"History is philosophy teaching by example." (Lord Bolingbroke)

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Monday, May 29, 2006

The Roots of Evil - Book Review

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.


  • At Sun May 28, 02:03:00 PM PDT, Blogger George Mason said…

    This book is interesting enough to read, but the review suggests that the professor simply does not understand "evil" properly. As a moral philosopher, he ought to understand that concepts such as "good" and "evil" absolutely require a standard by which they can be determined qualitatively as well as their quantitative extent.

    Ayn Rand makes the point with the greatest economy of expression. Here are a very few statements taken from the Ayn Rand Lexicon.

    1. The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics--the standard by which one judges what is good or evil--is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man. Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

    2. Evil, not value, is an absence and a negation, evil is impotent and has no power but that which we let it extort from us...[T]he only weapon of its triumph [is] the willingness of the good to serve it.

    3. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.

    4. When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it's picked up by scoundrels--and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromisingly evil.

    Evil is both complex and simple, but Ayn Rand sorts it out beyond doubt. (Cf: The Virtue of Selfishness, her book on ethics).

  • At Sun May 28, 06:45:00 PM PDT, Blogger Cubed © said…

    Yeah - what he said...

    Ayn Rand not only said that human life is the "standard of the good" in a moral code, she derived it, giving proofs every step of the way.

    When she's finished, you sort of feel like the "Columbus and the egg incident" - what initially seemed a bit confusing seems so obvious once she demonstrates it and gives the proof!

    The author does a good job of giving us examples of things that are evil, but he could tighten up a lot on explaining how he arrives at his conclusions.

  • At Sun May 28, 07:39:00 PM PDT, Blogger Cubed © said…

    Sorry - I meant to say something about this statement, too:

    "Enlightenment thinkers tended to view human nature as intrinsically good..."

    Rousseau and the so-called "Romantics" (the guys who ultimately led to the Progressives), who arose during the Enlightenment, held this view, but the author is terribly inaccurate to ascribe such a view to "The Englightenment" per se.

    The "Enlightenment" gave birth to an explosion of philosophical views, including Rousseau.

    Up to that time, human kind had been viewed with distrust;things that brought joy and pleasure were regarded as sinful, man was regarded as having a great propensity for evil (you should see what Horace Mann had to say about this).

    Rousseau, whom I dislike in most ways, was part of a movement that broke from this view. They - the Romantics - tended too far in the opposite direction, giving rise to many problems in today's approach to education.

    Most Enlightenment thinkers tended to think of mankind as morally neutral, capable of going either way, depending on what they chose as their "standard of the good."


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