Confronting the Evil Within

The implications of evil as ordinary are numerous and frightening. As long as the potential for evil exists within, the threat of depriving innocent others of their humanity remains a vivid possibility. A simple glimpse at reality illustrates how widespread evil is in life. The actions of Hitler and Stalin are just a few examples of genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity throughout the 20th century alone. There are the massacres of Armenians, Cambodians, Gypsies, and Indonesians, as well as a different, but nonetheless present, method of evil: the millions oppressed by poverty, disease, starvation, and war. Yet there is hope in combating the evil within. By understanding our extreme potentials we can confront an ever-present evil and work towards its restraint, both individually and collectively.

Within the Holocaust, we find consolation and hope in the altruism of the few righteous Jews and gentiles who risked all to save others despite overwhelming ethics of evil, or those victims who heroically acted both individually and collectively to survive or even escape from demise among the ashes of their fellow people. We must focus our attention on these pillars of moral rectitude and redeeming integrity. They stand out against a backdrop of extraordinary evil for their selfless actions, for risking all to save another out of love and a reluctance to accept the warped morality advocating destruction of another human being and depriving the undeserving of their humanity.

The inherent danger in declaring how the ordinary person can commit the most horrendous evil stems from the common tendency to slide from understanding to excusing. Understanding such behavior as basic to human nature cannot permit the alteration of our moral judgment of these actions or actors. Ultimately, the sole measure of human nature is our capacity to do good and resist what is wrong.

Avoiding further evil requires facing evil. This in turn necessitates tracing evil from unchosen, subtle actions to the actions and vices which exert dominance. The answer lies in improving our control over our conduct and our freedom to choose good by developing a reflective temper (Kekes 225, 236). The latter imbues within us a motivation to increase self-control and restrain our reactions, while permitting greater understanding of the essential evil conditions of life. However, facing evil and approximating good requires sound moral tradition. Is this possible? Does hospitable morality, or objectivity in good and evil, exist?

In Facing Evil, John Kekes addresses the concept of summum bonum, or the existence of a best life for human beings, from the pluralist and relative perspective:

Pluralists believe that morality makes different types of claims on moral agents... The reason pluralists give against there being a summum bonum is that there are many ways of ordering and balancing various incommensurable goods in a single human life. As a result, human lives can be good in many different ways (233)."

Kekes argues against those advocating a summum bonum because it regards a specific package of goods as superior. However, he maintains that the pluralists do support the objectivity of certain, inalienable rights and oppose simple evil. He then introduces relativism as an obstacle to facing evil:

"Relativists suppose that one consequence of incommensurability of goods is that the lives that aim to embody some particular arrangement of goods are also incommensurable... Thus, according to relativists, there are different ways of life, different moral traditions, and different conceptions of good lives, and while moral criticism internal to them is possible and may even be important, external moral criticism is a sign of dogmatism, intolerance, and a noxious imperialism that attempts to impose alien standards on unwilling subjects (234)."

Indeed, the relativists offer no neutral medium or privileged goods. Therein lies the illegitimacy of the movement from pluralism to relativism. The relativist disregards the objectivity of simple evil (Kekes 234-235) Hence, the innocent can potentially be deprived of humanity, by defining evil based on what a particular culture regards as important. In other words, the relativist standpoint is faulty because by refusing the legitimacy of external moral criticism, it ignores the existance of simple evil. This in turn permits the violation of simple evil- the minimum requirements of human welfare.

In confronting evil, humanity must be opposed to simple evil and advocate the legality of moral criticism. Indeed, the objectivity of simple evil provides a crucial standard by which morality can be both judged and defined. Ultimately, in order to achieve intellectual responsibility, one must acknowledge the existance, and legitimacy, of different conceptions and varying perspectives which accept certain absolutes.

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