The Moral Response to Radical Evil (Brief Version)

Mois Navon
9 min readOct 29, 2023

--

The Death of Agag. (Gustav Dore, 1865)
The Death of Agag (Dore Gustov, 1865)

The moral response to evil is, perhaps paradoxically, one of the greatest of all ethical dilemmas. On the one hand, the task of morality is to define good and evil, commending the former while condemning the latter. On the other hand, extirpation of evil calls for action that morality, in other contexts, would deem evil. So, while killing is evil, killing a killer is good. The moral paradox of killing is magnified exponentially when it comes to war.

To address the moral conundrums surrounding war, there is a long history of thought known as just war theory (JWT) which seeks to define: when it is morally justified to go war (jus ad bellum), what is morally justified action during war (jus in bello) and what are the morally justified conditions in ending war (jus post bello). JWT establishes the moral boundaries within which civilized nations should operate in the unfortunate event that their differences must be resolved via warfare. But what about a war fought against a wholly immoral enemy who does not abide by any standard of accepted warfare, an enemy that evinces, what philosophers refer to as, “radical evil”? [1]

Given that JWT does not explicitly address such an enigmatic scenario, but rather provides a framework with parameters to be squared with the unique demands of the war at hand, I propose employing the paradigmatic “evil nation” of Amalek from the Bible to push the limits of just war theory. But Amalek, with the attendant biblical command to annihilate them, is a moral enigma in its own right. Accordingly, I seek to use one enigma to solve another in the hope of resolving both to the satisfaction of, what might be termed, the “natural morality” underpinning JWT. My objective, then, is to demonstrate that the biblical command to respond to Amalek aligns with natural morality and is, indeed, the moral response to radical evil.

Biblical Genocide

One of the most perplexing commandments in the Bible is the demand to “blot out” Amalek:

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way as ye came forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. Therefore, it shall be, when the Lord thy God hath given thee rest from all thine enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget. (Deut. 25:17–19, emphasis added).

If the meaning of “blot out” (timche) is not clear enough, Rashi (quoting I Samuel 15:3) leaves nothing to the imagination: “Blot out the memory of Amalek — both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, [camels and asses]” (similarly all commentaries ad loc). And this is not just prose, as Maimonides (Sefer HaMitzvot, Pos. 188) counts this as one the 613 biblical commandments, as do many others (e.g., Yeraim 435; Sma”g Pos. 115; Sefer Hahinuch 604). To complicate matters further, of the ten fundamental notions we are to remember every day, the fourth is to remember Amalek (and our duty towards them).

Many explanations have been offered to reconcile the command to “blot out” an entire nation, on the one hand, with the belief in a benevolent God whose commands align with natural morality, on the other.[2] R. Norman Lamm’s response is, to my mind, the most edifying:

The moral validity of the Biblical law is based upon the principle of reciprocity: it is an appropriate response to a brutal attack by Amalek, which opened the door to later attacks by other enemies. Not to do so would have been to expose the Israelites to further savage actions by their surrounding tribes. Compassion of this sort, in the context of that period of history, would be a “compassion of fools” as it was termed by Ramban (to Deut. 7:15 and 19:13) and “compassion for murderers is comparable to the spilling blood” — reminiscent of contemporary pacifists whose lack of realism makes it possible for the most heinous of people or nations to remain unopposed (“Amalek and the Seven Nations” in War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition).

R. Lamm explains the command in its historical context, emphasizing that there was a time when nations fought with such brutal savagery that only an all-out attack against the entire nation would serve the security interests of the defending nation. But Amalek and the surrounding nations have long since ceased to exist (Yadaim 4:4) and, consequently, so has the legal force of the command. R. Joseph Soloveichik makes this point explicitly: “The obligation to wipe out individual Amalekites, as set forth in Deuteronomy, applies only to genealogical descendants of Amalek … and this obligation is no longer in force, since there are no longer any identifiable genealogical descendants of Amalek” (Fate and Destiny , p. 94).

This conclusion, however, is at odds with another biblical pronouncement that holds the obligation to eliminate Amalek to be eternal:

And the Lord said unto Moses: Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. … And he said: The hand upon the throne of the Lord: the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex. 17:14–16).

From here R. Soloveitchik derives a separate obligation: “to do battle as a community against the people Amalek … Thus, if any people seeks to destroy us, we are commanded to do battle against it when it rises up against us” (Soloveichik, p. 94).

The two separate obligations, explains R. Soloveitchik, correspond to two different types of Amalek: the genealogical Amalek versus the ideological Amalek. Others too have noted this distinction, calling it genetic versus generic (M. Leibtag), or ethnic versus ethical (R. Kimelman). What this distinction allows for is the vitiation of the command to annihilate an ethnic group simply due to its genes, while preserving the understanding that there is radical evil that must be fought “from generation to generation” — not against individuals, but as a “category of war” (ibid.). And as a category of war, the command to “war with Amalek from generation to generation” shifts from a demand to annihilate a people to a framework of wartime measures, rules of engagement, appropriate to defeat radical evil.

War with Amalek

Two questions now arise: (1) who falls into this category? and (2) what are the implied rules of engagement?

Regarding the question of who, we need look no further than the very texts that describe the character of Amalek. In Deuteronomy, we read “how he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were enfeebled in thy rear, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God.” This description could have been taken out of a contemporary terrorist’s handbook; they did not attack the strong, the armed, the soldiers, but the weak, the weary, the stragglers (Hazony, The Dawn, p. 96–97). In consonance, we read in the book of Samuel, “the Amalekites had made a raid upon the South, and upon Ziklag, and had smitten Ziklag, and burned it with fire; and had taken captive the women and all that were therein, both small and great; they slew not any, but carried them off, and went their way” (I Sam. 30:1–2).

Now, while these vignettes provide anecdotal evidence of Amalek’s character, the most cogent — and most damning — description of Amalek is that they “fear not God.” This “fear of God” attribute does not imply, as it does today, religiosity. Rather, as R. Menachem Leibtag demonstrates through numerous biblical examples, it means “morality,” natural morality, allegiance to the fundamental norms that all people are expected to understand intuitively: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie (M. Leibtag, “The Akeda and Miscellaneous Topics”). Amalek denies all this. It is against such people that God is at war “from generation to generation,” just as they are at war with Him.

This brings us to the second question: what is the nature of this war against ideological Amalek, and what are the rules of engagement with radical evil? On the one hand, we have the biblical commandment to “cut off the seed of Amalek … man and woman, young and old” (Maimonides, Sefer HaMitzvot, Pos. 188). On the other hand, besides the fact that it has already been shown that such an obligation no longer exists (having been pertinent back in the days of the genetic Amalek who has long ceased to exist), there is a practical argument made by R. Lamm. He explains that if indeed we were to apply the notion of annihilation to every nation that sought to destroy the Jewish people, there would not be many people left on the face of the earth (Lamm, 215–219).

Accordingly, I suggest that the distinction between genetic Amalek versus generic Amalek entails a distinction in the rules of engagement. Both types of Amalek evince radical evil and, as such, must be confronted in a radical manner. However, while the rules of engagement concerning genetic Amalek demanded the death of every “individual” (something no longer in effect), the rules of engagement regarding generic Amalek do not permit seeking out the death of unideologically-aligned individuals (see Soloveitchik in Korn, fn. 36). Rather, as a category of war, it allows — indeed, demands — that such individuals carry less weight — not because we abandon the jus in bello obligations of “distinction” and “proportionality,” but because these demands exist on a continuum from merciful to merciless.

To be clear, “distinction” demands that innocent civilians not be targeted; but who is a civilian? In the distant past, when uniformed armies lined up one against the other, there was a clear distinction between “civilian” and “combatant.” Today, however, the term “civilian” is open to interpretation (See A. Dershowitz, “‘Civilian casualty’? That’s a gray area.”; M. J. Broyde, “Just Wars, Just Battles and Just Conduct in Jewish Law,” p. 6, 22, 24). Are children carrying weapons, or abusing hostages, merely innocent civilians? Are women aiding reconnaissance missions merely innocent civilians? Are citizens providing material or even “only” moral support innocent civilians?

Of course, even if we remove all of these people from the category of innocence, no one can deny that babies that can’t speak, and toddlers that can’t understand, must surely be considered innocent. And that brings us to “proportionality.” Proportionality does not demand that innocent civilians not be killed at all in the course of a legitimate campaign, but only that the number of innocent civilians killed be maintained within some reasonable proportion to legitimate military missions carried out against legitimate military targets (Geneva Conven.). Proportionality, then, is even more open to interpretation than distinction (M. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 129). Just how many civilian deaths are reasonable in order to take out a command-and-control center, a rocket launch site, a weapons cache? How many civilian deaths are reasonable to take out a leader — e.g., Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussain, Ismail Haniyeh, Hassan Nasrallah?

Given the interpretive nature of the jus in bello demands, which allow for a continuum of implementations from merciful to merciless, I suggest the following rules of engagement. When fighting a war among moral nations committed to the values of JWT, the jus in bello directives should be adhered to in the most merciful way possible — seeking to minimize civilian casualties wherever and however. On the other hand, when fighting radical evil, people who violate every moral law in ways that only Satan could conceive, the category of war against ideological Amalek demands operating at the merciless end of the continuum.

This is the moral response to radical evil.

[1] While the term “radical evil” was first coined by Kant to denote the human propensity to abandon moral law, following the Holocaust, Arendt used it to grapple with the kind of extreme evil perpetrated by the Nazis. It as an evil in which all people are “superfluous,” such that not only are the victims not accorded any human dignity, but the “murderers are all the more dangerous because they do not care if they themselves are alive or dead” (The Origins of Totalitarianism in Bernstein, “Reflections On Radical Evil: Arendt and Kant”).

[2] For a review, see A. Sagi, “The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem.” See also, S. Carmy, “The Origin of Nations and the Shadow of Violence: Theological Perspectives on Canaan and Amalek” and E. Korn, “Moralization in Jewish Law: Genocide, Divine Commands, and Rabbinic Reasoning.”

--

--

Mois Navon

Mois Navon lectures on “Ethics in Big Data and AI” at Ben Gurion Univ. and is writing his PhD on “The Moral Status of AI” at Bar Ilan Univ. www.divreinavon.com