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  • Reply to Critics
  • John Kekes (bio)

I am grateful to the editor for inviting contributors to discuss my book, The Roots of Evil, for allowing me to reply to their criticisms, and to my critics for taking time to discuss my work. In what follows, I refer to the book by page numbers in parentheses to. The primary aim of the book is to understand evil, explain why it occurs and how it might be minimized. Its secondary aim is to show why the religious and the Enlightenment explanations of evil are inadequate. Evil is the most serious one-word condemnation our moral vocabulary affords. By an evil action I mean one that combines three components: malevolent motivation, fatal or debilitating and excessive harm inflicted on others, and the lack of morally acceptable excuse for causing the harm. Each component is necessary and they are jointly sufficient for an action's being evil. An evil person, or an evildoer, is one who habitually performs evil actions. Actions and people can be more or less evil depending on how malevolent is the motivation, how serious and excessive is the harm caused, and how extenuating circumstances may be (1–3). Evil shades into mere moral badness as the degree of evil diminishes.

Chapters 2–7 describe six concrete and horrendous cases of evildoers and their evil actions and explain the very different psychological and social roots of evildoing. Chapters 9–11 show that existing explanations of evil are inadequate because they fail to account for some of the six cases. Chapters 12–14 provide an explanation that accounts for all the previously considered cases, discuss the responsibility of evildoers, and show how evil involves the violation of elementary decency. The last chapter is about what can be done to minimize evil.

My explanation combines four components. The first is a common psychological disposition, such as having faith, following reason, being ambitious, trying to be honorable, feeling envious, or being bored. These and similar dispositions in some cases turn into ruling passions, as they have done in the six cases I describe. The second is that self-knowledge and self-control, which would normally set limits to what people may be led by their passions to do, are either poorly developed or are stifled by the passions. The third is that social conditions foster the expression of passions by vilifying some group of people. And the fourth is that the restraining force of the prevailing law, morality, and public opinion is weak and fails to deter evil actions. Since these components vary in identity and importance with cases of evildoing, there can be no single explanation that would fit all cases of evildoing. The right explanation must be multicausal to recognize the role of each of the four components; it must be particular to take into account individual and social differences; and it must be concrete to specify the actual psychological and social conditions that jointly lead to evildoing. Evildoers whose habitual actions meet these conditions should be held responsible for their actions regardless of whether they believe that their actions are justified. I conclude that the only way of minimizing evil is to change the psychological and social conditions that cause it. Changing the psychological conditions depends on the cultivation of moral imagination through liberal education so that people will understand the effects of their actions. And changing the social conditions requires deterring the violation of legal and moral restraints by swift and severe punishment.

I turn now to responding to critics. George Harris is largely in agreement with my explanation, and his contribution is not so much a criticism but an attempt to extend the explanation to two interesting and thought-provoking cases. The first is about people who have sacrificed their lives, such as soldiers in World War II, in order to protect or create opportunities for others but these others do not take advantage of the protection or of the opportunities. Harris thinks that their ingratitude makes the sacrificed lives wasted. He is clearly right, I think, that such cases occur and there may be something morally bad about them, but I am not persuaded that they are evil...


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pp. 30-34
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