Thinking about evil in history (Kekes)

I am currently grappling with how to bring the horrendous events of the twentieth century into the philosophy of history. After doing a lot of reading about recent thinking about the Holocaust (link), it seems clear that we still have failed to fully comprehend the atrocities of the Nazi period, Stalinist rule before and after World War II, and many other episodes of genocide, mass murder, and enslavement in the past century. Only the idea of radical evil seems to remotely capture these historical atrocities. I’ve added two sections to my article on the philosophy of history in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to address this set of problems; link. But these lines only serve to introduce the subject; much more remains to be done.

The “problem of evil” has a long history of discussion and debate in theology and in philosophy. However, the perspective I take on atrocities is entirely secular and non-religious, so theological debates are not relevant to my analysis. And much philosophical discussion of the topic of evil occurs at a highly abstract and conceptual level, which is likewise not very helpful to my topic. However, a recent book in philosophy that I have found useful is John Kekes’ The Roots of Evil (2007).

Kekes’ book is interesting for three primary reasons. First, he provides six case studies of evil events in history, for which he provides fairly extensive historical detail. Second, he focuses the problem on the question of “why” the perpetrators did what they did. And third, he attempts to present and refute a handful of existing theories of evil actions, all of which he finds wanting.

Kekes offers a precise working definition of what he means by “evil”, a definition that separates it from a religious or theological context. He argues that the idea comes down to three necessary and jointly sufficient conditions:

The evil of an action, therefore, consists in the combination of three components: the malevolent motivation of evildoers; the serious, excessive harm caused by their actions; and the lack of morally acceptable excuse for the actions. (2)

(Parenthetically — I’m generally unpersuaded by overly precise definitions offered by philosophers. Most interesting concepts don’t have “necessary and sufficient conditions” that define and exhaust their meaning. And that seems true in the case of the concept of evil as well. The working definition that I prefer is less precise: “cruelty on a massive scale, including systematic torture, murder, starvation, and enslavement of ordinary, innocent human beings”.)

The cases of atrocity that Kekes presents make for hard reading, because they involve horrific cruelty and human suffering. But, of course, this is why they represent evil. Here are the cases that he presents:

  • The Cathar Crusade (1200)
  • The Terror conducted by Robespierre during the French Revolution (1792)
  • The actions of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka
  • The Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and others
  • The “dirty war” conducted by the Argentinean army, navy, and air force
  • The psychopathic violence of convicted murderer John Allen

These cases give Kekes’ discussion a specificity and detail that is often lacking in philosophical discussions of evil.

Kekes focuses on the psychological causes of evil-doing — psychological propensities and motivations:

My aim is to provide a causal explanation of why evildoers do evil. There are excellent recent works giving historical accounts of past explanations, but they are relevant to my aim only insofar as they contribute to the right explanation or illustrate mistakes. The facts I appeal to are psychological propensities familiar to normally intelligent people, not the fruits of research or deep reflection. Common knowledge of them makes it possible for novelists, playwrights, biographers, and historians to write about the character, motivation, and actions of people at places and times other than their own and feel confident about being understood. I have in mind such propensities as desiring a meaningful life, needing to be loved, having conflicting motives, deceiving oneself, wanting to appear other than one is, being ignorant of some of one’s motives, resenting injustice, embellishing the past, fearing the unknown, minding defeat, caring about the opinion of others, and so forth. These propensities are commonplaces of human psychology, but they also have moral significance. (7-8)

He considers a handful of theories of the psychological basis of evil actions, which he finds inadequate. And he considers the theological and quasi-theological theories that have been offered in the past — e.g. “the world is an inherently good place” — which he rejects. In place of these traditional theories he offers his own “mixed and multicausal” theory of evil actions:

The explanation of evil has the following general characteristics: it is

  • mixed because it involves the combination of internal-active, internal-passive, external-active, and external-passive conditions;
  • multicausal because the conditions that jointly cause it vary with individuals, societies, times, and places;
  • particular because it involves the detailed consideration of conditions that differ from case to case. (243)

There are two specific points that I find most useful in The Roots of Evil. First, Kekes rejects the relevance of moral relativism in the discussion of evil (as I do):

Slavery, clitoridectomy, blood feuds, assassination, terrorism, mutilating criminals, persecuting religious dissenters, torturing captives, holding innocent people hostage, dooming children to life as prostitutes or castrati are also culturally conditioned practices, but they are evil. The toleration of such evils, the implausible attempts to excuse them, and the reluctance to condemn them endanger civilized life by countenancing the violation of the physical security of their victims. Morally committed people ought to be intolerant of such evils. Those who mouth the catch-phrases of toleration avert their gaze from evil. (214)

The way I would put the point about relativism goes along these lines: In considering terrible events in the past, it is necessary to acknowledge the two perspectives (participant and observer). As became evident in an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians (link), the authors and perpetrators of horrific acts in the past sometimes choose to perform these acts within a moral worldview that they believe justifies their actions. However, we can dispense altogether with the question of moral relativism. It is perfectly reasonable for us in the present to judge that these practices and actions in the past were wrong and unjust (slavery, genocide, deliberate starvation, mutilation, …), whether or not participants at the time found these practices morally acceptable. Their moral frameworks were defective and corrigible.

And second, Kekes places “decency” and “moral imagination” at the center of what is needed if we are to learn from the historical experience of evil.

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that if moral imagination had enabled evildoers to understand better their victims and their own motives and to realize that they had attractive alternatives to evildoing, then they would have been less likely to become or to continue as evildoers…. Moderately intelligent people have the capacity of moral imagination, but like other modes of imagination, it has to be cultivated. (237)

We can cultivate moral imagination by paying attention to the realities of the experience of other human beings — through our personal experience, through literature, and through the horrors of the histories of the Cathar Crusade or the Argentinian “dirty war”. Human beings are not fixed in their moral capabilities; rather, we can gain compassion and resist the impulses towards participating in evil actions.

The cultivation of moral imagination in this way provides not only personal enrichment but also a moral force that can help make lives better and cope with evil. By increasing self-knowledge, presenting attractive alternatives to evildoing, and providing a basis for the comparison, contrast, and criticism of one’s own way of being and acting, moral imagination helps to avoid the falsifications involved in unintentional evildoing. (238)

This observation about the cultivation of moral imagination points in the direction of a view of how it is possible to learn from history. Learning and confronting the horrific circumstances of the massacres of the Cathars, the torture of Argentine leftists, or the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian peasants, unavoidably brings us to a more vivid understanding of the moral evil of those events: the pain, suffering, and loss that these actions created for human beings much like ourselves. The strongest impression I took away from Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Eichmann is the utter lack of sympathy, pity, or compassion he showed for the victims of his activities. Atrocities often depend on the total dehumanization of the victims, and compassion makes it more difficult to accomplish that trick.

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