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Ideas

Putin And The Return Of "Radical Evil" In Our Midst

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.

A person observes the graffiti, by Valencian artist J. Warx, with the image of Putin with devil horns and the colors of Ukraine, on a street in Valencia, Spain

Valencian graffiti artist J. Warx denounces the Russian invasion which has caused at least 2,000 civilian deaths and about a million refugees.

Gaspard Koenig

-Essay-

PARIS — Following the news from Ukraine, the mind clings to a semblance of rationality. There is talkof 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.

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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 in areas of the city now under the control of Russian/Pro-Russian forces

Civilians have reappeared on the destroyed streets of Mariupol after a recent lull in shelling

Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/ZUMA

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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Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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