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What IS has to do with evil

  • 02 October 2014

IS is getting a bad press in Australia.  Deservedly so, for its brutality and totalitarian instincts.  In the headlines the word ‘evil’ has been dominant, sometimes even ‘pure evil’, over pictures of balaclava’d and hooded figures in black. This suggests that they belong to a totally different world than ours, one incomprehensible to us in its absolute darkness. 

This characterisation is unhelpful for two reasons.  First, if we are to respond to IS intelligently and effectively in such a complex environment we must be able to enter their minds.  Otherwise we shall be like the police in crime shows who plan a frontal attack on the villain holding a cigarette lighter near a lake of gushing petrol. Simply to call him evil, vicious and senseless may satisfy our anger but it does not help save his hostages or protect the town.

Second, and more important, if we are to judge their actions we must measure them by the same moral calculus as we do our own actions. Otherwise we empty the word ‘evil’ of any meaning. Evil becomes what they do;  good is what we do. This is precisely the kind of thinking adopted by members of IS.  

The questions relevant for evaluating both our own and IS’s actions are whether they respect the dignity of other human beings, whether their goals and the means by which they pursue them are ethically justifiable, and whether the good consequences of their actions will be proportionate to the bad consequences. 

Actions such as the killing, torture and rape of defenceless human beings and the denial of freedom to worship, certainly violate human dignity. They assert that people are of value and entitled to flourish only if they are on our side or share our beliefs. We are right to call this evil, but it is ordinary human evil, not beyond understanding. 

The goal of IS appears to be to create a Caliphate through the Middle East.  This is not in itself necessarily bad. But the means taken to achieve it, which include the killing of people because of their religious allegiance, the use of torture and arbitrary killing as a way of subduing civilian populations, and carrying out exemplary, brutal executions to embroil foreign powers in the conflict and so draw recruits to IS, are morally unjustifiable.  They all involve infringing grossly the dignity of one group of people in order