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  • Evils Less Obvious
  • George W. Harris (bio)

Many foolish things are said about evil, and John Kekes has done us the favor of clearing away a good bit of the rubbish.1 The belief that evil is a demonic metaphysical force mysteriously taking up residence in human bodies is a relic of religious superstition similar to the belief in witchcraft. Proudly irrefutable and impotently predictive, it is a belief that leaves us in the lurch where the serious business of preventing evil depends on the knowledge of its causes, and like the ignorance that sustains the belief in witchcraft, it has been a fertile source of evil itself. Then there is the belief in human perfectibility central to Enlightenment views of human progress: were society properly arranged, the jails would be empty, poverty eliminated, ignorance extinguished, excellence common, and evil forgotten, all because faith in human goodness rests on the belief that human character is entirely the product of social construction. From Locke's doctrine of the blank slate to twentieth-century behaviorism to contemporary post-modernism to the sentimentality of egalitarian liberalism, faith in human goodness has its own history of retarding inquiry into the causes of evil, and as a result it obstinately refuses to accept that in the Good Society, even the Best Society, evil constantly lurks in the heart of human ambivalence, immune to all attempts to eliminate the conditions that call it to action. Unable to face the ugly facts of such ambivalence, it avoids the inquiry that would reduce what cannot be eliminated and thereby nurtures what it abhors.

These and other myths about evil are exposed by Kekes's deft analysis and relentless pursuit of the subject. In the process, he humanizes evil in ways that make its causes subject to study and its prevention a goal of reasonable action. My critical comments here are supplementary to his humanistic intent: one is a comment on what evil is and Kekes's brand of conservatism, another on evil and wasted lives, and a final one on the impurity of goodness.


Kekes is a conservative of a very distinctive sort, and what he says about evil is crucial to what sets him apart. For Kekes, evil quintessentially involves excessive, foreseeable, and inexcusable harm done to human beings (and perhaps other animals).2 That there could be victimless evil is for him incoherent. Yet for many conservatives of a much different stripe, evil is not quintessentially about harm at all. It is about sin. [End Page 1] [Begin Page 4]

Like the belief in evil-as-a-metaphysical-force and the belief in witchcraft, the belief in evil-as-sin has theological origins, and like these other theological beliefs it has corrupted our attempts to come to grips with evil itself. Of course, there is a sense in which anyone who believes that some things are wrong believes in sin, namely, where "sin" is used as a synonym for "wrong." On this understanding, excessive, foreseeable, and inexcusable harms done to humans beings are sins. That is one kind of connection between sin and evil, but it is not the kind of connection on which many conservatives insist.

There is another connection, where sin is thought of as something that is wrong independent of any effects on human beings or other animals. On this view, some things are sins (and therefore wrong) even if they cause no harm at all, they are freely and informatively chosen, and do not interfere with the free choices of other people. They are wrong because they are either sinful in and of themselves, or contravene the commands of God, or are repulsive to God and the godly. Of course, some things that are thought by the godly to be sinful in this sense are also thought by them to be harmful in standard ways. Drinking alcohol, for example, is thought by some to be both harmful and sinful. Nonetheless, for these people, drinking alcohol would be sinful and thereby wrong even if it were not harmful and even if it were consistent with autonomous human choice. For conservatives of this sort, there is a virtual laundry list of sins that...


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