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  • The Failures of Ethics: Confronting the Holocaust, Genocide, and Other Mass Atrocities by John K. Roth
  • Jacob Howland
The Failures of Ethics: Confronting the Holocaust, Genocide, and Other Mass Atrocities, John K. Roth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 264 pp., hardcover $39.95, paperback $24.95, electronic version available.

In 1979, John Roth published A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust. In a body of scholarship on genocide and atrocity Roth has since then followed a single “red thread” of ethical failure—“shortcomings of thought, character, decision, and action that tempt us human beings to betray what is good, right, virtuous, and just, and incite us to inflict incalculable harm” (p.1). The Failures of Ethics traces, by way of a sequence of intellectual snapshots, the arc of Roth’s reflection on these terrible betrayals. Writing in a spirit of “persistent melancholy and tenacious hope” (p. 2), Roth urges the reader to join the interminable task of salvaging our humanity, and thereby to find meaning—and even joy.

Roth’s book has two parts of five chapters each (plus prologue and epilogue). Part One, “Protesting Failures,” is bookended by chapters on the failures and betrayals of man and God; in between appear essays on rape-as-torture, racism, and murder. Part Two, “Resisting Failures,” includes chapters on Christian-Jewish relations after the Holocaust; the effects of genocide; the lessons of the Holocaust; the politics of testimony; and death and meaning. An autobiographical reflection situates each chapter within Roth’s intellectual career, giving the book the feel of a retrospective. But Roth’s desire to survey what he has accomplished over the course of his distinguished career often seems to prevent him from going beyond the level of summary.

The best parts of The Failures of Ethics reflect Roth’s acute sense of the moral implications and demands of his field. The title essay criticizes the common notion that bystanders during the Holocaust “mostly watched in silence or did their best not to see at all,” in the words of the historian Omer Bartov. Roth perceptively observes that “bystanding” involves “not so much passivity as action that trends in some directions rather than others”; it is “not a static condition but a changeable one that leads here or there in a spectrum that ranges from becoming a perpetrator to becoming a victim” (pp. 14, 15). Roth himself can adopt no such posture of moral passivity; he writes that the central “scholarly, pedagogical, and ethical imperative” in studying the Holocaust—an imperative felt by all serious students of genocides and mass atrocities—is “to getitright” (p. 156). Indeed, his pressing practical concern to help us “do better at being ‘upstanders,’ to use Samantha Power’s term” (p. 17) is evident on every page. The book is informed by some powerful poetry—Paul Hunter’s “This Failure” furnishes an apt epigraph—and includes philosophical gems like Sidney Morgenbesser’s insight that “for Kant ... ought implies can, but in Jewish ethics, can implies don’t” (p. 8); or Stendhal’s provocative remark that “the only excuse for God is that he does not exist” (p. 87). [End Page 446]

Yet readers looking for an intellectually robust examination of the historical failures and contemporary crises of ethics will be disappointed. To begin with, Roth does not explain what he means by “ethics,” and the implicit conception he seems to be working with is curiously abstract and sterile—as though ethics were something human beings must learn from a philosophy textbook or a United Nations declaration. It is strange to find the author resorting to Raul Hilberg’s assertion that moral knowledge is “in our bones” to justify the claim that “the Holocaust’s ethical absoluteness ... may be a social construction” (p. 22). For if—as Roth acknowledges (p. 21)—such knowledge grows organically from the soil of tradition, custom, and perhaps also biology, it is emphatically not a “construction,” a word that implies artificiality and some degree of deliberate rational action. That ethics is indeed an organic growth whose subspecies are conditioned by local variations in the cultural and historical soil is suggested by the Greek words ethos, “habit,” and...


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pp. 446-447
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