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Action/Research: Confronting Evil
MOST is UNESCO’s intergovernmental science programme on social transformations. MOST works with governments, social and human science communities and civil societies to improve connections between knowledge and action, connections that are one key to positive social change.
© Kim Chapiron

When UNESCO, in collaboration with the Collège de France, decided to take an interest in the question of evil, we were not yet facing the health crisis that we have been experiencing since the end of January 2020. Yet, it was already urgent to rethink evil, that is to say to look at the diversity of its definitions, or rather its lack of precise definition, and to consider the place it occupies in our contemporary world and will occupy in the near future. Indeed, religious and philosophical discourses about the value attributed to evil have gradually transformed, and are more and more determined by modern technological developments. Man–his essence or his actions—is not blamed for evil as much as is the society in which he evolves. The idea of “evil” has moved from a generally voluntary aggression—one does evil or suffers it—to a techno-economic process: Hyper-industrialization, personal data surveillance, drone bombings, to name but a few, change our relationship to evil by making it more indirect, diverted and morally difficult to evaluate. The paradigm around the concept of evil has changed because, as a whole, our societies have changed. We are at the crossroads of several possible worlds based on new technologies, Artificial Intelligence and ultra-globalization. It therefore becomes essential to know what motivates the transformation of our current societies through a concept that continues to guide us morally and produce political and social judgments.

In modern societies, when we say that something is “wrong,” we do not simply describe it. We give it meaning, which includes both analysis and judgment. Evil refers to the supposed action of a power, of an “evil” dynamic; it also requires that a position be taken. It is what we cannot remain indifferent to. This concept seems to be unique, and applies only to the most morally despicable types of actions, characters, and events. Two meanings of the word “evil” overlap today: “It’s bad” and “Everything is wrong” whilst the whole planet seems to be in crisis. The first sense refers to Übel’s sense of evil—provoked and inflicted—while the second, much more widespread, refers to “badness,” “meanness,” or adversity. Thus, evil is physical, moral, and metaphysical: We are evil when hurting others, we can feel evil when we are suffering, and evil emerges as a metaphysical force when it is connected to finitude and emptiness. The religious, philosophical and political histories of the concept of evil have clashed, while today the relationship of Evil to “Good” appears increasingly uncertain. On the one hand, the concept of evil seems difficult to define, as its meaning has evolved. On the other hand, it seems easier to agree on what is bad than on what is good. Evil now seems to be in a whole new relationship to willpower (according to which Kant conceived the radical evil), to thought (through which Arendt conceived the banality of evil) and to the meaning of existence.

The concept of evil is therefore very ambiguous, and its lack of concrete meaning could even be considered one of its central characteristics. However, even though the concept of evil challenges current thinking, it is necessary to revisit and redefine it when we consider our conceptions of desirable futures. It is interesting to note, for example, that anticipation novels are now mostly dystopian. Could this be the end of our imagination, and with it our ability to conceive of a bright future, evil being the only thing we can imagine and, above all, anticipate? With reason? When we project ourselves into the future, or rather into the absence of a future, what place do we give it? Is the virus that is currently destabilizing the entire world—and which, an invisible adversary, has become a symbol of a troubled and uncertain future—one of the most salient features of the evil that the world is facing, just like the political, climatic, social and economic crises? To these crises we must add our projections about our current transformations. For example, how can we view the progress of Artificial Intelligence other than through the prism of catastrophism, and what moral values do we wish to give it? How can we fight against the weakening of human rights, the prevailing nihilism, the fear?

To provide answers to these questions is to be able to imagine evil, and it is indeed art that can challenge us. Art awakens our emotions, transports us, and effortlessly pushes us to new forms of thought. The result is a plurality of representations and meanings of evil at the interface between the individual and the collective, reality and fantasy, action and thought. Art and thought are two interconnected entities that influence each other. Over the centuries, artistic currents have often reflected philosophical and religious currents, and conversely, artistic currents may have led to new ways of conceptualizing. Moreover, art, in the Latin sense of ars, artis, “technique,” becomes a new way of thinking, enriched by inventions and technological advances, and rooted in a more raw and direct way of reflecting on evil, of transforming this thought process into perception, as much for the artist in the creative process as for the viewer.

By offering perhaps a more transcendent way of understanding, art thus depicts society, culture, and the times in which it is inscribed, the artistic representation being first and foremost a representation of the needs of a society at a given time. It was first of all a question of giving life to the impalpable, of illustrating it, of giving a face to evil. Even though it has multiple shapes , it occupies a central place in Western art. It is personified in the figure of Satan, designated as an archetype to embrace the characteristics of evil, as represented in the bestiaries of the Middle Ages. It takes on the face of criminals through 18th century French prints, and physiognomy even turns it into a scientific subject. Artists have thus shown different faces of evil: Its representations can instruct, can remind us of the finiteness of man, can be the expression of suffering, and can awaken suffering in the viewer. Twentieth-century painting and photography are particularly revealing in this regard. As a reaction to the atrocities of the last century, they are above all a reminder of horror while questioning its very origin. Art dares, sometimes crudely, to represent the unrepresentable. It is undoubtedly this audacity that is its strength, and where its capacity to constitute a current of thought on its own lies. Finally, let us add that art is also part of the solution, aesthetics taking the representation of evil on the flipside; artistic creations for preventive action, particularly for AIDS at the end of the 20th century, was a good example of this.

The arts, together with the human sciences, are tools for a better understanding of social transformations, and can lead us to take into account new forms of evil. Representing and telling a story is capturing reality—and what hides behind it. They make it possible to consider evil as a universally shared value, but paradoxically, one that is relative to times and cultures. Different cultural meanings of the term “evil,” some of which are contradictory, must indeed be taken into consideration. For example, Gandhi set Good against Evil by opposing the West—of which he was a radical critic—and the East, of which he denied all evil despite the extremely oppressive caste system of the subcontinent. Such cultural and political deployments of the concept of evil make it necessary to examine its distinct uses across regions of the world beyond the usual distinctions. Thus, to think of our relationship to evil would also mean to think of our relationship to the “other.” Is the value that we grant to evil part of cultural diversity? Does the notion of evil not determine our relationship to living together? In order to build “peace and good in the minds of men and women,” as UNESCO’s mandate states, we must confront what constitutes evil, think about it, express it, and remember it. It is not a question of justifying evil, but rather making it visible in its many forms, conceiving it as a possibility inscribed at the very heart of the human being—not only to put it at a distance and contemplate it aesthetically, but to move to another level of confrontation, a basis for action.

© Kim Chapiron

“Confronting Evil” is a collaboration between UNESCO and the Collège de France in the form of a three-day conference that will gather leading thinkers and researchers from several disciplines to discuss the importance of reviewing and redefining the concept of evil. This transdisciplinary approach will include an artistic dimension, with an exhibition, performances, and music and video installations. The event, initially planned for the end of June, has been postponed to November 2020 due to the sanitary crisis. A three-part webinar titled “Is it possible to talk about Evil in times of pandemic?” derived from the conference will take place on June 29, 30 and July 1.

Written by Camille Guinet – Coordinator, UNESCO-MOST

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JUNE 2020
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