Cover image for What evil means to us
What evil means to us
Alford, C. Fred.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1997.
Physical Description:
xi, 185 pages ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1110 Lexile.
Subject Term:
Format :


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Material Type
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BJ1406 .A44 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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C. Fred Alford interviewed working people, prisoners, and college students in order to discover how people experience evil--in themselves, in others, and in the world. What people meant by evil, he found, was a profound, inchoate feeling of dread so overwhelming that they tried to inflict it on others to be rid of it themselves. A leather-jacketed emergency medical technician, for example, one of the many young people for whom vampires are oddly seductive icons of evil, said he would "give anything to be a vampire."Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Alford argues that the primary experience of evil is not moral but existential. The problems of evil are complicated by the terror it evokes, a threat to the self so profound it tends to be isolated deep in the mind. Alford suggests an alternative to this bleak vision. The exercise of imagination--in particular, imagination that takes the form of a shared narrative--offers an active and practical alternative to the contemporary experience of evil. Our society suffers from a paucity of shared narratives and the creative imagination they inspire.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Alford (government and politics, Univ. of Maryland, College Park) spent over a year interviewing state prison inmates, college students, and working people to find out how people conceptualize and experience evil. To many of his informants, doing evil is the "pleasure in hurting and lack of remorse." It is rooted, from what they told the author, in a baleful, bottomless sense of dread; to cause others to suffer this existential dislocation is somehow (in the mind) expected to alleviate it in oneself. "How to know and live with this malicious destructiveness in oneself, one's friends, one's lovers, and the world around?" Alford suggests that hope, and the answer to the problem of evil, may be found through shared narrative‘the realm of "metaphysics and theology." Although this is a difficult book, it provides an unusually systematic approach to a topic more often addressed through anecdote or abstraction. Of interest especially to professionals who work with people "on the edge."‘John R. Leech, Brooklyn (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Exploiting psychoanalytic theory, Alford (government and politics, Univ. of Maryland, College Park) develops a narrative account of evil based on the varied stories of individuals whom he interviewed about their respective experiences and concepts of evil. Interviewees included 40 "free informants" (i.e., average citizens) and 18 inmates of a maximum-security prison; all conceived of evil as the experience of dread and betrayed a tendency to seek mastery over this experience by imposing it on others. The provocative general thesis of this narrative account is twofold. First, the impulse to do evil is all around us and lies deeply and inextricably within each of us. The chief difference between average free citizens and imprisoned murderers and rapists is that the evil actions of convicted felons have a freelance quality uncharacteristic of the more socially sanctioned evils perpetrated by "normal" people. Second, the amelioration of evil in society depends on our acknowledging the universality of its grip on human persons and seeking its containment through creative acceptance of the dread that is inherent in the human condition. Though severely underdetermined by the evidence adduced here, this thesis should be of interest to psychologists, sociologists, moral philosophers, and anyone perplexed by the philosophical problem of evil. General readers, upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, and practitioners. R. D. Geivett; Biola University