Vessels of Evil

Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust

Copyright Date: 1993
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Vessels of Evil
    Book Description:

    Two profound atrocities in the history of Western culture form the subject of this moving philosophical exploration: American Slavery and the Holocaust. An African American and a Jew, Laurence Mordekhai Thomas denounces efforts to place the suffering of one group above the other. Rather, he pronounces these two defining historical experiences as profoundly evil in radically different ways and points to their logically incompatible aims.

    The author begins with a discussion of the nature of evil, exploring the fragility of human beings and the phenomena of compartmentalizing, unquestioning obedience to authority, and moral drift. Citing compelling examples from history and contemporary life, he characterizes evil acts in terms of moral agency, magnitude, and intent.

    With moving testimony, Thomas depicts the moral pain of African Americans and Jews during their ordeals and describes how their past as victims has affected their future. Without invidious comparison, he distinguishes between extermination and domination, death and natal alienation, physical and mental cruelty, and between being viewed as irredeemable evil and as a moral simpleton. Thomas also considers the role of blacks and Jews in the Christian narrative.

    In Vessels of Evil, Thomas also considers the ways Jews and blacks have gone on to survive. He analyzes the relative flourishing of Jews and the languishing of blacks in this country and examines the implications of their dissimilar tragedies on any future relationship between these two minorities.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0585-2
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. Part I: On Becoming an Evil Self
    • 1 Two Faces of Evil: An Introduction
      (pp. 3-13)

      This is a study in evil. If wide-ranging diversity is the mark of humanity, then perhaps the price that is to be paid for such diversity is the capacity for evil itself. For in the name of difference, numerous atrocities have been committed. In this book, only two of these will be discussed: American Slavery and the Holocaust (which I will not always list in the order of temporal occurrence, as I have just done). A person with a quite different set of moral sensibilities might very well choose to focus on the atrocities that were committed by the Turks...

    • 2 The Human Condition
      (pp. 14-43)

      Many suppose that human beings are naturally evil. By this it is meant that human beings are, at best, indifferent to the suffering they cause other humans and, at worst, they delight in such suffering—they find the suffering they cause others naturally satistying. For some this view of naturalness is grounded in human biology. More particularly, aggression is said to serve the survival of the species. And it is deemed to be a rather small and obvious step from innate aggression to evil behavior. For others, the naturalness of evil is to be explained by way of the JudeoChristian...

    • 3 The Moral Community
      (pp. 44-72)

      A community is not simply a collection of individuals residing in a limited and well-defined geographical space. Like a large choir, the whole of a community is greater than, or certainly different from, the mere sum of its members. The choir analogy is most apt, for while in most instances each voice by itself is of little importance, there can be no doubt that taking away a number of voices of little importance in themselves will have a disastrous result for the choir. No voice alone, however beautiful, can produce a sound of harmony. No voice, however mellifluous, can produce...

    • 4 Characterizing Evil
      (pp. 73-91)

      It is striking that while theories of the good are legion, philosophers have said precious little about evil outside a theological context.¹ I suggest that an evil act is rather like an Aristotelean virtuous act—that is, an Aristotelean virtuous act turncd inside out. I should prdcr to talk about evil acts rather than evil evcnts. Events range over moral agents, as well as conditions for which moral agency is impossible or very much a matter of dispute. A world without moral agents would in my view be a world in which evil could not occur, albeit lots of harm...

    • 5 The Psychology of Doubling
      (pp. 92-114)

      The notion of doubling in connection with the concentration camps was introduced by Robert J. Lifton in his bookThe Nazi Doaors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide(New York: Basic Books, 1986). The core idea is that there are two selves in the life of a single individual: a self of good and a self of evil. The wordstwo separate selvesare somewhat misleading. It is not that neither self knows what the other is doing. Rather, it is that a person’s behavior is so baldly and significantly incongruous in an ongoing way in terms of displaying...

  5. Part II. The Institutions
    • 6 American Slavery and the Holocaust
      (pp. 117-147)

      I shall focus upon two ways in which American Slavery and the Holocaust were fundamentally different from one another. I shall begin with an account of the conception that each institution had of its victims. Then I shall examine the way in which each institution treated its victims. As one would imagine, the conception that each institution had of its victims is most relevant here. A third difference to be discussed concerns what I call natal alienation, which I shall take up in the following chapter.

      The account that follows is not meant to be an indictment of every German...

    • 7 Murderous Extermination and Natal Alienation
      (pp. 148-166)

      Death has no equal in foreclosing options. Whatever may follow this life on earth, human beings know not of it. Death is so dreaded that even in the depths of moral squalor around them, it is rare for people to take their own lives; and when they do, we are often inclined to think that they have performed an act of courage. Slaves did not rush to take their lives during either American Slavery or the Middle Passage voyage from Mrica that preceded it. Jews during the Holocaust did not rush to take their lives, though conditions of the concentration...

  6. Part III. Surviving into the Future
    • 8 After the Ashes
      (pp. 169-189)

      If American Slavery and the Holocaust were equally wicked institutions, how does one explain the radical difference in the way blacks and Jews have survived their respective evils, certainly in the United States? Of course, the fact that two institutions were on a par in terms of evil hardly entails that the victims of each should recover in the same way and at the same rate, if only because the differences between institutions can affect their victims in radically different ways. Still, the question does not lose its force. On the whole it would seem that Jews have flourished since...

    • 9 The Fate of Blacks and Jews
      (pp. 190-206)

      I believe that it is not possible for a people who have been profoundly oppressed to flourish as a group in a relentlessly hostile society—at least not in the absence of an independent narrative. While it should come as no surprise that I think this, in view of in the preceding chapters of this section, I have not fully supported this view. I want to do so now. Essentially, I believe the problem of cooperation is not unlike the famous prisoner’s dilemma discussed in game theory.

      Very informally, the prisoner’s dilemma is this. There are times when it is...

  7. Name Index
    (pp. 207-208)
  8. Subject Index
    (pp. 209-211)