Evil’s Empire

By Assaf Sagiv

Adi Ophir's philosophy of doom.

Ophir’s strategy of circumventing the good as an idea has been advanced before, and is characteristic of modern liberal thought. According to the latter view, our despair at the prospect of identifying the “good” should lead moral philosophy to pursue more modest goals, such as a clear notion of “justice,” which may be a more fruitful basis for ethical discourse. According to the theory proposed by John Rawls, for example, we do not need to attain knowledge of the good to establish a just society; a proper social order that enables the fair resolution of disputes among various value systems is sufficient.13 Ophir takes issue with such efforts, arguing that such notions of the “just” can never be divorced from the cultural context in which they are created. “Values,” Ophir writes, “are the creations of a judicial, political, ideological, or religious discourse; they function as tools with a more or less defined role in the given culture.”14 Here Ophir is clearly adopting the postmodernist perspective, which denies any external, objective vantage point that could allow us to identify absolute or objective values. Instead of setting forth a vision of society based on an absolute concept of justice, Ophir maintains, these theories define justice in accordance with their prior assumptions concerning the desired social model. The only way out of this trap is to understand in advance that all the pretensions of ethical systems that are based on one or another universal value are without foundation. He therefore proposes an ethical discourse utterly lacking in values—a “value-free discourse,” as he puts it.15
Ophir takes the first step towards such a discourse by basing his moral philosophy on the idea of evil. Since Plato, evil has frequently been perceived as the absence of good. Ophir essentially reverses this perception; he argues that the presence of evil in the real world, in contrast to that of good, is positive and tangible: “Evil is part of what there is; much of what exists is suffused with evil.”16 While the idea of the good evaporates upon careful examination, evil only becomes more real, more definite. The evil that concerns Ophir is not the absence of good, or the manifestation of some metaphysical, diabolical element; rather, it is “part of reality, of the everyday, the routine, and the orderly.”17 We need no definition of the good, no belief in the absolute validity of any value, in order to sense the reality of evil, in order to encounter cases of suffering, distress, cruelty, arbitrariness, and exploitation. Ophir’s focus on evil enables him to overcome the problem of relativism and to anchor the moral imperative in something “absolute”: Instead of striving for some abstract or transcendent “good,” he calls upon us to struggle against a tangible “evil,” the reality of which cannot be denied.
In the first two parts of Speaking Evil, Ophir analyzes the nature of evil and the manner in which it is experienced by man. This discussion is close in spirit to the phenomenological method employed by thinkers such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Emmanuel Levinas, which seeks to describe fundamental human experiences, freed of any assumptions or prior expectations. It attempts to return, in Husserl’s words, to “the facts themselves.”18 Ophir does not accept the basic assumption of this school of thought, that the human experience can be stripped of social and cultural conditioning; like the phenomenologists, however, he seeks to expose the essential foundations underlying that experience. Specifically, he proposes to reduce all the categories with which evil has traditionally been associated in the ethical tradition—cruelty, humiliation, lust, self-love, arrogance—to two basic types of personal experience: “Damage” and “suffering.”19 According to Ophir, these terms reflect two opposing types of experience: Damage is fundamentally negative, involving a sense of the loss of something in which we have an interest—such as the theft of one’s property, or the death of a relative or friend. Suffering, on the other hand, is positive—a real, if undesirable, sensation such as physical pain or anxiety. Based on this distinction, Ophir depicts all evil in terms of its two modes: One of the loss of a presence, the other of its gain.20
These two experiences join together in the third part of the book, which takes up almost half the work, in which Ophir sets forth the principles of his ethical system. Here he draws a further distinction, between what he calls “evils” (ra’a or, in the plural, ra’ot), referring to all events or phenomena involving the worsening of someone’s situation—that is, all damage or suffering; and “evil” (roa) as a wider term, which he describes as “the generic name for the sum total of unnecessary evils.”21 According to Ophir, damage or suffering may be justified under certain conditions. There are evils which are necessary, in that they inflict a cost that is lower than the damage and suffering that would result from their absence. An unnecessary evil, on the other hand, cannot be justified, and is not to be accepted under any circumstances, since its prevention would not increase the sum total of evils in a given system. When, for example, an obese person undertakes a strict diet and, as a result, endures hunger and distress, this evil can be justified for health reasons, since we could point clearly to the danger to his life if he were not to act. On the other hand, the starvation experienced by children in the Sudan cannot be justified; this evil is completely unnecessary.
The latter kind of evil, according to Ofir, is, by definition, not necessary; but at the same time, it is also not accidental. Ophir draws our attention to the methodical, purposive aspects of evil as they appear in the patterns and order of human life. “It is possible to speak about the production and distribution of evils,” he writes, “in the same way that we speak of goods or merchandise: Examining the ‘factories’ where they are produced, the relations and means of production, the patterns of distribution and trade, and even the ways in which they are ‘consumed.’”22 Under the unmistakable influence of Marxism, Ophir points to the organized creation of evil, which manifests itself in all realms of society: Economics, politics, culture, the military, religion. The needless evils produced by this system are not always the result of deliberate choice; they are frequently an unintended byproduct of rational decisionmaking. For example, it would be difficult to find people who genuinely want to see others forced to live on the streets, but the homeless poor have nonetheless become a fixture of the urban landscape in America; similarly, there are cases in which criminal and judicial procedures result in the wrongful conviction and harsh punishment of innocents; and sometimes medication results in serious side effects or addiction, whose consequences may be worse than the malady that the treatment was meant to cure.
The fact that evil is so deeply entrenched in the social order might lead one to wonder whether, in the final analysis, it is not quite so superfluous after all. Ophir himself underscores the fact that evil is not to be viewed as a disruption of the orderly operation of society, but is rather an “immanent part” of its nature: “Such is the case,” he writes, “with road accidents, which seem to be built in to the rubric of modern life, and which we must accept as a package deal together with the automobile and the highway; or the ‘plague of drugs,’ or white-collar crimes and corruption scandals. And perhaps we may also speak in similar terms about diseases such as cancer and aids.”23 Yet despite the fatalistic tone of his account of modern life, Ophir insists that many of these evils—even if they are an integral part of our lives—are unnecessary, because they may, in theory, be exchanged for lesser ones.
Ophir’s conviction that it is possible to reduce the amount of superfluous evil in the world stands at the heart of the practical conclusions offered in Speaking Evil. If it were not so, if evil could not be offset or prevented, it would be impossible to speak of morality:
The fact that it is always possible… to restrict evils or to intensify them by means of social action, by means of administration, control, and resistance, is what makes the desirable (the reduction of evils) into the possible; the fact that evils are always unnecessary for those who suffer them is what makes part of the possible (the reduction of evils) into the desirable.24
The aim of Ophir’s philosophical effort, then, is to formulate as precisely as possible the central moral obligation facing man: “The removal of unnecessary evil.”25 The struggle against the “surpluses” of evil replaces the attempt to realize the good: The focus of our moral efforts is not “generosity or decency, but rather the humiliation and insult that can be avoided and eradicated. Not virtue, but needlessly base behavior, whose consequences must be prevented.”26
In order to make this practicable, Ophir sets out a strategy for the realization of the moral imperative, guided by what he calls “practical wisdom (phronesis),”27 a term first employed by Aristotle, who defines it in his Ethics as “a true state, reasoned and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.”28 In this work Aristotle—in clear opposition to his mentor Plato—distinguishes between practical wisdom, which is concerned with human affairs, and scientific knowledge, which is related to “things that are necessarilyso,” such as the laws of natural science. Accordingly, practical wisdom prefers experience to knowledge, and the specific and the concrete to the general and the abstract (for, Aristotle writes, practical wisdom “must take cognizance of particulars, because it is concerned with conduct, and conduct has its sphere in particular circumstances”). What is required is the ability to respond appropriately to changing circumstances, while carefully and thoughtfully weighing the possibilities that inhere in them. Consequently, the man of practical wisdom is “the one who can aim, by help of his calculation, at the best of the goods attainable by man.”29

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