French philosopher Gaspard Koenig's view on Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and its targeting of civilians leads him to a notion explored by Immanuel Kant, and so mocked by post-modernity.
PARIS — Following the news from Ukraine, the mind clings to a semblance of rationality. There is talk of attacks and counter-attacks, war aims, communication operations, economic stakes and complex negotiations. And then, when we read about the atrocities — the bombing of maternity wards, the attacks on evacuation corridors, the deluge of fire on residential neighborhoods, the martyrdom of besieged cities — human reason is lost.
What tactic or strategy is mass murder? On what page of the war manuals does one learn to bomb civilians? At one point does a general staff meet to decide to create hell on earth? What is the purpose of "conquering" obliterated cities or a population that has become an enemy forever?
The fact that Russian power has little regard for human life can perhaps be explained by a long historical tradition. That it purposely suppresses them, with such destructive obstinacy, doesn’t make sense.
What is Good? What is Evil?
In an attempt to understand this humanitarian and moral catastrophe, I see no other way than to resort to metaphysics and to a notion so mocked by post-modernity: Evil. Joe Biden made it the underlying speech in Warsaw, invoking “God” against Putin and promising the victory of freedom over “darkness.”
This linear vision of history, in which “each generation must defeat the moral enemies of democracy,” in which the side of "Good" always ends up winning over that of "Evil" is characteristic of the North American theodicy and its Hollywood depictions.
Those who are taken over by "Evil" form a separate race, which is unnecessary to understand. Putin is a “butcher” who must be removed from power without question. Throughout the 20th century, this brutal fight led in the name of "Good" has led to tragic misunderstandings, which Mario Vargas Llosa rightly denounces in his latest novel, Savage Times, which describes the sordid American intervention in Guatemala in the 1950s.
Civilians have reappeared on the destroyed streets of Mariupol after a recent lull in shelling
Three degrees of Kant
This is not the European conception. By publishing an essay on “radical evil” in 1792, Immanuel Kant was already denouncing the “generous hypothesis” of irreversible progress and underlining the potential for evil in each of us.
He distinguished three degrees: the fragility of human nature (waging war accidentally after an uncontrolled escalation, for example); impurity, where immoral means are used for purposes deemed legitimate (resurrecting Great Russia, for example); and radical evil, which, far from being the fruit of blind passions, consciously seeks evil for evil’s sake (annihilating Mariupol).
Putin is nonetheless a human being, endowed with reason, aware of his infamy
At no point does Kant relieve the individual of his responsibilities, stating that the evidence of moral law is imposed on the worst of the degenerates. The revolt of world public opinion in the face of the images of the Russian invasion tends to confirm the universality of these principles. If Putin becomes hostis humani generis, the enemy of the human race, he is nonetheless a human being endowed with reason, aware of his infamy and susceptible to accountability.
End of "the end of history"
This radical evil is by no means a novelty in history. Kant goes back to the “unprovoked cruelty” recounted by the first anthropologists on the Navigators’ Islands. One need only read Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes to be convinced that no civilization, least of all ours, has been free of war crimes, plundering, rape and exterminating civilian populations.
But Kant, armed with this dark observation, also offers an outline for a solution: cosmopolitanism. Just as human beings associate through the social contract, nations must enter into a kind of global society that disciplines them, if necessary by force. If human nature is so scandalously fallible, international law remains its best corrective. It is not up to the United States to bring about regime change in Russia; it’s up to the International Criminal Court to prosecute the guilty.
Thus, the return of radical evil to the heart of our continent should shake us out of the lethargy of the “end of history” and restore our faith in the role of international institutions superior to the states of which they are composed, however distant this ideal may seem. The necessary overhaul of multilateralism is being prepared now.
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