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Kekes on Religion and Evil
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Kekes on Religion and Evil

The problem of evil is often thought to be a peculiarly theological problem, in at least two respects. First, it is held that evil is a "problem," philosophically anyway, only insofar as its existence seems hard to reconcile with the existence of an omnipotent and all-good God. For those who do not believe in such a God, the bad things that happen in the world remain a practical problem, of course, but not an intellectual one. Second, the very concept of "evil" seems itself inherently theological, essentially linked to such other theological concepts as sin and the demonic. For those who deny the existence of a divine lawmaker to whom we are responsible, or of the Devil and fallen angels generally, while there exist various human follies, vices, and pathologies, natural catastrophes, and the like, there is no such thing as evil per se. The follies and vices can be remedied by appropriate educational measures, the pathologies through drugs and psychiatry, and the natural catastrophes by improvements in technology. Guilt, responsibility, judgment, punishment, and the other conceptual concomitants of talk about evil, if they are notions having any application at all outside a traditional religious context, are of secondary importance and must be reinterpreted in a manner consistent with the rationalistic and therapeutic spirit of our secular age.

In his book The Roots of Evil (2005), John Kekes takes a different view. Writing from a decidedly irreligious perspective, he nevertheless wants both to affirm the existence of evil and to suggest that it poses a problem even for a secularist worldview, albeit a problem for which he thinks he has a solution. For Kekes, "evil" is just serious and excessive harm to others committed with malevolent intent and without any morally acceptable excuse; and it is obvious that evil in this sense exists. Evil in this sense also goes far beyond ordinary moral failure or vice, and those who perpetrate it deserve in Kekes's view to be held responsible and, indeed, condemned. Kekes thus has no truck with the idea that those who do evil are as much the victims of circumstances outside their control as are those whom they victimized, so that bad genes, bad social conditions, and other impersonal forces alone deserve whatever "blame" we'd like to measure out. For Kekes, the existence of evil entails the existence of evildoers, and he has no qualms about labeling them as such.

It is no surprise, then, that Kekes rejects the post-Enlightenment tendency to assume that what has traditionally been labeled evildoing stems from nothing more than irrationality and ignorance, and can be eliminated if only the right educational and other social conditions are established. Indeed, he allows that, given the sorts of circumstances in which at least many evildoers find themselves, evildoing can seem to be a "natural and reasonable reaction" (219); the demands of morality, in his view, are not necessarily the demands of reason. Accordingly, the "secular problem of evil" he wants to solve is the problem of explaining how evil can be dealt with when one rejects both the traditional religious understanding of evil and the common post-Enlightenment rationalistic and therapeutic understanding of it. In particular, it is the problem of explaining how, if evildoing is not necessarily irrational, a secular reason might be given to actual and potential evildoers to persuade them to refrain from evil.

In the course of developing his argument, Kekes has many wise and worthwhile things to say, especially in criticism of the naïve optimism he sees in so much post-Enlightenment thinking about evil. Still, his own alternative is (perhaps knowingly) somewhat anti-climactic, amounting to little more than the suggestion that since evildoing is (in his view) not inherently irrational, it will always be a threat, so that we must simply try the best we can to foster a sense of fellow-feeling in society at large and make the costs of doing evil high enough that those who do not share such feelings will be deterred. This might seem to be pretty thin gruel, but it is unlikely that any other secular account could...