Fifteen years ago, two ten-year-old boys tortured and killed a toddler, James Bulger, in the north of England. There was an outcry of public horror, though why the public found this particular murder especially shocking is not entirely clear. Children, after all, are only semi-socialised creatures who can be expected to behave pretty savagely from time to time. If Freud is to be credited, they have a weaker superego or moral sense than their elders. In this sense, it is surprising that such grisly events do not occur more often. Perhaps children murder each other all the time and are simply keeping quiet about it. William Golding seems to believe, in his novel Lord of the Flies, that a bunch of unsupervised schoolboys on a desert island would slaughter each other before the week was out.
Perhaps this is because we are ready to believe all kinds of sinister things about children, since they seem like a half-alien race in our midst. Since they do not work, it is not clear what they are for. They do not have sex, though perhaps they are keeping quiet about this, too. They have the uncanniness of things which resemble us in some ways but not in others. It is not hard to fantasise that they are collectively conspiring against us, in the manner of John Wyndham's fable The Midwich Cuckoos. Because children are not fully part of the social game, they can be seen as innocent; but for just the same reason, they can be regarded as the spawn of Satan. The Victorians swung constantly between angelic and demonic views of their offspring.
A police officer involved in the case of the murdered toddler declared that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprits, he knew that he was evil. This is the kind of thing that gives evil a bad name. The point of demonising the boy in this way was to wrong-foot the soft-hearted liberals. It was a pre-emptive strike against those who might appeal to social conditions in seeking to understand why they did what they did. And such understanding can always bring forgiveness in its wake. Calling the action evil meant that it was beyond comprehension. Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable.
Evil is often supposed to be without rhyme or reason. An English Evangelical bishop wrote in 1991 that clear signs of Satanic possession included inappropriate laughter, inexplicable knowledge, a false smile, Scottish ancestry, relatives who have been coal miners, and the habitual choice of black for dress or car colour. None of this makes sense, but then that is how it is with evil. The less sense it makes, the more evil it is. Evil has no relations to anything beyond itself, such as a cause.
In fact, the word has come to mean, among other things, "without a cause". If the child killers did what they did because of boredom or bad housing or parental neglect, then - so the police officer may have feared - what they did was forced upon them by their circumstances; and it followed that they could not be punished for it as severely as he might have wished. This mistakenly implies that an action that has a cause cannot be freely undertaken. Causes in this view are forms of coercion. If our actions have causes, we are not responsible for them. Evil, on the other hand, is thought to be uncaused, or to be its own cause. This is one of its several points of resemblance with good. Apart from evil, only God is said to be the cause of himself.
There is a kind of tautology or circular argument implicit in the policeman's view. People do evil things because they are evil. Some people are evil in the way that some things are coloured indigo. They commit their evil deeds not to achieve some goal, but just because of the sort of people they are. But might this not mean that they can't help doing what they do? For the policeman, the idea of evil is an alternative to such determinism. But it seems that we have thrown out a determinism of environment only to replace it with one of character. It is now your character, not your social conditions, which drives you to unspeakable deeds.
So people like the policeman are really pessimists, even though they would probably bristle at the accusation. If Satan is what you are up against, rather than adverse social conditions, evil would seem to be unbeatable. And this is depressing news for (among other people) the police. Calling the boys evil dramatises the gravity of their crime, and seeks to cut off tender-hearted appeals to social conditions. It makes the culprits harder to forgive. But it does so only at the cost of suggesting that this kind of malignant behaviour is here to stay.
If the young killers of the toddler could not help being evil, however, then the fact is that they were innocent. Most of us, to be sure, recognise that small children can no more be evil than get divorced or enter into purchase agreements. Yet there are always those who believe in bad blood or malevolent genes. If some people really are born evil, however, they are no more responsible for this condition than being born with cystic fibrosis. The condition which is supposed to damn them succeeds only in redeeming them.
Men and women who are evil are sometimes said to be "possessed". But if they really are the helpless victims of demonic powers, they are to be pitied, not condemned. The film The Exorcist is interestingly ambiguous about whether we should feel loathing or compassion for its diabolical little heroine. People who are supposedly possessed raise the hoary old question of freedom and determinism in thrillingly theatrical form. Is the devil inside the Exorcist child the true essence of her being (in which case we should fear and loathe her), or is it an alien invader (in which case we should feel pity for her)? Is she just the defenceless puppet of this power, or does it spring straight from who she is? Or is evil a case of self-alienation, in the sense that this hideous force is both you and not you? Perhaps it is a kind of fifth columnist, yet one installed at the very core of your identity. In that case, we ought to feel pity and fear at the same time, as Aristotle thinks we should when watching tragedy.
Those who wish to punish others for their evil, then, need to claim that they are evil of their own free will. Perhaps they have deliberately chosen evil as their end, like Shakespeare's Richard III, with his defiant "I am determined to prove a villain"; the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost, with his "Evil, be thou my good"; or Jean-Paul Sartre's Goetz in the play Lucifer and the Lord, with his boast "I do Evil for Evil's sake". Yet you might always claim that people like these, who consciously opt for evil, must already be evil to do so. Maybe they are somehow opting for what they already are, like Sartre's waiter playing at being a waiter. Maybe they are simply coming out of the moral closet, rather than assuming an entirely new identity.
The policeman in the toddler killing case, so it would seem, was trying to discredit the liberal doctrine that to understand all is to forgive all. This might be taken to mean that people are indeed answerable for what they do, but that an awareness of their circumstances will incline us to treat them leniently. But it might also be taken to suggest that, if our actions are rationally explicable, we are not responsible for them. The truth, on the contrary, is that reason and freedom are bound closely together. For those who do not grasp this point, trying to account for wicked acts is always a devious attempt to let their perpetrators off the hook. But to explain why I spend my weekends cheerfully boiling badgers alive is not necessarily to condone what I do. Not many people imagine that historians seek to explain the rise of Hitler in order to make him look more alluring.
It is also odd to assume that understanding is bound to lead to greater tolerance. In fact, the reverse is often true. The more we learn of the futile massacres of the First World War, for example, the less we feel they can be justified. Explanations may sharpen moral judgements as well as soften them. Besides, if evil really is beyond explanation - if it is an unfathomable mystery - how can we even know enough about it to condemn evildoers? The word "evil" is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in the solar plexus. Either human actions are explicable, in which case they cannot be evil; or they are evil, in which case there is nothing more to be said about them.
The police officer's use of the term "evil" was clearly ideological. He was probably afraid that people would go easy on the offenders because of their tender years, and saw the need to insist that even ten-year-olds are morally responsible agents. (In fact, the public did not go easy on them at all, and there are still those who are eager to kill them.) So "evil" can be translated here as "answerable for one's own actions", just like its opposite, good. Goodness is also sometimes thought to be free of social conditioning. The greatest of modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant, held just such a view. This is why Dickens's Oliver Twist remains untainted by the lowlife of criminal London into which he is plunged. Oliver never loses
his sweet countenance, moral rectitude and mysterious ability to speak standard English despite having been brought up in a workhouse. (The Artful Dodger, one suspects, would have spoken broad cockney even if he had been raised in Windsor Castle.) But this is not because Oliver is a saint. If he is immune to the polluting influence of thieves, thugs and prostitutes, it is less because he is morally superior than because his goodness is somehow genetic, as resistant to the mouldings of circumstance as freckles or sandy hair. If Oliver just can't help being good, however, his virtue is surely no more to be admired than the size of his ears. Besides, if it is his purity of will which renders him immune to the malignancy of the underworld, can the underworld really be as malignant as all that? Wouldn't a truly wicked Fagin succeed in corrupting that will? Doesn't the child's unassailable virtue unwittingly let the old rascal off the hook? We might also ask ourselves, with Oliver's impregnable innocence in mind, whether we really admire a goodness that cannot be put to the test. The old-fashioned puritan view that virtue must prove its credentials in strenuous combat with its enemies, and in doing so must expose itself to something of their depraved power, has something to be said for it.
As far as responsibility is concerned, Kant and a right-wing tabloid such as the Daily Mail have a good deal in common. Morally speaking, both hold that we are entirely responsible for what we do. In fact, such self-responsibility is thought to be the very essence of morality. On this view, appeals to social conditioning are simply a cop-out. Many people, conservatives point out, grow up in dismal social conditions yet become law-abiding citizens. This is rather like arguing that because some smokers don't die of cancer, nobody who smokes dies of cancer. It is this doctrine of absolute self-responsibility which has helped to overpopulate the death rows of US prisons. Human beings must be seen as wholly autonomous (literally: "a law unto themselves"), because to invoke the influence of social or psychological factors on what they do would be to reduce them to zombies. In the cold war era, this was equivalent to reducing them to that worst horror of all: Soviet citizens. So killers with a mental age of five, or battered wives who finally turn on their pugnacious husbands, must be as guilty as Goebbels. Better a monster than a machine.
There is, however, no absolute distinction between being influenced and being free. A good many of the influences we undergo have to be interpreted in order to affect our behaviour; and interpretation is a creative affair. It is not so much the past that shapes us as the past as we (consciously or unconsciously) interpret it. And we can always come to decipher it differently. Besides, someone free of social influences would be just as much a non-person as a zombie. In fact, he or she would not really be a human being at all. We can act as free agents only because we are shaped by a world in which this concept has meaning, and which allows us to act upon it. None of our distinctively human behaviour is free in the sense of being absolved from social determinants, which includes such distinctively human behaviour as poking people's eyes out. We would not be able to torture and massacre without having picked up a great many social skills. Even when we are alone, it is not in the sense in which a coal scuttle or the Golden Gate Bridge is alone. It is only because we are social animals, able through language to share our inner life with others, that we can speak of such things as autonomy and self-responsibility in the first place. They are not terms that apply to earwigs. To be responsible is not to be bereft of social influences, but to relate to such influences in a particular way. It is to be more than just a puppet of them. "Monster" in some ancient thought meant, among other things, a creature that was wholly independent of others.
Human beings can indeed achieve a degree of self-determination. But they can do so only in the context of a deeper dependence on others of their kind, a dependence which is what makes them human in the first place. It is this that evil denies. In Shakespearean drama, those who claim to depend upon themselves alone, claiming sole authorship of their own being, are almost always villains. You can appeal to people's absolute moral autonomy, then, as a way of convicting them of evil; but in doing so you are pandering to a myth that the evil themselves have fallen for in a big way.
People differ on the question of evil. A recent poll reported that a belief in sin is highest in Northern Ireland (91 per cent) and lowest in Denmark (29 per cent). Nobody with any firsthand acquaintance with that pathologically religious entity known as Northern Ireland (the greater part of Ulster) will be in the least amazed by that first finding. Ulster Protestants clearly take a dimmer view of human existence than the hedonistic Danes. One takes it that Danes, like most other people who have been reading the newspapers, do indeed believe in the reality of greed, child pornography, police violence and the barefaced lies of the pharmaceutical companies. It is just that they prefer not to call these things sins. This may be because they think of sin as an offence against God rather than as an offence against other people.It is not a distinction that the New Testament has much time for.
On the whole, postmodern cultures, despite their fascination with ghouls and vampires, have had little to say of evil. Perhaps this is because the postmodern man or woman - cool, provisional, laid-back and decentred - lacks the depth that true destructiveness requires. For postmodernism, there is nothing really to be redeemed. For high modernists such as Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, or the early T S Eliot, there is indeed something to be redeemed, but it has become impossible to say quite what. The desolate, devastated landscapes of Beckett have the look of a world crying out for salvation. But salvation presupposes sinfulness, and Beckett's wasted, eviscerated human figures are too sunk in apathy and inertia even to be mildly immoral. They cannot muster the strength to hang themselves, let alone set fire to a village of innocent civilians.
To acknowledge the reality of evil, however, is not necessarily to hold that it lies beyond all explanation. You can believe in evil without supposing that it is supernatural in origin. Ideas of evil do not have to posit a cloven-hoofed Satan. It is true that some liberals and humanists, along with the laid-back Danes, deny the existence of evil. This is largely because they regard the word "evil" as a device for demonising those who are really nothing more than socially unfortunate. It is what one might call the community-worker theory of morality. It is true that this is one of the word's most priggish uses. But to reject the idea of evil for this reason works better if you are thinking of unemployed council-estate heroin addicts rather than serial killers or the Nazi SS. It is hard to see the SS as merely unfortunate. One should be careful not to let the Khmer Rouge off the same hook on which delinquent teenagers are impaled.
Even though evil transcends everyday social conditioning, this does not mean that it is necessarily supernatural, or that it lacks all
human causality. Many things - art and language, for example - are more than just a reflex of their social circumstances, but this is not to say that they drop from the skies. The same is true of human beings in general. If there is no necessary conflict between the historical and the transcendent, it is because history itself is a process of self-transcendence. The historical animal is one who is constantly able to go beyond itself. There are, so to speak, "horizontal" forms of transcendence as well as "vertical" ones. Why should we always think of the latter?
The modern age has witnessed what one might call a transition from the soul to the psyche. Or, if one prefers, from theology to psychoanalysis. There are many senses in which the latter is a stand-in for the former. Both are narratives of human desire - though for religious faith that desire can finally be consummated in the kingdom of God, whereas for psychoanalysis it must remain tragically unappeased. In this sense, psychoanalysis is the science of human discontent. But so, too, is theology. With Freud, repression and neurosis play the role of what Christians have traditionally known as original sin. In each case, human beings are seen as born in sickness. But they are thereby not beyond redemption. Happiness is not beyond our grasp; it is just that it requires of us a traumatic breaking down and remaking, for which the Christian term is conversion. Both sets of belief investigate phenomena which finally outstrip the bounds of human knowledge, whether you call this the enigmatic unconscious or an unfathomable God.
The theory of evil I have expounded here draws heavily on the thought of Freud, not least on his idea of the death drive; but I hope that this kind of argument also remains faithful to many a traditional theological insight. One advantage of such an approach is that it ranges more widely than most recent discussions of evil have done. A lot of these inquiries have been wary of straying too far from Kant, a philosopher who has much of great interest to say of evil, and from the Holocaust. In the end, evil is indeed all about death - but about the death of the evildoer as much as that of those he annihilates.
Terry Eagleton is professor of English literature at the National University of Ireland, distinguished professor of cultural theory at Lancaster University and professor of English literature at the University of Notre Dame.
This is an edited extract from his next book, "On Evil" (Yale University Press, £18.99)