Evil’s Empire

By Assaf Sagiv

Adi Ophir's philosophy of doom.

In a lecture delivered around the end of the Second World War, Jean-Paul Sartre spoke about one of his students, who had sought his advice on how to deal with a moral dilemma he was facing. This student’s father was estranged from his mother, and had even collaborated with the German authorities, whereas the student’s elder brother had been killed defending France during the German invasion in 1940. Sartre’s student was moved by a desire to avenge his brother and contribute to the effort against Germany, but he also felt responsibility towards his elderly mother, with whom he lived, and who needed his help. Should he go to England and join the forces of the Free French, or stay with his mother? Sartre depicts his predicament:
He fully realized that this woman only lived for him, and that his disappearance—or perhaps his death—would plunge her into despair. He also realized that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or Algiers, he might be put into an office to fill out forms. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed only toward one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous—and it might be frustrated on the way.1
Sartre brings this anecdote to illustrate the failure of the various doctrines of Western moral philosophy to address the real dilemmas which face man. Traditional Christian ethics, as Sartre understands it, teaches only that one should “act with charity, love your neighbor, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest.”2 Such an imperative, however, does not define that “way which is hardest,” nor does it specify what are the particular goals that merit such sacrifice: Personal devotion to one’s mother, or perhaps the obligation to defend one’s homeland? Kantian ethical theory is scarcely more helpful: If the student were to adopt the categorical imperative, according to which people are always to be treated as an “end” and never merely as a “means,”3 he would find that both courses of action run the risk of transgression: If he stays with his mother, he has turned the soldiers into a mere means for the preservation of his country and home; but if he goes off to war, he strips his mother of her status as an end by ignoring her needs, which only he can fulfill. A similar problem is encountered when one attempts to apply “intuitional” ethics, which ascribes a central role to emotions and instincts in moral decisionmaking. As Sartre points out, it is very difficult to assess the weight of emotions, and even harder to distinguish between true and apparent feelings. Moreover, emotions are frequently the products of our actions, and cannot therefore be reliably consulted as a basis for setting a course of action. After demonstrating the weakness of the various ethical theories, Sartre reaches the conclusion that the student’s decision cannot be anchored in any general theory of morality; he must choose in a completely free manner, for “there are no signposts to guide us in this world.”4
Moral philosophy, as Sartre illustrates, is in the throes of a deep crisis. More than any other philosophical field, it must withstand the test of practicability—since, as Immanuel Kant observed, the entire purpose of ethical theory is to offer guidance in the decisions that must be made in real life.5 But in the centuries since Kant, moral thought has managed to distance itself from living, concrete reality. The schools that have developed—Kantian ethics and utilitarianism are two major examples—still hold sway with professors of philosophy, but are of hardly any use outside the academy. Their attempt to constrict the awesome complexity of human life into a set of universally valid rules has given them an abstract and alienated character, and rendered them incapable of exercising any real influence on the way people behave. In recent decades, even some prominent scholars have come to accept the chronic sterility of the field of moral philosophy, with a few of them going as far as to call into question the very possibility of a comprehensive and applicable theory of ethics.6
Thus it is no small matter when a philosopher publishes a major work proposing to set forth, comprehensively and systematically, a new theory of ethics. Speaking Evil: Towards an Ontology of Morals by Adi Ophir is, first and foremost, a courageous effort. The author, from the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University, is an important figure in Israeli cultural life; in the past decade he has emerged as a prominent and articulate spokesman for the postmodernist position, which has become quite popular in intellectual life both within the university and outside of it. As founding editor of the journal Theory and Criticism, Ophir has already made a significant contribution to the intellectual debate within Israel. With Speaking Evil, Ophir has built upon this achievement, producing what is possibly the first major philosophical work of the modern era that was entirely “thought and written in Hebrew,” as he puts it. It is a depressing fact that original Israeli philosophy is not a common thing, and Ophir is to be lauded for providing the exception. In the depleted atmosphere of philosophical discourse in Israel, Speaking Evil is a breath of fresh air.
The importance of Ophir’s book, however, goes beyond the local context. Speaking Evil proposes “an orderly and methodical exploration of moral theory” that seeks to lead to no less than “a redefinition of what constitutes the morally worthy.”7 And this it does in the spirit of postmodernist thought, to which the author admits his “explicit” debt.8 Moreover, Ophir emphasizes in the introduction that his work constitutes “an additional step in the secularization that Western thought has undergone since the beginning of the modern era.”9 According to Ophir, the method proposed in Speaking Evil addresses moral problems in a way that is unequivocally this-worldly and secular, disabused of the last traces of transcendence that have accompanied modern ethical philosophy. The significance of such a promise is not to be underrated: As Ophir himself attests, he seeks to present us with the ultimate secular theory of morality.
Speaking Evil is a serious, thorough, and wide-ranging work, on which its author labored for close to a decade. Its four hundred dense pages are characterized by an inquisitive and restless tone which testifies to the continuous searching of Ophir’s penetrating and dynamic mind. Yet the method that Ophir proposes ultimately fails, and for the same reasons that have sealed the fate of other theories of morality which it seeks to replace: It does not convince the reader of its ability to offer man a reasonable and practicable method for maintaining a moral life. In the practical realm it is almost completely impotent: It divests moral practice of any element of simplicity or naturalness, imposes impossible conditions on anyone seeking to act morally, and forces people to make practical decisions in a world that seems hopeless and beyond repair. Anyone seriously accepting the principles of Ophir’s theory will find himself powerless to apply them, not only in the face of acute dilemmas, but even in the more mundane decisions of everyday life. Instead of restoring our faith in the possibility of moral philosophy, as Ophir explicitly sought to do, Speaking Evil only undermines it further.


The main innovation in Speaking Evil is the point of departure that Ophir chooses, which is already hinted at in the title. While most theories of morality are based on the “good in itself” as the aim of ethics, or, alternatively, on the derivation of moral obligations from specific values such as justice, liberty, and equality, Ophir places the focus on evil, which has traditionally had a marginal role in moral philosophy. This move is necessitated, in his mind, by the failure of such “positive” approaches to offer a solid foundation for moral philosophy in Western thought.
So it is, for example, with notions of the “good in itself.” Ophir argues that “we know nothing about the good,” or, more specifically, “we have no idea of what the ‘good in itself’ is. We have no conception of ‘good’—the good is not a concept.”10 What we have instead is clear knowledge of those specific elements, tangible and intangible, which make life more tolerable; but “good” itself, as a general concept, is not identical with these goods, and it cannot be based on them. After critiquing a number of conceptions of the good in classical Greek thought (which identified it with happiness), in Kantian theory (which viewed it as an idea that cannot be perceived by the senses) and in utilitarian philosophy (which based it on the maximization of benefit or pleasure), Ophir reaches the conclusion that “the good in itself cannot be discerned by looking at its effects within the world.”11 The good is always missing, always in the state of not-yet or no-longer; every discussion of good is founded on allegories (“the happy smile of a child, the tranquility of a house in the country, a man and woman embracing, the grateful look of an unfortunate whose cries have been heeded”)12 that allude to the good that is absent. The only alternative, Ophir maintains, is to relate to some kind of transcendent, perfect good beyond our own experience—something which cannot be addressed by a moral philosophy which places itself within the bounds of the worldly and the tangible. Within secular moral thought, Ophir concludes, there is no room for “the good.”

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