The Roots of Evil

The Roots of Evil

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Cornell University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Roots of Evil
    Book Description:

    "Evil is the most serious of our moral problems. All over the world cruelty, greed, prejudice, and fanaticism ruin the lives of countless victims. Outrage provokes outrage. Millions nurture seething hatred of real or imagined enemies, revealing savage and destructive tendencies in human nature. Understanding this challenges our optimistic illusions about the effectiveness of reason and morality in bettering human lives. But abandoning these illusions is vitally important because they are obstacles to countering the threat of evil. The aim of this book is to explain why people act in these ways and what can be done about it."-John Kekes

    The first part of this book is a detailed discussion of six horrible cases of evil: the Albigensian Crusade of about 1210; Robespierre's Terror of 1793-94; Franz Stangl, who commanded a Nazi death camp in 1943-44; the 1969 murders committed by Charles Manson and his "family"; the "dirty war" conducted by the Argentinean military dictatorship of the late 1970s; and the activities of a psychopath named John Allen, who recorded reminiscences in 1975. John Kekes includes these examples not out of sensationalism, but rather to underline the need to hold vividly in our minds just what evil is. The second part shows why, in Kekes's view, explanations of evil inspired by Christianity and the Enlightenment fail to account for these cases and then provides an original explanation of evil in general and of these instances of it in particular.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7131-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introduction: The Problem and the Approach
    (pp. 1-8)

    Evil has an ominous connotation that goes beyond badness. It is perhaps the most severe succinct condemnation our moral vocabulary affords, so it should not be used casually and the conditions of its justified ascription should be made clear. Evil involves serious harm that causes fatal or lasting physical injury, as do, for instance, murder, torture, and mutilation. Serious harm need not be physical. But since judging the seriousness of nonphysical harm, such as loss of honor, happiness, or love, involves complex questions, I shall concentrate on simple cases of physical harm whose seriousness is as obvious as it is...

  5. Part One FORMS OF EVIL

    • CHAPTER 2 The Sleep of Reason
      (pp. 10-28)

      The Cathars lived in Languedoc in southern France during the decades before and after a.d. 1200. They formed a religious sect based on the belief that there was a radical difference between the spiritual and material worlds. The spiritual world was created and ruled by God, and it was good. The material world was created and ruled by the Demiurge, and it was evil. In human beings, these two worlds met. The soul was potentially good because God implanted in it consciousness of the good. But the body and all its functions were evil, as a result of being the...

    • CHAPTER 3 Perilous Dreams
      (pp. 29-46)

      The preceding chapter dealt with the pitfalls of faith. Given human fallibility and predisposition to vices, we should take great pains to examine our motives, especially when they prompt actions that cause serious harm to others. In other words, we should test our motives by reason. This, of course, is not to say that reason is exempt from fallibility or that vices could not lead to the abuse of reason. The aim of this chapter is to show how reliance on reason can go terribly wrong and lead to evil no less than does reliance on faith.

      Historians customarily distinguish...

    • CHAPTER 4 A Fatal Fusion
      (pp. 47-64)

      The leaders of the Albigensian Crusade and Robespierre were both fanatics, but of quite different kinds. The crusaders were religious fanatics who relied on their unquestioned faith. Robespierre was an ideological fanatic who relied on what he mistook as reason. The first were indifferent to reason, the second abused it. In this chapter I shall consider an evildoer who was not a fanatic at all. He was an ordinary person with ordinary vices whose circumstances gave full scope to the exercise of his vices, and he far surpassed as an evildoer both the crusaders and Robespierre.

      The Nazis had two...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Revenge of Ruined Pride
      (pp. 65-82)

      It may be said that the evil inflicted on the Cathars and the victims of the French Revolution and Nazism had a political dimension. The evildoers acted as representatives of a public authority. They did what they did because they had the vices they had, but it was their political situation and position that gave scope to their vices and led to the spectacular and horrifying evil they caused. This chapter is about an evildoer in whose crimes politics plays virtually no role. The evil he caused was personal. Religion or ideology had no part in it. He had no...

    • CHAPTER 6 Wickedness in High Places
      (pp. 83-100)

      The evildoers discussed in this chapter were moderately well educated. They knew some history, and the atrocities of the Nazis were very much in their minds as they committed their own atrocities. They were self-conscious and reflective. This is one way in which they differ from the preceding cases. But there is also another difference. The crusaders, Robespierre, and Stangl tried to remain aloof from the evil they caused. They went about their ghastly task with as little personal involvement as possible. For Manson, of course, it was personal, not political, and he was anything but aloof. The evildoers of...

    • CHAPTER 7 Disenchantment with Ordinary Life
      (pp. 101-117)

      All the evildoers I have discussed so far went about their deplorable labors with grim determination. With the possible exception of Manson, they did not enjoy what they did. They saw evil as something they had to do. Any satisfaction they may have had was derived from their success in achieving their ends, but not from the means they employed. The evildoer in this chapter differs from them because he enjoys doing evil. He finds a welcome relief from an otherwise mundane life. Doing evil makes him feel fully alive, and he relishes the danger and risks he is taking....

    • CHAPTER 8 Taking Stock
      (pp. 118-133)

      In the preceding six chapters I discussed the Albigensian Crusaders, Robespierre, Stangl, Manson, the dirty warriors in Argentina, and the psychopath. These evildoers are similar in some ways, different in others. They caused serious, excessive, malevolent, and inexcusable harm to others. But they differed in their motives, times and places, positions in their societies, education, character, political and moral views, and attitudes to their evil actions. The aim of this chapter is to begin to discuss the general significance of these cases by way of transition to the more theoretical second part of the book.

      Most people most of the...


    • CHAPTER 9 External Explanations
      (pp. 135-148)

      There is no shortage of explanations of evil. Plato, the Stoics, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Butler, Kant, Bradley, and Freud, among others, have offered historically influential answers to the questions of what causes evil and why there is so much of it. There are numerous contemporary explanations as well. It is possible, I believe, to classify these explanations as being one of four types. I must qualify this at once by emphasizing that the types I have in mind are ideal. Actual explanations conform to one type or another imperfectly because they incorporate elements of the other types. But...

    • CHAPTER 10 A Biological Explanation
      (pp. 149-163)

      This chapter is a critical examination of Philippa Foot’s attempt to explain evil in natural terms.¹ It is partly an external and partly an internal explanation. According to it, evil is a natural defect that leads evildoers to act contrary to the human good. What is good is determined by the facts of human nature, and from the good follow the requirements of reason. Evil actions are contrary to nature and reason. The natural facts this explanation regards as crucial are biological. It thus attempts to explain good and evil in biological terms.

      Foot’s book supplies perhaps the most important...

    • CHAPTER 11 Internal Explanations
      (pp. 164-180)

      Internal explanations identify some psychological process within evildoers as the primary cause of evil. Such explanations, being psychological, contrast with both external and biological explanations. Internal psychological explanations may be passive or active. The passive one claims that the malfunction of the intellect or the will is the primary cause of evil. This is the explanation I will now consider. The internal-active explanation attributes evil to some psychological process that actively motivates people to perform evil actions. I will discuss it next.

      The internal-passive explanation, then, regards defective beliefs or motives as the primary cause of evil. Probably the first...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Mixed Explanation
      (pp. 181-198)

      There is a charming fable in one of John Godfrey Saxe’s poems:¹

      It was six men of Indostan

      To learning much inclined,

      Who went to see the Elephant

      (Though all of them were blind),

      That each by observation

      Might satisfy his mind.

      The first, having bumped into the elephant’s flank, declared that it was like a wall; the second concluded after groping around its tusk that it was a kind of spear; the third compared it to a snake because he felt the length of its trunk; others claimed that it was really a tree, a fan, and a rope...

    • CHAPTER 13 Responsibility
      (pp. 199-218)

      It is clear that evildoers should be held responsible for their actions, but it is not clear what that involves, what the conditions of the justified ascription of responsibility are, what may exempt evildoers from responsibility or mitigate the responsibility they have. The aim of this chapter is to give an account of responsibility that answers these questions. The account will not be a general theory because it is concerned only with moral responsibility, not with legal, political, professional, or official ones; it concentrates on responsibility for evil actions, not for merely bad actions, omissions, the performance of duties, or...

    • CHAPTER 14 Toward Elementary Decency
      (pp. 219-234)

      Throughout the book I have argued that evil presents a fundamental difficulty for the religious world view. This is not exactly news since the difficulty has long been recognized by both defenders and critics of the religious approach. Perhaps it is less of a commonplace that the secular world view also faces a fundamental difficulty on account of evil. The difficulty is not to explain how evil fits into the world view, as it is for the religious approach, but to explain how natural conditions could be transformed so as to make evil less widespread. If the religious reliance on...

  7. CHAPTER 15 Conclusion: What Is to Be Done?
    (pp. 235-244)

    Coping with evil depends on changing the conditions that cause it. Since these conditions are partly internal and partly external, changing them requires proceeding in two directions. I shall consider internal conditions and how they can be changed first, and external conditions next.

    The internal conditions include both motives actively prompting evil actions and passive resistance to recognizing that the actions are evil. Since these conditions vary with individuals and circumstances, discussion of them must be particular. This is why I have kept returning to the six cases again and again, and why I must do so once more.


  8. Notes
    (pp. 245-252)
  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 253-258)
  10. Index
    (pp. 259-261)