Joseph BH McMillan reviews A Study of Perceptions of Evil by Professor Ron Galloway

I have written that philosophy is at risk of rendering itself an extravagant academic indulgence. By that I mean it risks becoming so obscure as to be of no relevance to our everyday actions and behavior.

On the philosophy of science, the physicist Steven Weinberg went so far as to say this: “… I found [it] to be written in a jargon so impenetrable that I can only think that it aimed at impressing those who confound obscurity with profundity.” [Dreams of a Final Theory – Steven Weinberg (paperback) page 168]

So it was refreshing to read Professor Galloway’s Perceptions of Evil (if I may take the liberty of shortening the title).

Not to detract from its academic credentials, it is readable and enjoyable. But more importantly, it compels the reader to reflect on his or her everyday behavior. It does so by cleverly weaving into our perceptions of what is good and evil, philosophical thought going back to Plato.

The central theme is whether our perceptions of what constitutes good and evil are entirely rooted in our perceptions of what constitutes knowledge (epistemology), and our conceptions of what constitutes the right view of the world (our worldview).

Although Galloway identifies coincidences between historical perceptions of evil and the theories of knowledge and worldview prevalent at the time, he does make this most astute observation: “Even developed perceptions of the evil and the good grounded in elaborated theories of knowledge and worldviews seem to owe their beginning to this at least partly intuitive, partly unlearned sense of the evil and the good. Why else does so much of humanity cry out against child abusers, child killers, mass murderers, and ethnic cleansing? Does humanity really feel a need to support or claim that such things are evil? Does not the near intuitive outrage itself seem to serve as the verification for punishments inflicted on offenders of this kind?” [Page 463 – emphasis in bold is mine]

That element of the inherent recognition of what constitutes right and wrong, or good and evil, comes across in Galloway’s analysis of the writings of some of the most commonly recognized names in philosophy so far as non-philosophers are concerned, such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and David Hume. Suddenly their writings don’t seem shrouded in philosophical mysticism. They speak of what we, as human beings, care about – what should I do in this or that situation?

Although we do not need to consult philosophical tomes to make such decisions, Professor Galloway’s exposition of some of these great philosophical works gives us reassurance that we can, in the final analysis, find in them the comfort to listen to that “voice [within] which makes even the boldest sinner tremble.” [Kant, Critique of Practical Reason].

It is becoming an increasingly rare thing to find a book on philosophy that is readable, enjoyable, and thoroughly informative. If only there were a lot more like this.

A highly recommended read.

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