Wednesday, February 19, 2003

The Conservative Philosophy of John Kekes (#8)
The book Facing Evil, post B. Previous post here.

Kekes thinks it is very important to notice that philosophers and others often fail to take evil seriously enough. I have argued that the only justification for inflicting injury and death on enemy innocents during a war against an aggressor is that there is a moral failing in the aggressor society partly explained by the vices of its members. Whether he would agree with that argument, I don’t know, but Kekes thinks that this sort of increase in our scope of moral condemnation is justified by the fact that there is evil, severe and undeserved harm, caused by vicious people who are escaping the scope now. Morality must oppose that evil. But modern moral and political philosophy shows a tendency to exclude fundamental vices from blame: psychological or cognitive deficits, selfish expediency, and malevolence. These lead people to do evil - by insensitivity, laziness, and the like in the first case, by injuring others callously for one’s selfish ends in the second case, and by injuring others out of spite in the third case. These conditions of character are not chosen. The evil actions are therefore unchosen, as well. Modern philosophers often raise the threshold of blame, in order to avoid an uncomfortable concession that much for which people are rightly to be considered blameworthy, or even wicked, is unchosen evil.

Kekes is surely right that, whether by gene or upbringing, we end up with unchosen vices. The vices cause great evil, which morality ought to condemn and which philosophy therefore oughtn’t overlook. But I think Kekes feels overly perturbed by a supposed free-will problem. He thinks that the actions caused by unchosen vices are themselves often unchosen. But it isn’t so. A thug is free to do otherwise when he commits his insensitive, selfish, and hateful thugery. Because if he preferred to do so, he could refrain from committing thugery, yet he chooses not to do so. Isn’t there a gangster in West Side Story who tells the cop, “Your honor, you can’t blame me, ‘cause I’m destoibed”? Grotesquely selfish and malevolent types seem disturbed. But if that means crazy, they’re not disturbed. They’re just evil; they have deficits of caring about others. They may think little, but they make decisions. If you asked them whether they decide to do as they do, I think they would say that they do decide. So, Kekes is right, but he takes an unnecessarily concessive route to his point. In any event, what emerges is quite plausible: that there is a blindness to evil. This explains some unexpected awakenings in late September, 2001. There are large swathes of evil in the world, and certain cultural stances are crucial for reducing its concentration.

More on this question of choice and free will in the next Kekes post.