Two events happened this spring in New York City that flummoxed our sophisticated pundits.
First, a naturalized citizen failed to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Why did Faisal Shahzad become a jihadist? Explanations included revenge for drone attacks in Pakistan, misery over the foreclosure of his home, rage against George W. Bush, Islamist hatred for infidels, and anger at the creators of South Park, a TV show that depicted Muhammad.
Second, after helping an assaulted woman, a homeless immigrant was stabbed in Queens and left for over an hour as dozens of passersby ignored him. A surveillance camera captured the whole scene. When firefighters arrived, Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was dead. Why were there no Good Samaritans? Explanations included bystander apathy, diffusion of responsibility, and desensitization to violence.
The pundits were reluctant to acknowledge the obvious presence of evil in both events, owing to our thin moral discourse and metaphysical uncertainties. Thankfully, British literary critic Terry Eagleton is alert: "We know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz …. Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be."
On Evil (Yale University Press), a superlative follow-up to Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution, argues against two prevailing viewpoints: "Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them." The first viewpoint besets our sanguine politicians, journalists, and social scientists who tend to explain away evil, while the second besets our dour theologians and ministers who invoke "evil" as a conversation stopper. Evil—like God—is neither fully comprehensible nor unfathomable, but partially explainable. Eagleton insists that our explanations of evil may sharpen or soften moral judgment.
Informed by the Marxist accent on class society and the Christian accent on original sin, Eagleton articulates a vision he calls "tragic humanism," which is honest enough to reckon with the brokenness of life, but hopeful enough to affirm the possibility of deep-seated transformation. "Soft-hearted liberals and tough-minded Marxists" need to hear Eagleton because he dares to name individuals and acts "evil," which they regard as an archaic category that has gone the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Otherworldly Christians also need to hear him because he confronts them with the material effects of evil (famine, nuclear weapons, financial malfeasance), which they miss because of their focus on "the spiritual forces of evil" (Eph. 6:12).
If social conditions are solely responsible for evil actions, we are puppets. If human behavior is solely responsible, we are monsters. And if the autonomous will of an individual solely chooses evil actions, we are like "the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost, with his 'Evil, be thou my good!'?" Against all these dehumanizing responses that move us beyond good and evil, where we are not answerable for our actions, Eagleton contends for an interplay between environment and character, as there is "no absolute distinction between being influenced and being free."