Why We Should Call ISIS “Evil”

James Dawes

This week ISIS is again in the news for beheading another U.S. journalist. As I read the news articles about this, I was reminded of an article I’d read a few days ago.

James Dawes, the director of the Program in Human Rights at Macalester College, wrote an article for CNN.com called, “Should we call ISIS ‘evil’?”

When I saw the article, I immediately read it. ISIS has been on a brutal rampage through northern Iraq, and the locals has been raped, enslaved, and massacred. They seem to persecute Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites equally. When Al Qaeda finds the group to be too extreme, then you know these people are vicious. So I wanted to learn why someone wouldn’t call them “evil.”

I didn’t expect the arguments to be convincing, but I had hoped the arguments would be strong. But I was disappointed. Let me explain why I thought his arguments were so pitiful.

Dawes says:

“Is ISIS evil?

“The problem with that question is that the answer is as easy as it is useless. Yes, ISIS is evil and must be stopped. Saying so over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.

“There is only one good reason to denounce a group as evil — because you plan to injure them, and calling them evil makes it psychologically easier to do so. ‘Evil’ is the most powerful word we have to prepare ourselves to kill other people comfortably.

“The flip side is that ‘evil’ is also a word that stops us from thinking.”

It is an obvious point, I think, that Dawes calls ISIS “evil” in this article but doesn’t think that in doing so he has stopped himself from thinking.

But did he really claim that the only good reason to denounce ISIS as evil is that we plan to hurt them? Isn’t the fact that they are evil a good enough reason to call them evil? Calling them evil is not just a preparation to “injure” them. It is a part of discerning good and evil in our world.

Yet, recognizing that ISIS is evil does play a role in preparing for the use of force to stop their evil ways: it justifies that use of force, which is an important step to do for moral deliberation. We certainly want nations to discern whether a group’s actions are evil before they use force to stop the group. That’s a sign of careful thinking.

So labeling evil as evil doesn’t keep us from thinking; rather, it is a sign of clear thinking.

If he were thinking clearly, an 19th-century slaveowner would not have dropped “evil” from his vocabulary; rather, he would realize that his actions and the institution of slavery should be described as “evil.” Would Dawes have preferred the slave owner simply abolish the use of the word “evil” rather than label the institution of slavery evil?

If you overlook Dawes’s mistaken claim that thinking stops when we label a group “evil,” then you can see that his other point is reasonable. He wants us to understand why people are attacked to groups like ISIS, how they get support, how they function, what led to a political and social climate that encourages and allows for the rise of groups like ISIS, and so on.

I think this is wise. In addition to recognizing that a group is evil, we do need to try to understand the factors that led to the formation of that group. But the problem with Dawes is that, at least in his article, he operates from the assumption that those tasks are mutually exclusive. He said:

“We can say they are evil people doing evil things for evil ends. Or we can do the hard work of understanding the context that made them, so that we can create a context that unmakes them.”

Or we can avoid false dichotomies and do both.

Why, by the way, does Dawes want us to “create a context that unmakes” evil people? The answer: because they are evil. His inconsistency goes to the very heart of his position. He first has to label them as evil to recommend that we “create a context that unmakes them.”  ISIS’s evil is the very reason we should eliminate the factors that lead to the creation of such groups. Recognizing ISIS’s evil, however, didn’t stop Dawes from thinking. Why does he think it is stopping others from thinking?

And, finally, in response to a Jonah Goldberg comment concerning the evil of ISIS to be the “most important context” to understand their actions, Dawes said:

“The fact is, there are few things more dangerous now than allowing ourselves to think that way.”

I can think of a few things more dangerous. ISIS, for one. Or only weakly identifying atrocious evils as evils.

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  1. SO proud of what they are doing they wear masks. Actually it’s because hey are goat humping, child molesting scum. Hey ISIS your Sissy Virgins…..

  2. There is no point in discerning whether something is good or evil because it can lead people into feeling morally superior and can demonize people and lead to cruel and unusual punishment. The problem with it making people feel morally superior is that they wouldn’t be doing good and not do evil because it doesn’t harm people but because they want to feel superior. It only matters whether or not something is dangerous to everyone or not

    1. Jason: I don’t think your position is very attractive. You make the following two claims:

      1. We should not discern whether “something” (which I presume means either an action or a person) is evil, because it can lead to a feeling of moral superiority and to cruel punishments.

      2. What matters is “whether or not something is dangerous to everyone or not.”

      Your first claim isn’t convincing. If labeling something evil leads to moral superiority, does labeling a certain punishment “cruel” also lead to moral superiority and a demonization of the person administering the cruel punishment? Why shouldn’t we label “something” as evil but we can label something as cruel is okay? Doesn’t the concept of cruelty make use of the concept of evil? And I think there are plenty of examples of people who labeled an action evil without giving them a bad sense of moral superiority. (I feel morally superior to Hitler; that’s a permissible feeling of moral superiority; so not *all* instances of moral superiority are wrong, FYI.)

      Your second claim fails in two ways: first, you say what matters is whether something is dangerous to everyone. What if something is dangerous to some but not “everyone”? Does that matter?

      Second, why should we be concerned about whether our actions are “dangerous” to others? Because it’s wrong to willfully and unnecessarily endanger people? Then willfully and unnecessarily endangering people is evil. So your second claim makes use of the conception of evil anyway.

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