Does evil exist? How is it defined and how can we recognize evil when we see it?
...The word “evil” seems out of fashion these days (except perhaps to describe George W. Bush). Even Islamic terrorists busily blowing up innocent children and mothers tend to get a verbal pass.
The moral and political philosopher John Kekes rejects this thought-killing nonjudgmentalism. Evil exists, he says, and philosophy has the job of explaining it. And that is what his serious and humane new book, The Roots of Evil, sets out to do.
From the outset, Kekes sets himself against most Enlightenment and religious accounts of evil. Enlightenment thinkers tended to view human nature as intrinsically good, while evil was a product of a flawed social order: Fix society and evil will vanish. Kekes, by contrast, sees evil as ineradicable, though he believes we can ameliorate its worst effects. Similarly, Kekes (a nonbeliever) claims, religious theories that posit the goodness of creation run aground: The “very existence of evil . . . constitutes a reason against believing in a morally good order.”
ACTIONS ARE EVIL, he asserts, if they combine three basic features: the “malevolent motivation” of actors, the “serious excessive harm caused by their actions,” and the lack of a “morally acceptable excuse for their actions.” On these terms, Allen’s actions were unambiguously evil: He self-consciously chose to hurt people for his own enjoyment. One must be realistic about human nature: Human beings are capable of magnanimity and mercy; they can also be stone-cold killers.
In Kekes’ view, Allen’s thuggery exemplifies the evil that can result from “disenchantment with ordinary life.” Boredom is an underappreciated source of wickedness. But there are many others, Kekes says, and he explores five more. A particularly lethal one—on a much larger scale—is utopian politics. Kekes devotes a fascinating chapter, “Perilous Dreams,” to Robespierre and the Jacobins, whose fanaticism anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism. Kekes unsparingly details the atrocities of Robespierre’s two-year reign—women raped, children killed or mutilated, prisoners disemboweled before howling mobs.
What licensed the brutality was the Jacobins’ ideological approach to politics. Robespierre and his followers, like left-wing revolutionaries since, divided the political world in absolute terms. “All political choices of the time were interpreted as choices between morality and immorality, good and evil, virtue and vice,” writes Kekes.
“The choices Robespierre favored were of course on the side of the angels, so his opponents could be demonized.” Illustrating this chilling logic, Kekes offers the words of St-Just, Robespierre’s close ally: “The republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.”
But is it right to call Robespierre evil, his apologists ask? Wasn’t he seeking a better, fairer society? Kekes will have none of it. “Robespierre had people lynched, buried alive, hacked to pieces, slowly drowned, publicly humiliated, and parts of their still-warm bodies devoured by the mob,” he observes. Whatever justification one might offer “cannot even begin to account for the savage, inhuman cruelty and ferocious malevolence” of his actions. Even if it were necessary to kill his victims—not that it was, of course—the wild excess of the harm he and the Jacobins inflicted reveals the moral truth. The same kind of excesses characterized the actions of Kekes’ other evildoers.
Consider the “dirty warriors” of Argentina’s military junta during the late 1970s. Committed to national and military “honor”—a concept that when perverted becomes a third source of potential evil, Kekes believes—they used kidnapping, gruesome torture, and murder to eradicate subversives (dropping bound victims out of airplanes to drown in the ocean was a preferred method of killing). The junta defined subversion so loosely that anyone who disagreed with the dirty warriors’ vision of politics became a potential victim.
Here, too, politics became a battleground between good and evil, making “toleration, compromise, and moderation impossible.” And religious faith can encourage evil, too, as we are reminded daily in our struggle with Islamist terror. Kekes’ example of religiously inspired atrocities is the thirteenth-century Catholic Church’s crusade against the Cathars, which wiped them out—along with many who had little or nothing to do with them.
Read it all.