- Comments on The Roots of Evil
The most useful thing for me to do is to mention places in which I disagree with or would modify Mr. Kekes' very intelligent discussion, and not to emphasize our considerable areas of agreement.
1. Evil as Mr. Kekes means it—serious, excessive, malevolent, inexcusable, harm—should be counteracted and stopped. For this to happen, noticing evil and doing something about it are usually more important than worrying about causes or weighing constituent factors. Stopping it is not all that different in effect from dealing with destructive storms or beasts. One deals with human perpetrators humanely, of course, but the key is to deal with them. Sometimes Mr. Kekes' arguments so stress choice, responsibility, and motive that the basic facts of practical prevention and counterattack can become lost. The central purpose from the practical point of view should not so much be to punish evil and weigh guilt as to stop evil and try to overcome it. So, although Mr. Kekes' discussion is much more practical and concrete than the usual philosophical analyses, I wonder if it emphasizes enough the most important practical responses to evil and its threat.
2. From this practical point of view I am not sure that all of Mr. Kekes' criteria of evil need to be met in order to take strong action against what is very bad. If another country or terrorists make war on one they need to be stopped, whether or not, say, their actions are malevolent or even excessive. If one faces a child molester he needs to be stopped, whether or not what he does is equal to Mr. Kekes other examples of physical excess.
3. Intellectually, I think that Mr. Kekes' psychology vs. society/politics split is too great. It is not merely that in different regimes one expresses, say, ambition differently. It is also that in different regimes people conceive, rank, and experience passions and goods in different ways and become likely to develop different characters. This is true of love, violence, envy, learning, and so on. A reasonable society should reduce evil as Mr. Kekes understands it, and, in fact, liberal democracy was meant to and has reduced, say, religious excess. It does this by affecting character and preferences as well as by affecting institutions and opportunities for expression.
4. In this regard, although there is common ground among reasonable people that the examples Mr. Kekes' gives are evil, it is not hard to see that in his political-religious cases whatever common human sympathy exists is overwhelmed by God's word, the "truth" etc. Almost all may recognize and agree about harm, but they do not so clearly agree about excess and malevolence. One first needs a view of the propriety of equal treatment, of secular equal rights, before some of Mr. Kekes' elements of evil actually are taken as such by large numbers of men. So, I do not think that one can very easily, if at all, separate even most of his agreed on elements of evil from the modern (and to a degree the Greek) intellectual revolutions, arguments, agreements, and so on. For us, the Albigensian crusade is brutally excessive, and we are right. But its perpetrators will agree with us, and will understand that individual equality should not be violated, only when they understand things in a new, changed, way. Perpetrators of this sort need to be politically/intellectually brought to a point where they see how Mr. Kekes view is reasonable for them too.
Another way to state this is that the excess in the actions of some extreme religions is why we want to control them in advance and (if we can) make them compatible through toleration with reasoned equality. But this is to say that we are trying to bring people up to something like Mr. Kekes' reasonable and evident criteria for whom these criteria were not and are not so evident. Their not believing them does not excuse them. Or, even if one thinks it does, one then sees why one must stop and change them. Mr. Kekes' search for a more or less neutral foundation for agreement finds...