Paul W. Kahn’s Out of Eden, Chapter Five,
“Political Evil: Killing, Sacrifice, and the Image of God”

by George A. Dunn
Excerpts from George Dunn's essay appear below.
Click here to read the complete review essay.
Kahn, Paul. (2006). Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

To read Chapter 5, “Political Evil: Killing, Sacrifice, and the Image of God” click here.

By the Reviewer, George A. Dunn

Avatar and Philosophy: Learning to See

Avatar and Philosophy

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Author: George Dunn

Format: Paperback
Published: October 27, 2014
Language: English
Pages: 272

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

James Cameron's critically acclaimed movie Avatar was nominated for nine Academy Awards and received countless accolades. But beyond its cinematic splendor, can Avatar offer us insights into business ethics, empathy, disability, and the relationship between mind and body? Avatar and Philosophy is a revealing journey through the world of Pandora and the huge range of philosophical themes raised by James Cameron's groundbreaking film.

About the Reviewer

George A. Dunn lives and works on two continents, teaching in the Philosophy and Religion Department of the University of Indianapolis and as a visiting scholar on loan to the Ningbo Institute of Technology in Zhejiang Province, China, as part of a Sino-US partnership. His interests include moral and political philosophy, Asian philosophy, and the philosophy of religion. A writer on philosophy and popular culture, he has edited five books, including the recent Sons of Anarchy and Philosophy and Avatar and Philosophy.

In Out of Eden: Adam and Evil and the Problem of Evil, Paul W. Kahn argues that the modern world has lost the ability to make sense of the phenomenon of evil. Focusing especially on those forms of political evil that have blighted the modern political landscape—torture, the production of weapons of mass destruction, unjust wars, slavery, and genocide—he argues that they elude the categories of liberal, rationalist political thought.

Modern liberalism can understand evil only as a failure of reason—a product of ignorance to be remedied through advances in knowledge or a symptom of psychological and social pathologies that might be amenable to the right kind of therapeutic intervention. But, for Kahn, the proper framework for understanding political evil is a “political theology” that reveals the roots of evil to lie not simply in ignorance or in the vices of particular political actors, but in the very nature of political associations themselves.

The potential for evil, far from being something that latches itself adventitiously onto modern nation-states that are otherwise benign in nature, is bound up with the very constitution of popular sovereignty. If modern political theory is unable to fathom the modern phenomenon of political evil, then Kahn believes that the reason lies in its inadequate conception of the nature of political phenomena itself.

Kahn’s point is a simple one: Much more than reason and utility are required to secure our allegiance to a state that can demand the sacrifice of its citizens. Reason is universal—which is why the ultimate terminus of the march of reason through history can only be a community of nations united under a single system of international law—but political loyalties are always particular, structured around the distinction of friend and enemy.

Even more to the point, whereas physical wellbeing is the measure of utility in the narrative of progress, actual nation-states invariable rally their citizens around a very different kind of narrative, one of pain and sacrifice. Our national narratives celebrates as martyrs those who have died on the battlefield, erecting shrines in their honor and setting aside days for their remembrance.

A friend of mine recalls her student days in China, when as part of her school uniform she wore a red scarf, dyed—she was told—in the blood of Chinese soldiers. Our national identity is forged, according to Kahn, through memorializing the sacrifices of these victims and embracing their pain as our own.

In short, then, the sovereign is born of sacrifice, not contract or rational calculation, and it exists for only so long as the populace continues to identify with the pain of its nation’s history. The democratic state, in particular, is sustained by a symbolic imagination that depicts us all as equal participants in the formation of a single transcendent entity—“we the People,” conceived not simply as a contingent confluence of interests, but as the transtemporal body of the sovereign, spanning both history and space.

We participate equally in the sovereign because we all identify ourselves equally with the suffering of our nation’s past, but as equal participants in the sovereign we also incur an obligation to offer up our own bodies as sacrifices on the national altar, should the sovereign ever see fit to make that demand.

Crucial to Kahn’s analysis is the recognition that this history of sacrifice is a sacred history, one that supplies our lives with a meaning otherwise absent from our quotidian pursuit of material wellbeing. Transcending our mundane concerns, the demands of the sovereign can also decisively trump them. Consequently, when we sacrifice ourselves on behalf of the nation, declaring our willingness to kill or be killed for the popular sovereign, we participate in an act of “transubstantiation,” investing our lives with transcendent meaning and transfiguring them into sites for a manifestation of the sacred.

Stated so bluntly, the claims of the sovereign smack of idolatry. Yet Kahn only makes explicit what is already very near the surface of the militant rhetoric of contemporary nation-states, as has been highlighted by such theorists as Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle in Blood Sacrifice and the Nation (1999), Richard Koenigsberg in Nations Have the Right to Kill (2009), and Stanley Hauerwas in War and the American Difference (2011). As former war correspondent Christopher Hedges states in the title of his recent book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2014).

This perspective shows violence in a very different light than how it appears within the modern narrative of progress. For the latter, progress is measured in part by our success in reducing the amount of violence to which the state must resort in order to achieve its legitimate ends—namely, the reduction of suffering and the promotion of well-being.

On the domestic front, coercion is steadily replaced by the rule of law, while international courts and arbitration gradually make war between nations obsolete. As a deeply regrettable means to an end, war loses its entire raison d’être as nations work out less costly ways to achieve their goals.

That, at least, is the liberal pipe dream. Yet, despite the indubitable sanity of this aspiration, wars continue to be fought for reasons that make little sense on such terms. Armies clash over worthless territory, over religious and ideological differences, over slights to national honor and ancient grudges, and over a host of other issues that Thomas Hobbes would undoubtedly label as species of vainglory, the most irrational and inexcusable of the causes of quarrel.

Kahn argues that it is impossible to grasp the meaning of these conflicts from within the perspective of the modern narrative of progress, which can only see the celebration of such senseless slaughter as “the face of evil in the modern politics” (240). However, it all makes sense when we see the nation-state as a manifestation of the sacred, for which pain and suffering are not scourges to eliminate but forms of testimony.

The seemingly inconsequential matters over which nations fight come to be invested with ultimate meaning precisely by the willingness of armies to kill and die over them. Sacrifice imbues them with sacredness. Of course, to someone outside the particular symbolic order inhabited by the combatants, their sacrifice may appear as gratuitous torment and their allegiance to the sovereign as a kind of idolatry. Indeed, they can appear that way even to an insider when his or her faith in the sovereign fails.