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The Roots of Evil
by john kekes
cornell university press, 261 pages, $29.95

Prowling Washington’s poorer neighborhoods some years back, John Allen raped, stole, mugged, assaulted, pimped, and dealt narcotics, until a bullet in the spine, received during a botched robbery, crippled him. Confined to a wheelchair, he found he really missed the criminal life. “It was really something, but it was a lot of fun,” he reflected. “I know one thing: Out of all the things I’ve done—and I done more bad than good—I done some cruel things, I done some unnecessary things, but I am not really sorry for maybe three things I done my whole life. ‘Cause I like to have fun in my life.”

Ask around a typical university humanities department or a big liberal foundation what kind of man John Allen was, and you might hear something about how our unfair society gave him no option other than predation or about how he desperately needed therapy. You probably won’t hear much about his being evil, though. The word “evil” seems out of fashion these days (except perhaps to describe George W. Bush). Even Islamic terrorists busily blowing up innocent children and mothers tend to get a verbal pass.

The moral and political philosopher John Kekes rejects this thought-killing nonjudgmentalism. Evil exists, he says, and philosophy has the job of explaining it. And that is what his serious and humane new book, The Roots of Evil, sets out to do.

From the outset, Kekes sets himself against most Enlightenment and religious accounts of evil. Enlightenment thinkers tended to view human nature as intrinsically good, while evil was a product of a flawed social order: Fix society and evil will vanish. Kekes, by contrast, sees evil as ineradicable, though he believes we can ameliorate its worst effects. Similarly, Kekes (a nonbeliever) claims, religious theories that posit the goodness of creation run aground: The “very existence of evil . . . constitutes a reason against believing in a morally good order.”

Actions are evil, he asserts, if they combine three basic features: the “malevolent motivation” of actors, the “serious excessive harm caused by their actions,” and the lack of a “morally acceptable excuse for their actions.” On these terms, Allen’s actions were unambiguously evil: He self-consciously chose to hurt people for his own enjoyment. One must be realistic about human nature: Human beings are capable of magnanimity and mercy; they can also be stone-cold killers.

In Kekes’ view, Allen’s thuggery exemplifies the evil that can result from “disenchantment with ordinary life.” Boredom is an underappreciated source of wickedness. But there are many others, Kekes says, and he explores five more. A particularly lethal one—on a much larger scale—is utopian politics. Kekes devotes a fascinating chapter, “Perilous Dreams,” to Robespierre and the Jacobins, whose fanaticism anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism. Kekes unsparingly details the atrocities of Robespierre’s two-year reign—women raped, children killed or mutilated, prisoners disemboweled before howling mobs.

What licensed the brutality was the Jacobins’ ideological approach to politics. Robespierre and his followers, like left-wing revolutionaries since, divided the political world in absolute terms. “All political choices of the time were interpreted as choices between morality and immorality, good and evil, virtue and vice,” writes Kekes.

“The choices Robespierre favored were of course on the side of the angels, so his opponents could be demonized.” Illustrating this chilling logic, Kekes offers the words of St-Just, Robespierre’s close ally: “The republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.”

But is it right to call Robespierre evil, his apologists ask? Wasn’t he seeking a better, fairer society? Kekes will have none of it. “Robespierre had people lynched, buried alive, hacked to pieces, slowly drowned, publicly humiliated, and parts of their still-warm bodies devoured by the mob,” he observes. Whatever justification one might offer “cannot even begin to account for the savage, inhuman cruelty and ferocious malevolence” of his actions. Even if it were necessary to kill his victims—not that it was, of course—the wild excess of the harm he and the Jacobins inflicted reveals the moral truth. The same kind of excesses characterized the actions of Kekes’ other evildoers.

Consider the “dirty warriors” of Argentina’s military junta during the late 1970s. Committed to national and military “honor”—a concept that when perverted becomes a third source of potential evil, Kekes believes—they used kidnapping, gruesome torture, and murder to eradicate subversives (dropping bound victims out of airplanes to drown in the ocean was a preferred method of killing). The junta defined subversion so loosely that anyone who disagreed with the dirty warriors’ vision of politics became a potential victim.

Here, too, politics became a battleground between good and evil, making “toleration, compromise, and moderation impossible.” And religious faith can encourage evil, too, as we are reminded daily in our struggle with Islamist terror. Kekes’ example of religiously inspired atrocities is the thirteenth-century Catholic Church’s crusade against the Cathars, which wiped them out—along with many who had little or nothing to do with them.

Ambition and envy can also lead to evil actions. Kekes shows how a desire to please superiors and make a name for himself made it possible for Nazi officer Franz Stangle—a devoted family man—to supervise the extermination of Jews in Treblinka. Stangle knew that what he was doing was monstrous. But as Kekes explains, he built a “protective shield” between his actions and himself.

“This enabled him to prevent the knowledge of the nature of his actions and his feelings about them to affect his motivation to perform those actions, as well as to deny that his actions reflected on him.” He had a job to do. He didn’t like it, but he was going to do it well—that’s just the way he was. He focused on his garden to quiet his conscience. Charles Manson’s career frustrations—he so wanted to be a rock star, but he had no talent—helped spark the murders he and his counter-cultural “family” carried out in California in the summer of 1969.

The second half of The Roots of Evil elaborately develops a secular theory of evil out of Kekes’ examples. His conclusion: Evil is multicausal, brings together individual and social factors (Robespierre probably would have lived out his life as a harmless provincial lawyer if not for the French Revolution), and is particular (every act of evil has its own story).

Since it reflects aspects of human nature—envy, ambition, the need for belonging—evil is a permanent threat. We can best combat it, Kekes believes, by cultivating “moral imagination,” by which he means “the attempt to appreciate other ways of life by coming to understand them from the inside as they appear to those who are actively engaged in them.” An education in the literary and philosophical classics helps nourish the moral imagination. Though Montaigne’s name never comes up in The Roots of Evil, his spirit of decency and moderation runs through its pages and through Kekes’ thought generally.

There is much to admire in this lucid and morally serious book. Its concreteness sets it apart from the arid abstraction of many works of analytic philosophy. Its insistence on the existence of evil is refreshing in an age of academic relativism. Its modest conclusions are wise and generally right.

Unfortunately, as in his previous works, Kekes exhibits here a kind of tone-deafness about religious thought and practice. All religious orthodoxy appears to him as a kind of mental zombism, as in this strange passage: “Devout Catholics, orthodox Jews, fundamentalist Protestants, or Shiite Muslims . . . are told what to do and they do it. They have not themselves ‘designed and thought’ of their actions. They do what is expected of them. And if they are in doubt, they ask their superiors or moral authorities, and they tell them.” In his chapter on the annihilation of the Cathars, Kekes actually seems to think that Catholics believe that papal infallibility extends to anything popes do or say.

Now, some of the smartest, most reflective folks I know are religiously orthodox. The notion that the existence of evil renders absurd any religious worldview that posits the goodness of creation—or even the goodness of a creator—is unpersuasive in the extreme. Kekes neglects the Christian idea that God gave us the gift of freedom, separating us from the animals. Without the possibility of choosing between good and evil, freedom becomes meaningless. Kekes’ account of the roots of evil may be superior to naive Enlightenment theories of man and society, but it leaves sophisticated religious theories of evil, which recognize man’s fallen nature, untouched—indeed it unconsciously echoes them.

Despite this weakness, The Roots of Evil is an important book. Like Kekes’ previous books on liberalism and conservatism, on the art of life, on the illusions of egalitarianism, and on many other topics, it will reward religious and secular readers alike. At a time when evil acts—beheadings, suicide bombings, torture chambers—dominate headlines, John Kekes’ evocation of elementary decency is salutary.

Brian C. Anderson is senior editor of City Journal and author of South Park Conservatives: the Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias.