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  • Evil Be Thou My Good
  • C. Fred Alford (bio)

The question raised by Kekes' absorbing book on evil is the one he never answers: Is evil best understood in terms of the extreme acts of a savage few, such as Robespierre and Charles Manson, or do we best approach evil as something we all possess and express to a greater or lesser degree? In other words, is evil out there, or in here? Or perhaps both. If the answer is "both," what connects little evils, such as the hurtful and cutting remark, with big evils, such as cutting someone's head off?

Surely, you will say, whatever evil is, evil involves questions of weight and magnitude, so that a cutting remark, no matter how cruel, cannot be truly evil. Perhaps, but even if this is so, the question remains: Does continuity exist between the harm that we inflict in everyday life, and the harm that many would call evil? Does the one who writes about evil construct his or her account so as to allow for this connection, or deny it?

There are several possibilities. One could be writing about evil in order to show that it is an illusion, perhaps a dangerous one, labeling the infamous other. Fortunately, this is not Kekes' goal. One could be writing about evil to show that it exists, but that it is not a real thing that goes about on its own legs. Evil is a concept, applicable to those who commit terrible deeds of excess. This is roughly Kekes' position. Or one could be writing about evil to show that while the concept is applicable only to those who commit terrible deeds, the potential for evil resides in us all. To understand evil we should look in as well as out. This is roughly my position.

Why are these distinctions so important? First let me list the cases of evil that Kekes considers in detail. No matter what one thinks of Kekes' explanation, the case studies alone are worth the price of the book:

  • • The crusade against and mass murder of the Cathars, a religious sect, in the thirteenth century;

  • • The revolutionary terror under Robespierre of 1793–1794;

  • • Franz Stangl, who commanded a Nazi death camp in 1943–1944;

  • • The murders committed by Charles Manson and his "family" in 1969;

  • • The "dirty war" conducted by the Argentinean military dictatorship of the late 1970s;

  • • The reminiscences of a psychopathic criminal named John Allen, recorded in 1975.

Kekes' examples are obviously weighty and important. They involve, in several cases, groups, not just individuals, and Kekes is convinced that:

All the evildoers I have discussed . . . with the possible exception of Manson . . . did not enjoy what they did. They saw evil as something they had to do. Any satisfaction they may have had was derived from achieving their ends, but not from the means they employed.


Evil, in Kekes' view, is the causing of "excess harm" in the pursuit of one's ends. And the problem Kekes must solve is the discrepancy between act and belief. "If evil doers are motivated by sincere yet false beliefs," then how does one call them evil? (121). Because, says Kekes, while men like the Argentinean dirty warriors did not enjoy tormenting their victims, they understood "the suffering caused by the torture and imprisonment they inflicted" (100). Responsibility, Kekes concludes, is for the evil done, not for the causes that led to the doing of it, even though Kekes takes pains in each case to ferret out an explanation, in this case a perverse sense of honor.

Not only does Kekes take pains to ferret out an explanation, but he has a pretty good imagination for evil. Consider the following example he constructs.

Imagine, then, a man on the sixth consecutive day of torturing a woman who lies naked, stretched out on a table, her wrists and ankles fastened on hooks, so she can hardly move. He attaches electrodes to her nipples and vagina, pulls a lever, and administers electric shocks that make the woman convulse, scream, and beg him to stop. But he does not stop then, and not for several days coming, because his sense of duty...


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pp. 13-16
Launched on MUSE
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