. However, in Chapter One, the rationality of what we call here an ideal story is distinguished not only from fiction but also from the sort of rationality that is just shrewd economy in the choice of means to get to goals that are fixed incorrigibly. Nor does this book recommend a mere thoroughgoing pragmatism, where means and ends correct each other endlessly in the problem-solving style of John Dewey. This is boring pragmatism, where the bear goes over the mountain, sees another mountain, goes over that mountain and so on and on.
Life is more interesting than that. There is a picture one is working out of what one has been all about, oneself. This story is the story of someone, whose self-interpretations remain the central effort of it. The question of personal identity, whether there is such a thing, or whether it is just the shakeout of genetic accident and social conventions, is the question in the background of the definitions of good and evil we give here. Personal identity is found in the acts of living and defending one’s story. Evil is first encountered as a deliberate and knowing threat to personal identity.
The identity of the self that is put at risk by evil is not the “identity” that prompts philosophers to ask whether an individual who’s been changed in some respects still retains sameness-with-itself. The question of whether I retain my identity if my heart (or in the extreme example my brain) was transplanted from a deceased organ donor, would be answered by decisions about taxonomy. Those are questions about what I am.
The evidence for personal identity that will be in view here is the evidence for who I am. My story is what identifies me as this unique person, the person who, offered a bribe, says, “That’s not who I am.” Does the self then disappear if she takes the bribe? Without claiming that the corrupted self actually disappears, it’s safe to say that it’s been deeply obscured.
You are trying to live out the story of you. You have hopes. You hope you have the means of realizing your hopes, or some of them—to begin with, the ones nearest to hand. As you walk into the fray of your life, you start to acquire a better sense of what you’ve been trying to do. It’s not all laid out in advance. If the hopes are blocked, you’ll try other means. If both means and ends are found beyond reach, you may have to revise again, till you get to the best realizable end worth fighting for. This is the story of your life. It’s important to keep track of it all the way.
What evil does is disrupt the story, either removing the instruments by which you can get to realize your aims or playing with your mind till you lose track of your aims.
Praise for A Good Look at Evil
“Abigail Rosenthal proposes a new way of understanding one of the oldest mysteries—the nature of evil. Drawing on wide literary and philosophical resources, Rosenthal proposes that narrative self-understanding is the key to a good life. She traces the implications of this idea for understanding various types of evil, including the ultimate evil of Nazi genocide—which, she argues, cannot be understood in Arendtian terms as a kind of banality. Highly personal and original, Rosenthal’s work offers new ways of grappling with some of the largest ethical questions.”
—Adam Kirsch, author of The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century
“Rosenthal pinpoints the characteristic feature of evil—at least the leading type of evil—that distinguishes it from what is only morally wrong or very, very bad. It is based on her basic notion of an ideal ‘life story’ or plot. She extends both concepts from individual victims to races and populations as victims. There is nothing banal or ordinary about evil, the intentional disrupting of the victim’s ‘ideal thread’ or plot. … In a fascinating new essay, Rosenthal revisits Hannah Arendt. … applying her ‘plot’ concept to Arendt herself in light of what is known about Arendt’s long intellectual and personal relationship with Heidegger. Rosenthal argues that despite a splendid recovery from early adversity, Arendt went on to ‘spoil’ her own life story. And in a concluding piece, Rosenthal shows from her own experience how one can have reason to believe that a person’s life story has been co-authored by God.”
—William G. Lycan, author of Real Conditionals
“It is a most compelling and creative work. Rosenthal is analyzing the ‘stories’ that people tell us about themselves, in terms of both their lives and their work. She does so in an effort to understand genocidal evil-doers, both those who perpetrate and collaborate with it and those who cover up such crimes.”
—Phyllis Chesler, author of An American Bride in Kabul: A Memoir
“As a person who wholeheartedly subscribes to the idea that we must be constantly attentive to, and increasingly watchful over, the ‘plots’ of our own unfolding stories, I found Abigail Rosenthal’s a welcome, revealing and indispensable book about the slippery crevices of the moral life. I hope it is translated into many languages. Everyone should read it.”
—Gail Godwin, author of Heart: A Personal Journey Through Its Myths and Meanings
“A Good Look at Evil is not only an examination of evil but proposes a new way to think about our own lives. By adopting a literary approach to a philosophical question, Rosenthal has provided genuine insight into a problem that has befuddled thinkers for ages. Evil is not an abstract concept but a lived reality and situation. … If you wish to understand evil as well as to know how to live your life, A Good Look at Evil is a perfect way to begin writing your own story.”
—Lee Trepanier, editor, The Voegelin View
About the Author
Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and Confessions of a Young Philosopher, Dr. Rosenthal writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” where she explores the question of how best to frame the situation of women. She thinks women’s lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of The Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. When they met, he lived and worked in Washington D.C. and she in New York. They now live midway, in a small town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.