Online Journal of Anthropology

Bernstein Radical Evil A Philosophical InterrogationTitle: Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation
Author: Richard J. Bernstein
Pages: 331
Year: 2004
Publisher: Ediciones Lilmod (Buenos Aires)
Print ISBN: 987-21897-1-4









Although Auschwitz and the human violations perpetrated in Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War are enrooted in the human nature, Europe faced a turning point in the way of considering the ethic fields. The radical evil represents, for the American philosopher Richard Bernstein, an urgency to understand why Auschwitz took room and of course if this may be repeated. Based on the legacy of Kant, Schelling and Arendt, Bernstein argues that there is a dichotomy around our idea of evil.

Human beings can be considered a good creation but destined to be evil or to be good with the passing of time. Certainly, as Kant put it, neither evil nor good, humans adopt certain attitudes according to their decisions (willkur) that determine their future behavior. Beyond the culture or the rules, moral inclinations seem to be created to the personal will.  At some extent, these decisions are explained by means of random since there is no causality that may influence in human liberty. If the evil is defined as a sacrifice of moral order in view of personal incentive, it is difficult to explain why people do the good in some occasions, and evil in others. This keeps beyond the human scrutiny. Besides, the law and moral conditions do not suffice to lead human will to goodness.

The temporary frame of ethics reveals how persons change their attachments respecting to good and evil. For example, during the Third Reich, the respect of the law, which is written in favor of elites, may be immoral along with ethic order. This thesis not only was present in whole of German thinkers during XIX and XX centuries, but also paved the pathways for the advent of a rare atmosphere that accelerated the Holocaust. Of course, Bernstein adds, this does not mean Kant was conducive to Nazi’s policies but it is safe to say that Eichmann in Jerusalem cited Kant in his allegations.

In Kantian development, person was neither good nor evil. These categories were given by two key factors, decision and will. The term radical, in Kant, does not mean the same that Arendt thought, here it has not extreme connotations. Kant coined the term “radical Evil” to refer to natural penchant to wrong-doing (hang). As the previous argument given, Kant envisaged that humans should face three stages in their struggle to avoid the temptations, fragility, impurity, malignity. The essence of man is based on the dude and temptation (fragility); rather, the impurity should be explained by the combination of good and wrong tendencies that finally lead people to avoid the good maxim (malignity).

Throughout this valuable book, Bernstein explores the contributions of Hegel to understand the boundaries of finites and infinites. In sharp contrast with Kant, Hegel considered the evil was the denial of god (infinite) given by the process of individualization of self (finite). The culture fabricated common archetypes to socialize the future citizens. This process of education provides a conscience of self in conflict with environmental world. Human beings for Hegel are the only animals that stand at odds the sensible world (affliction). Unlike the animal, humans developed the evil inside when accessed to knowledge. To put this in bluntly, evilness would be defined as a result of the individualization stage. In doing so, evil is not exterminated from heath but mitigated inside human-will.

To cut the long story short, this book is structured in 3 sections. On the first, the connection between liberty and evilness is exhaustively examined. Taking its cue from Kant, Hegel and Schelling, Bernstein presents a convincing review of idealist philosophy to detach the human will. Secondly, he focuses on the “psychology of evil” on the hands of Freud and Nietzsche.  What is important to discuss here is not if humans have been created for good, but the role played by culture in tergiversating the ethics order. The persons perpetrate acts of evil because cultural values have been upended.

Christianity introduced the impotency as a form of indoctrinating pours into the desires of aristocracies. More than a justification for suffering, Christianity elaborated a biased image of history that perpetrated the dependency between master and slaves. Last but not least, Bernstein delves into the legacy of Arendt, Jonas and Levinas to determine to what extent Auschwitz would be avoided. This book exhibits a clear effort to review two important theses. The first, which is more implicit, corresponds with an attempt to understand the influence exerted in moral relativism, enrooted in German philosophy, to facilitate the consolidation of Nazism. Secondly, it is important not to loose the sight our conception of ethics rests on shaky foundations. If evilness is a difficult concept to grasp, this is because remains beyond our understanding.

Given this quandary, Bernstein acknowledges the needs of discovering the intentionality of evilness, which only may be examined, if scholars pay attention to each case in isolation. To put this in other terms, history may provide with significant explanations about genocides and human right violations that only may be understood in view of the specific conjuncture these events have appeared.

Even if, this book presents a seminal contribution to philosophical interrogation of (radical) evilness, it remains to be seen whether the contradictions around Auschwitz and other genocides. Berel Lang convincingly argued that we are not authorized to confirm Auschwitz was the sign of radical evilness. First and foremost, evilness is an absolute construe enrooted in the universalism of spirit.  As event, Auschwitz took room in past and for that it can be scrutinized by the line of history, by the study of facts.  We are obliged to create a memory of holocaust precisely for responsible to be legally punished for those atrocities.

Although the memory is a reified and ideological mechanism that covers some facts, it gives victims a sense of moral public apology. Whether the holocaust gives a lesson, paradoxically, this reminds that genocides are acts perpetrated by humans. These events not only may be surfaced anytime but also show a causality Therefore, any holocaust seems not an act of extreme evilness as Bernstein insisted. Nonetheless, if we accept genocides are historical facts, we involuntarily should think they may be repeated in a near future. Irreducible to human scrutiny, evilness not only is radical, which is a tautology to speak of radical evil, but also is characterized by being beyond the history and human responsibility. Bernstein should think twice on this…


Lang, B. 1999. The Future of Holocaust, between history and memory. Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Reviewed by: Maximiliano E. Korstanje
Philosophical Society of England, UK
International Society for Philosophers, Sheffield, UK
University of Palermo
Buenos Aires, Argentina,





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