Altruistic Evil
Thomas Albert Howard

Jihadist terrorism raises many distressing questions, but few weigh on the mind as much as this one: how can acts of such unspeakable violence be committed in the name of religious conviction? Sadly, this might be the defining question of our age.

The phenomenon is not new. Arguably, the first religious terrorists were a Jewish splinter group known as the sicarii, named after their favorite weapon, the short-bladed dagger. They operated in Jerusalem shortly before the city’s destruction in 70 ad, eager to enflame tensions between Rome and the Jewish population.book cover “Their favorite trick,” according to the historian Josephus, “was to mingle with festival crowds, concealing under their garments small daggers.... More terrible than the crimes themselves was the fear they aroused, every man as in war hourly expecting death” (emphasis added).

Other examples of religiously-inspired violence abound, whether in Middle Eastern, Western or other cultures. Various explanatory accounts have been put forward. Few I have come across, however, are as insightful as that offered by Jonathan Sacks in his most recent book. A prolific author, member of the British House of Lords, and former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Commonwealth, Sacks asks us to understand what he calls “altruistic evil,” a helpful oxymoron to which I shall return.

Drawing insight from the social sciences, biology, history, and (mainly Jewish) theology, Sacks understands well the maxim made famous by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that the line dividing good and evil does not run between groups but through every human heart. Still, the tendency to hive off into groups and define one’s group against others constitutes the core of the matter and disposes us not only to great evil but to great good. Or, as Sacks puts it: “what is best in us and what is worst both come from the same source: our tendency to form ourselves into groups [and] to think highly of our own and negatively of others.”

Most would recognize this as an all-too-human tendency, and realize too, with Sacks, that communal belonging often inspires our better angels. The path to “pathological dualism,” as he phrases it, and from there possibly on to violence, takes shape when three additional ingredients are present. First, group formation must occur around our deepest convictions, which are often religious or metaphysical in nature; Sacks quotes Pascal to underscore this point: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do so from religious conviction.” Second, one has to experience or at least be persuaded that the “other group” has committed atrocious wrongdoing against yours. Finally, add in zealous, charismatic leaders able to enflame a pervasive, righteous feeling of victimhood, inciting one to see the “other group” as utterly despicable, malevolent, subhuman. The violence inherent in this (real or perceived) sense of victimhood can then lead to “altruistic evil,” a willing bloodlust emboldened by the conviction that your actions flow from conscience toward a higher good. Sacks is most eloquent on victimhood in this sense, and his words are perhaps not only relevant to global jihadism today but to the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum in many Western nations. Permit a lengthy quote from Sacks:

Defining yourself as a victim is a denial of what makes us human. We see ourselves as objects, not subjects. We become done-to, not doers; passive, not active. Blame bars the path to responsibility. The victim, ascribing his condition to others, locates the cause of his situation outside himself, thus rendering himself incapable of breaking free from his self-created trap.... If you kill witches for causing [your] illness, the witches die and the illness remains. So you must find more witches to kill, and still the illness remains. Blame cultures perpetuate every condition against which they are a protest.

They also corrupt others. One of the noblest of all human instincts is compassion.... But compassion can be exploited. When self-defined victims lay claim to compassion in a less-than-noble cause, they turn people of goodwill into co-dependents. Seeking to assist, they reinforce the pattern of behavior they wish to cure.

When dehumanisation and demonisation are combined with a sense of victimhood, the third stage becomes possible: the commission of evil in an altruistic cause.

While never straying too far from this central contention, Sacks canvasses a variety of topics relevant to comprehending religious violence in our age, chiefly as perpetrated by the likes of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other jihadist groups, but he also touches on violence in other religious traditions, past and present.

 A resident of London, Sacks worries that many Western societies, those in Europe foremost, have become fertile grounds for recruiting jihadists due to a moral vacuum at the heart of contemporary secularism. Modern institutions such as “[s]cience, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state,” he writes, “have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.” But in themselves they cannot provide answers to what he calls life’s “Big Questions”: What am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These are substantive philosophical, and ultimately theological questions, Sacks believes, and despite the cornucopia of consumer goods, bromides about multiculturalism, and lifestyle freedoms available in the West, they continue to haunt the imagination. “[T]he twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning,” as Sacks sums up; denizens of this moral wasteland long for “meaning, identity and community,” and if they cannot be supplied through more organic, peaceable means, the young especially remain susceptible to the allure of darker, more radical causes.

Among the best ways to combat the seduction of altruistic evil, Sacks believes, is through a moral, humanistic education that teaches empathy for those who possess different life experiences from one’s own. This comes as worrisome news given the headwinds against liberal arts education in our own country and its short supply across much of the Middle East and in Europe (see Reilly 2012; Redden 2009). But Sacks insists: “To be cured of potential violence toward the Other, I must be able to imagine myself as the Other.” To dramatize his point, Sacks tells the remarkable story of one Csanad Szegedi, an erstwhile Hungarian ultra-nationalist politician and anti-Semite, who discovered that he in fact was Jewish. This jolting “role reversal” (the title of a chapter in the book) transformed Szegedi’s understanding of the world and led him to focus in his political career on defending human rights for everyone.

But education and dramatic personal revelations are not the only promoters of empathy. Most religious traditions, Sacks contends, contain the antidote for the violence that they sometimes inspire. On this point, he distinguishes himself emphatically from celebrity skeptics such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris who blame homo religiosus as such for much of humankind’s bellicosity, past and present, and pine for a post-religious future. Such hard-boiled secularists are not only misguided in the substance of their arguments, Sacks believes, but they also fail to recognize that, demographically speaking, the world is only growing more religious (Kaufman 2010). Religious discourse, though part of the problem, must be part of the solution. What is more, such figures promote their own worrisome dualism: scornful, post-religious Westerners versus the rest of humanity.

By contrast, Sacks appeals approvingly and repeatedly to the Judeo-Christian notion of human beings as created in the imago Dei, the taproot idea, in his estimation, behind our contemporary language of human rights and human dignity. He also makes much of the Noahic covenant: God’s providential commitment to the human project. Passages from various sacred texts crop up in the book to support his points, such as the Mishnah’s command, “Do not judge your fellow [man] until you have been in his place”; or the Qur’an’s insistence “that there should be no compulsion in religion”; or the New Testament injunction to love not only your neighbors but your enemies. It is not lost on Sacks that “hard texts” (i.e., ones that seem to endorse violence) exist in religious literature too, and these require in his view “careful interpretation” lest they “lead to violence.”

While not without hope, Sacks is no Pollyanna; he believes that today something is rotten in the state of the Abrahamic faiths. Because of their similarities and interrelationship, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam evince at a civilizational level, he believes, the dynamics of what psychologists call “sibling rivalry.” Each making claims to be the monotheistic faith and two (Christianity and Islam) claiming the mantle of supersession over the other(s), the three faiths have witnessed centuries-long accretion of conflicts and bad memories. While he does not argue that Islam is uniquely prone to violence, he does contend that Salafist interpretations of Islam possess a theological cogency and persuasive force often underestimated by Western observers.

In the recent past, Hobbesian powers, such as the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, and, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States—despite their own various, moral shortcomings—were able to suppress religious violence in volatile geographical regions. But our age, according to Sacks—who follows Henry Kissinger (2014, 260ff)—is witness to the unraveling of global order. Ours is a time of anxious multipolar powers (US, EU, Russia, China, Iran), of failed or failing nation-states (Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen), and of dangerous transnational entities (ISIS, Al Qaeda) (Kissinger 2014). It is also an age of instantaneous communication, which enables incendiary language or images immediately to impact places far from their origin. And this is to say nothing of whole new forms of fearmongering, “radicalization,” and recruitment to violence made possible by cyberspace.

For Sacks, historical perspicacity is essential for moral engagement at a geopolitical level. Sometimes his analyses in this respect are spot-on. He ably calls attention, for example, to how Serbian (Orthodox) nationalists in the 1990s revived the memory of the Battle of Kosovo (in 1389!) to fire up Serbian hatred of Bosnian Muslims, and he interprets this unhappy episode as a portend for the future. At times, however, his reach exceeds his grasp. He presents a fairly clichéd interpretation of the Reformation as a movement in Western Christianity away from “dogmatic religious foundations” toward peaceful coexistence—something that would have come as news to Anabaptists, Huguenots, Socinians, as well as the many Catholics and Protestants who ran afoul of the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. Sacks’s suggestion—not an uncommon one these days—that the Muslim world stands in need of a sixteenth-century-style Reformation suggests at once the attraction but the difficulty of moral reasoning through historical analogies (Khalaf 2015).

A lifelong student of Hebrew Scriptures, Sacks stands on firmer ground when in several moving chapters he offers close readings of stories in Genesis, which in his judgment teach “willingness to accord dignity to the other rather than [to] see the other as threat” and, concomitantly, the importance of the Psalmist’s line, “how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together” (Psalm 133:1). His most compelling readings are quite literally about brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. The Joseph story in particular resonates with his thesis of victimhood as the womb of violence. Joseph faced, as it were, a momentous choice between victimhood and retaliation against his brothers or reconciliation and peace with them. That he chose the latter staved off a potentially vicious cycle of fratricidal violence. As Sacks puts it: “By the end of Genesis... Joseph, who really was a victim, refuses to define himself as such. He says to his brothers, ‘You may have intended to harm me, but God intended it for good so that it would come about as it is today, saving many people’s lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children’ (Genesis 50: 20–21).” Sacks provides this gloss:

This [Joseph’s] is an immensely significant transformation. Instead of asking “Who did this to me?” Joseph asks about his suffering, “What redemptive deed has this put me in a position to perform?” He looks forward, not back. Instead of blaming others, he exercises responsibility. Joseph represents the first great biblical rejection of the culture of victimhood, the reaction that caused the first humans to lose paradise.

The entire Exodus interlude in Jewish history, furthermore, provides in Sacks’s view an ongoing lesson for us today. This lesson (in empathy) is found succinctly in Exodus 23:9: “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know what it feels like to be a stranger, for you
yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are obliged to expand the “radius of our moral concern,” Sacks interprets, so that “our common humanity precedes our religious differences.”

Few readers, I imagine, will disagree with Sacks’s conclusions. The difficulty, of course, comes in applying such a hortatory message in places such as Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, or Kashmir. Blood-soaked geography, alas, can be the mother of despair. Sacks accordingly leaves himself open to the charge that, while eloquently diagnosing the disease, he offers little specific advice for curing it. One might also fault him for speaking rather generally about the “psychology” of religious violence and not enough about specific theological tenets or beliefs that motivate violence in the first place, such as the apocalyptic ideas animating ISIS’s actions, analyzed trenchantly by Graeme Wood in a recent article in The Atlantic (March 2015). Finally, one wonders if his focus on victimhood has come at the expense of another factor: the frequent lack or insufficiency of legitimate institutions of justice to redress crimes before the wounded seek vengeance on their own.

Sacks should have taken up these matters more extensively. Even so, Sacks’s is no small accomplishment. His musings on altruistic evil, again, shed helpful light on the motivations behind religious terrorism. A lifetime of erudition, worn lightly, and writing that sometimes achieves biting eloquence add to the book’s appeal.

The fact that Sacks, in an epilogue, concludes on an ambivalent note suggests the magnitude of the problem he seeks to address. On the one hand, he waxes hopeful, enjoining the children of Abraham to learn to live together: “Today God is calling us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, to let go of hate and the preaching of hate and live at last as brothers and sisters... honouring God’s name by honouring his image, humankind.” On the other hand, the size and scope of jihadist threats—and the forms of political backlash and appeasement that they engender in the West—lead him to wonder if we have entered an age of “permanent foreboding.” “The West, indeed the world,” he expands, “has never faced a challenge quite like this.... the radicals pride themselves on their inhumanity. They have no qualms against butchering and beheading those with whom they disagree, using civilians as human shields, turning people into slaves and ten-year old girls into suicide bombers.”

An eloquent expositor of the Noahic covenant, Sacks nonetheless wonders if in our time, as in the biblical account of Noah, “God regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain” (Gen. 6:6). That a leading Jewish voice would permit himself such a disconsolate thought underscores the gravity of the challenge and the significance of this book.


Thomas Albert Howard is Professor of Humanities and holder of the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University.


Works Cited

Khalaf, Rouila. “The Search for a Muslim Martin Luther,” Financial Times, January 15, 2015.

Kaufman, Eric P. Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. London: Profile, 2010.

Kissinger, Henry. World Order. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.

Redden, Elizabeth. “The Liberal Arts, Abroad,” InsideHigherEd, February 16, 2009.

Reilly, Benjamin. “Liberal Education in the Middle East,” Middle East Institute, February 23, 2012. http://www.mei.edu/content/liberal-education-middle-east

Wood, Graeme. “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, March 2015.

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