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Stolorow, R.D. (2009). Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. By Richard J. Bernstein. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002, xi + 289 pp., $29.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 57(5):1271-1274.

(2009). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 57(5):1271-1274

Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. By Richard J. Bernstein. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2002, xi + 289 pp., $29.95.

Review by:
Robert D. Stolorow

Richard Bernstein, professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, has written an important philosophical inquiry into the phenomenon of evil, an inquiry that will be of great value to psychoanalysts as they confront the problem of evil both in their consulting rooms with their patients and in their personal lives as citizens of planet earth. The writing of this book was motivated by the need to comprehend the unprecedented atrocities wrought by totalitarianism in the twentieth century, as epitomized by the horrors of Auschwitz. In agreement with Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, and Emmanuel Levinas, Bernstein claims that “Auschwitz signifies a rupture and break with tradition, and that ‘after Auschwitz’ we must rethink both the meaning of evil and human responsibility” (p. 4). To that end Bernstein embarks on a series of “interrogations” or “critical dialogical encounters” (p. 4) with the conceptions of evil developed by Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Nietzsche, Freud, Levinas, Jonas, and Arendt. The inquiry is a hermeneutic rather than a metaphysical one, aiming not at a theory of evil but at a conceptual understanding of what we mean by evil. In the process, Bernstein gives us a wonderful overview of the history and basic concepts of moral philosophy and moral psychology.

Kant's lasting contribution to moral philosophy, according to Bernstein, was his uncompromising insistence that moral responsibility presupposes transcendental freedom—specifically, the absolute freedom to choose between good maxims (those that conform to the moral law) and evil maxims (those that fail to). Further, contrary to any theory of psychic determinism, Kant held that why a human agent makes the choices he or she makes is “inscrutable”—i.e., unknowable and inexplicable. Thus, although he coined the phrase “radical evil” to refer to a universal human propensity to defy the moral law and adopt evil maxims based on self-love, Kant always insisted on the freedom of a human being to choose to resist this propensity.

Kant did not address a problem that has plagued moral philosophy throughout its history—the question of theodicy, of how to reconcile the existence of evil with faith in an omnipotent, omniscient, all-beneficent God. More broadly, theodicy is the effort to justify evil, whether the form such justification takes is religious or nonreligious.

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