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Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 213-215

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The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil by Claudia Card. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

How do evils differ from other forms of wrongdoing, and what should we do about them? In The Atrocity Paradigm, Claudia Card offers a rich, impassioned ethical analysis of what makes people and the practices they engage in evil, illustrating her theory through case studies of three atrocities: mass rape, domestic violence, and the deliberate creation of situations in which victims of evil become complicit in visiting the evil on other victims.

A theory that adequately explains what is going on in large-scale evils like these, Card contends, best conceives of evil as consisting of two elements. The first is foreseeable intolerable harm, and the second is the culpable wrongdoing of the perpetrator. On Card's view it is the unbearable nature of the harm, rather than the perpetrator's motives or intentions, that distinguishes evil from other wrongs (1).

To develop this bipartite conception of evil, Card positions it with respect to other accounts that are found in the philosophical literature. She begins by considering Friedrich Nietzsche's claim that the notion of evil is a product of ressentiment—the hostile envy that causes slaves dishonestly to invert the values of the nobility—and suggests that in questioning the motives or honesty of those who condemn evil, Nietzsche wrongly diverts attention away from evil itself. Nor does she think much of his view that the biases of the weak are more distorted than those of the powerful. In this connection she offers her readers a delightful reflection on bias, observing that when fabric is cut on a literal one, distortion can be avoided by running a line of stay-stitches along the path of the cut. Self-criticism and a willingness to take up others' perspectives, she thinks, are the epistemological and moral equivalents of stay-stitching.

After considering utilitarian and stoic accounts of evil (rejecting each as incomplete but helping herself to utilitarianism's focus on harm and stoicism's attention to the value of the will), Card turns to Immanuel Kant's theory of [End Page 213] evil, which she sees as stoic in its emphasis on agency, rationality, the will, and what we can control. She raises two criticisms against Kant: The first is that the Categorical Imperative does not give the right reasons for why wrongful violence is wrong, and the second is that Kant's theory does not distinguish between trivial wrongdoing and serious evil. While the first formula of the Categorical Imperative, at any rate, might better be understood as a test of an action's wrongness than as an explanation of what makes it wrong, Card is surely right to fault Kantian ethics for its insistence that the only truly important thing about us is our capacity for rational agency, as this implies that the sufferings of victims are incidental rather than an important part of what makes evil deeds evil.

Just as Kant's theory fails to explain evil adequately, so too, Card contends, do theories of social justice. In one of the most important arguments of the book, she urges feminists to "give priority to addressing evils over the goal of eliminating unjust inequalities" (164). Because evil contains an element of intolerable harm, Card does not think that it can be reduced to inequality. To call the treatment of African Americans in the racially segregated South "unequal," she observes, is a gross understatement. The wrongness of the unspeakable violence, terror, poverty, and degradation they suffered lies in the intolerable nature of the harm that was done to them, not in the fact that African Americans were singled out for this treatment. Because atrocities, oppression, and other evils are worse than injustice per se, she calls on feminists to make sure that something very significant is done to prevent or alleviate evil, whatever headway they may also make in eliminating unjust inequalities.

The chapters on rape in war and domestic violence reveal both the "public" and the "private" faces of...


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pp. 213-215
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Archived 2009
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