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  • The Fragility of Elementary Decency:Reflections on John Kekes’ The Roots of Evil
  • Bruce P. Frohnen (bio)

John Kekes' The Roots of Evil belongs within a worthy tradition of moral and political thought best described as skeptical conservatism. From Hume through Oakeshott, a series of important thinkers have, in effect, urged people to restrain their appetites—philosophical as well as psychological and physical—in order to maintain social and political peace. Only in this way, the argument goes, can any of us pursue any vision of the good we may have, because only in this way can we maintain the physical safety necessary to go about our lives.

Kekes' Roots of Evil is an important contribution to this discussion, not least because it serves to thicken the skeptical view of the person through its examination of humanity's darkest aspects. He begins with a sensible definition of evil actions as involving malevolent motivation, serious, excessive harm and a lack of morally acceptable excuse (2). Evil is a problem for all persons because it "is an attack on the fundamental conditions of human well-being, conditions that must be met" before we can pursue other questions of life, such as those involving political and theological goods (2). But evil is rooted in our nature and can not be eliminated by setting up any "perfect" social order that might somehow change that nature. The best we can do is to construct external conditions that will give individuals reasons for avoiding evil actions, knowing that we will, in many particular instances, fail.

Kekes traces evil to several sources: fanaticism, rooted in faith or false reason (I would argue in both cases a combination of lust for power, other vices, and ideology or false visions of reality); ambition in circumstances of evil; rapacious envy; an exaggerated, depraved sense of honor; and boredom. Kekes offers a subtle and penetrating analysis of the similarities and differences among the evil acts and actors he discusses. But I think it is fair to say that the psychological key, for him, is the lack, in all these cases, of proper self-knowledge and self-control (82).

Thus Kekes presents an admirable argument for an admirable ethic of self-knowledge and restraint. My question in regard to Kekes' book in particular, as in regard to skeptical conservatism more generally, is whether the emphasis on the need to restrain our darker side provides sufficient grounding for a viable social order. I think not, primarily because the elementary human decency Kekes so highly and rightly values is both more fragile and more deeply, culturally rooted than he allows. Moreover, the skepticism so central to his argument undermines the complex of integrated emotional and rational attachments on which the moral norms necessary for social peace depend. As human flourishing requires peace, so peace itself is not possible without a higher, integrative narrative, higher ends and a vision of the good that encompasses moral consensus more than minimal order, and that Kekes seems to find both irrational and dangerous.

Reason and Passion

Central to Kekes' analysis is his emphasis on the distinction between reason and passion. He argues, for example, that it is perfectly rational for people to prefer a life of evil to a life of boredom, "although of course they are immoral" for so doing (116). Indeed, the threat of evil is permanent, for Kekes, precisely because reason alone is not sufficient to prevent individuals from choosing it. Yet society must strive to prevent or at least minimize evil in order to maintain limits on human conduct "that protect minimum conditions of human well-being" (130). It is precisely restraint from conduct undermining these minimum conditions that, for Kekes, constitutes morality (126). Societies, then, must establish policies such that individuals have good reasons not to choose to do evil. But there remains the chance that circumstances, miscalculation or perverse choice will produce evil (232–33).

Passion in particular can push one to do evil (42). Robespierre, for example, latched onto an ideology "whose constituents form a coherent whole. Its coherence enabled him always to know and say where he stood on particular political issues and why. This made him formidable, a forceful...


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