Grappling with Evil: An Intellectual Delineation of War, Atrocity, and Attempted Genocide
Abstract: According to the International Military Tribunal, aggression is “the supreme international crime” because “it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole”.
Evil of what whole? Since Augustine and Acquinas, western philosophy has preached that Evil is the absence of Good. Hegel and Heidegger supported this claim: Evil is privation, absence, deficiency. Humanity on the whole is good. Evil has no independent existence.
But as we see in the events of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Evil exists not as a shortfall or defect. It seems to be an ontological category, and worse – it has agency. Evil exists in the Russian soldiers who brutally raped and massacred civilians in Bucha, Izyum, Kherson and other towns throughout Ukraine. It exists in the Russian soldiers who murdered children in Mariupol, and in the field commanders who indiscriminately attack civilian houses, schools, hospitals…
Axiomatic principles of western philosophy claim that humans are fundamentally good, but capable of error. In this context, Russians barbarism is beyond comprehension. Putin’s aggression (like Hitler’s) seems to evidence a different ontology. And there is nothing banal about it.
Without providing definitive answers, this contribution - by a witness of Russia’s war in Ukraine - questions the validity of our understanding of the human condition: namely, that humans fundamentally crave Good. Lived experience demands explanation: in the 21st century, how does one account for the existence of Evil?
Author: Mychailo Wynnyckyj teaches at the National University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” and was recently appointed Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies. Until early 2022, he served as Head of the Secretariat of Ukraine’s National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance, and prior to that as an Advisor to three of Ukraine’s Ministers of Education.
Originally from Canada, Mychailo has lived permanently in Kyiv for almost two decades. He was awarded a PhD in 2004 from the University of Cambridge and he gained Ukrainian citizenship in 2019.
Mychailo is a regular commentator for English-language media outlets, including CNN, FoxNews, AlJazeera, BBC, CBC, CTV, KyivPost, and others, and he provides analysis on current events in his “Thoughts from Kyiv” blog. His book, Ukraine’s Maidan, Russia’s War: A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity, was published in English in 2019, and in Ukrainian translation in 2021.
He is currently a Research Fellow at the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.