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Evil and Human Agency
Understanding Collective Evildoing


Part of Cambridge Cultural Social Studies

  • Date Published: December 2005
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521673570

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About the Authors
  • Evil is a poorly understood phenomenon. In this provocative 2005 book, Professor Vetlesen argues that to do evil is to intentionally inflict pain on another human being, against his or her will, and causing serious and foreseeable harm. Vetlesen investigates why and in what sort of circumstances such a desire arises, and how it is channeled, or exploited, into collective evildoing. He argues that such evildoing, pitting whole groups against each other, springs from a combination of character, situation, and social structure. By combining a philosophical approach inspired by Hannah Arendt, a psychological approach inspired by C. Fred Alford and a sociological approach inspired by Zygmunt Bauman, and bringing these to bear on the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, Vetlesen shows how closely perpetrators, victims, and bystanders interact, and how aspects of human agency are recognized, denied, and projected by different agents.

    • Provides a provocative and original approach to evil, stressing its experiential and existential dimensions
    • Critiques the received wisdom in the field, in particular Hannah Arendt's notion of 'the banality of evil'
    • Combines philosophical discussion with historical material drawing on recent scholarship on the Holocaust and on 'ethnic cleansing'
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'This book is an excellent and brave contribution to a complex topic - balanced, well-argued, informative. I recommend it to all philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists who have research interests in understanding large-scale atrocities.' Claudia Card, Philosophy Review

    'Vetlesen has developed a solid, well-structured and groundbreaking argument that merits a core position in the literature on collective evildoing and genocide.' Journal of Peace Research

    'Vetlesen brings to light the paradox of moral responsibility in Arendt's analysis of Eichmann's actions. … Evil and Human Agency is both timely and deserving of wide readership, not only by sociologists, philosophers, and psychologists, but also by politicians and political scientists. Vetlesen stresses the moral failure of bystanders who, in wishing to remain neutral and impartial, did nothing to stop atrocities from occurring. … Vetlesen's thoughtful approach in Evil and Human Agency challenges both the Aristotelian and the Kantian view that egoism is at the root of evildoing …Vetlesen's approach to evildoing, then, is useful to show how we might avoid such atrocities in the future.' The Journal of Value Inquiry

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    Product details

    • Date Published: December 2005
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521673570
    • length: 328 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 19 mm
    • weight: 0.48kg
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. The ordinariness of modern evildoers: a critique of Zygmunt Bauman's The Modernity and the Holocaust
    2. Hannah Arendt on conscience and the banality of evil
    3. The psycho-logic of wanting to hurt others
    4. The logic and practice of collective evil: ethnic cleansing in Bosnia
    5. Responses to collective evil
    6. A political postscript: globalization and the discontents of the self.

  • Author

    Arne Johan Vetlesen, Universitetet i Oslo
    Arne Johan Vetlesen is Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, University of Oslo, Norway. He is the author of over thirteen books including Perception, Empathy, and Judgement: An Inquiry into the Preconditions of Moral Performance (1994) and Closeness: An Ethics (with De Maleissye-Melun, 1997).

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