My enthusiasm for Arne Johan Vetlesen’s
Evil and Human Agency waned the further I got
from its promising opening chapters.
In his chapter on “third parties” to collective evildoing, he criticizes those
who were responsible for reacting to the Balkan genocide but who instead chose
various forms of inaction. The politicians bowed to political considerations;
the diplomats tried to preserve negotiations; the intelligentsia philosophized
and tried to see things from all angles. All this, Vetlesen says, when the
only appropriate response was to identify what was going on as unmistakable
evil and to try desperately to rescue its victims and stop its perpetrators.
And this may well be true, but I don’t feel like I’ve learned much if all I’ve
learned is that in a time of great crisis, when decisive action might very
well have saved lives and righted wrongs, politicians acted like politicians
do, diplomats like diplomats, and intellectuals like intellectuals, and
wouldn’t it be nice if they hadn’t, or if there had been a group of powerful
genocide-stoppers who had acted in role-appropriate ways.
What did I do about the genocide in the Balkans? I did fuck all.
Which is what I’m doing today about the genocide in Darfur. I have not raised
my voice in protest, I have not bothered to inform myself about even the broad
outlines of what is going on there. I have not so much as raised a finger to
help save a single one of the hundreds of thousands of people who I understand
are being butchered there now.
Why? My short answer is that I’ve got my hands full trying to convince my
fellow Americans not to butcher people by the thousands. But more than that: I
just don’t care. I’m aware that I probably should care, but in fact I
expend just about no time at all concerned with the fate of anyone in Darfur.
Why should this be?
Vetlesen suggests that this apathy to collective evil and large-scale
suffering — or even to visible and individual suffering — may be typical: “It
may well be that the most instinctive reaction to seeing somebody suffer great
pain is to seek ways to block oneself off from it, so as to protect oneself
from fully taking in the reality… the human import, of the suffering
before one’s eyes.” This, contra Arendt, who appealed to an “animal pity by
which all normal men are affected in the presence of human suffering.”
[E]ven granted that there is, originally and in pristine form, such a pity in
all normal men, the hard-earned insight is that there is an abundance of
methods with which to overcome it, to neutralize it — and that many among us
start employing them as soon as we have cognitively registered that suffering
is indeed the phenomenon at hand.… [What people] fear, or even abhor, is
getting involved, perhaps sensing (unconsciously more than
consciously) that once involved in evil, evil contaminates: once taken in in
its human import, in its existential reality, it cannot but leave scars on
If I knew more about what was going on in Darfur, I might learn that there is
something I could do about it, and then I might feel obligated to help or
guilty if I did not. If I looked closely enough I might see faces of victims
instead of numbers in headlines and this would haunt me. So I keep Darfur at
arm’s length, and, as Vetlesen would argue, I thereby implicitly side with the
He quotes Larry May: “Once one is aware of the things that one could do, and
one does not do them, then lack of action is something one has chosen.” I
think that deliberately shielding yourself from awareness of what you can do
also is something that is chosen and has similar consequences. My decision to
remain largely ignorant of the genocide in Darfur shields me from certain
emotional consequences, at least temporarily, but not from any ethical
Vetlesen then goes on to try to preserve the notion of individual agency while
acknowledging the bizarre psychology of collective evil — in which the
perpetrators do not see themselves as individuals following their own motives
to injure other individuals but as representatives of a group acting against
representatives of another group: “The task is to recognize the impact of
group-psychological processes on the individual agent, while simultaneously
upholding responsibility for concrete choices and actions as a non-reductive
property of the individual.”
He, as Arendt did, sees the judicial system as a mechanism that is (or at
least can be) designed to honor individual responsibility in this way. In a
court of law, the actual choices and actions of the accused in reference to
actual victims are the subject of interest. Which is all well and good in
those rare cases when individual perpetrators of collective evil are brought
But Vetlesen says that although individual responsibility is a legal fact,
“collectivization of agency [is] a powerful mental and social fact” that must
be acknowledged when looking for ways to ameliorate or prevent collective
evil. In addition, he says that “guilt possesses both a cultural and a moral
dimension in its own right, in addition to the restricted legal one” — which
reminded me a bit of Karl Jaspers’s notions
of “political” and “metaphysical guilt.”
Vetlesen ends his book with a short chapter decrying neoliberal globalization.
It seems tacked on and forced, the sort of thing that with a few changes could
be tacked on to any number of contemporary left-leaning think-tank reports.
Neoliberalism is a “methodical destruction of collectives” which in this
context he fingers as “a systemic evil” but that seems unduly harsh,
especially considering how much systemic evil he has blamed on pathological
collectives in the preceding chapters.
While the exploration of the subject matter was interesting food for thought,
I didn’t come away from this book feeling like I had acquired any great
insight into the problem of collective evil or any good ideas of what to do
about it. Vetlesen’s program of action is bold (if somewhat vague) when it is
retrospective, for instance concerning the Balkan genocide, but mild and even
vaguer when suggesting forward-looking solutions, particularly ones that
ordinary folks like you and me can do.