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Researching Good and Evil

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The idea of good and evil, out of fashion for a while, is back. In the pop-culture game of what's "in" and what's "out," you could say that morality is "in," moral relativism is "out."

Even babies seem to know that. "Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone," says Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist who discerns moral judgments in infants as young as 5 months. "With the help of well-designed experiments," he writes in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, "you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life."

Such fine distinctions are harder to find in certain adults. Terry Eagleton, a British Marxist intellectual who defends the existence of God, goes so far as to question whether evil can exist in the absence of God. In his book "On Evil," he writes that Satan had to understand God's transcendence "in order to turn it down." Without God as an antagonist, how can evil be measured? Satan shrinks when secularized.

If these arguments stretch moral insights, the Topography of Terror in Berlin, which this week opened its new museum on the site of the Nazi Gestapo, brings us back to a picture of hell on earth. Visitors can see where layers of evil emanated from the heart of the German capital. Here, 7,000 little Eichmanns and Himmlers, many of them ambitious university graduates eager to climb the career ladder, scurried about doing their evil business. There was nothing banal about it.

The opening of the Topography of Terror coincides with the publication in English of Peter Longerich's book, "Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews." He draws on primary sources and archives in Eastern Europe dating from the 1930s, sources inaccessible to historians before the Soviet Union collapsed. These documents show how anti-Jewish attitudes were a central tenet of Nazi rule, shaping policy in all directions -- official and informal, political and cultural, ideological and pragmatic, personally and collectively. The Nazis, he reasons, carved out political territory for persecuting the Jews "comparable with that of foreign policy, economic policy and social policy."

While the subject of good and evil is always with us, seen in both purity and complexity, the way in which Jews remain protagonists in this philosophical/philological drama is relevant to contemporary discussions of morality. While we can be sure that babies, with or without a moral compass, are not born anti-Semites, it's obvious that anti-Semitism continues to stalk the public conscience. The most provocative of the new wave of moral discussions over good and evil starts with the Jews drawing links from medieval anti-Semitism to contemporary anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism.

"In the modern world, the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today the Jew is on trial in the person of the Israeli," writes Anthony Julius in "Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England." He shows how academics in England who organize boycotts of Israeli goods are the latest in a long line of English intellectuals who relish sneering at Jews. What's different today is that left-wing intellectuals have formed an alliance with militant Islamists in repeating historical anti-Semitic slurs, this time as anti-Israeli insults.

The connection of intellectuals to anti-Semitism has been revived as well in a new book about Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who flourished between the world wars. Although Hannah Arendt forgave her onetime lover's Nazism, qualifying it as an "escapade" -- a brief error of judgment for a rarefied thinker who should have known better than to get mixed up in politics -- Emmanuel Faye, in "Heidegger," characterizes him as a Nazi philosopher who thought deeply and looked favorably on the fused forces of the will of the people and the will of the Fuhrer. That's surely what Leni Reifenstahl meant when she called her 1934 Nazi propaganda movie "Triumph of the Will."

In the exploration of morality in babies, psychologists say babies cry when they hear other babies cry. They argue that a baby is empathetic to another baby's pain, that there's an evolutionary purpose to feeling empathy for another. Given our social history, that's a hard sell. But it does seem promising that in our latest debates over good and evil we accept the reality of measuring ourselves against absolutes of right and wrong. This demonstrates the potential to make things better. "Certain compassionate feelings and impulses," they argue, "emerge early and apparently universally in human development."

The trick is how to keep them as we grow older. That's some trick.

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