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Human PredicamentsAnd What to Do about Them$

John Kekes

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780226359458

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226359595.001.0001

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The Prevalence of Evil

The Prevalence of Evil

(p.193) 11 The Prevalence of Evil
Human Predicaments

John Kekes

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

The prevalence of evil is an unavoidable problem in our evaluative framework because two of its basic assumptions conflict. One is that human beings are basically disposed toward reason and the good. The other is that living as we think we should depends on curtailing evil. Understanding the Aztecs who were committed to reason and the good and yet committed largescale evil for centuries casts doubt on our assumptions. The Aztecs and numerous others in our own evaluative framework were led to commit largescale evil, while believing that doing so is required by reason and the good, by ideological reasons. Ideologies are dangerous because they are committed to some ideal theory of reason and the good that supposedly justifies whatever furthers the ideological goal. The optimism that pervades our evaluative framework prevents us from understanding that the causes of evil are inherent in human nature.

Keywords:   problem, conflicts, evil, definition, distinctions, Aztecs case, reasons, evaluative framework, ideology, alternative possibilities

What Is Evil?1

“Evil” is the most severe one-word condemnation in English. It refers to actions, or people, or customs, or institutions, or evaluative frameworks that are much worse than bad, worse even than very bad. Evil is caused by human beings, primarily, but not exclusively, to other human beings. Man’s inhumanity to man is not news. Its familiarity, however, does not make it easier to understand what reasons could lead some human beings to do horrible things to others when they know how horrible it would be if it were done to them.

There are, of course, reasons against doing evil, but there are also reasons for it. Evil actions may be part of the pursuit of personal goals, or they may be dictated by a political, religious, racial, or nationalist ideology. Reasons for and against evil actions conflict and force us to make choices between frustrating or pursuing a goal we have or an ideology to which we are committed. These conflicts are between strong reasons we genuinely think we have. The choices between these reasons are difficult because the reasons are our own, and whatever we decide to do will be contrary to some of the strong reasons we have.

We glean from the histories of all human societies that evil actions are and have been continuously prevalent since the beginning of whatever records we have. Sometimes they are caused by moral monsters, who do it for no other reason than they feel like it, or in unrestrained pursuit of some personal project. But individuals acting on their own behalf can cause only limited evil because their time, energy, and opportunities are limited. The worst and most widespread evil actions that have affected a far greater number of people were and are caused (p.194) by the cooperative endeavors of individuals acting as agents of an ideology. I will concentrate mainly on evil actions motivated by some ideology. I do not, of course, claim that all ideologies are malignant, nor that all evil actions are caused by ideologues.

Here are some examples of evil actions during the last hundred or so years. Between 1914 and 1918, the Turks massacred about a million and a half Armenian men, women, and children. In 1931, Stalin ordered the murder of prosperous largely Ukrainian peasants and their families, called kulaks, and about two million of them were executed, died of starvation, or deported to concentration camps where they died slowly as a result of forced labor in extreme cold and inadequate clothing. During the great terror of 1937–38, two million Russians were interrogated, tortured, and murdered at Stalin’s orders. In 1937–38, Japanese troops raped, tortured, humiliated, and murdered about half million Chinese in Nanking. In Nazi Germany, during WWII, about six million Jews, two million prisoners of war, and half million gypsies, mental defectives, and homosexuals were transported in unspeakable conditions to concentration camps where they were murdered. After India’s independence in 1947, over a million Muslim and Hindu men, women, and children were murdered in religious massacres. In the 1950–51 campaign against so-called counterrevolutionaries in Mao’s China about one million people, including entire families, were murdered, and the Great Leap Forward of 1959–63 caused the slow death of an estimated sixteen to thirty million people from starvation. Pol Pot in Cambodia presided over the murder of about two million people, once again including the aged and infants, men and women. In 1992–95, about two hundred thousand Muslims were murdered in Bosnia by Serb nationalists. In 1994, almost one million people were murdered in Rwanda. To this list of atrocities many more could be added from Afghanistan, Argentina, Chile, the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Uganda, and numerous other places.

These atrocities were not simple murders. They expressed the ill will of the perpetrators who committed them with as much humiliation and pain as was possible, given the large number of the victims. They were not isolated acts of individuals, but organized systematic patterns of the cruel murder of people simply because they belonged to a vilified ethnic group, religion, class, or nation, not for anything they have done.2

(p.195) The examples above illustrate but do not define evil. The definition I propose begins by focusing on evil actions. It identifies four features that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient to make an action evil. First, the actions cause grievous harm. In the examples above, the grievous harm is murder, but it has often been aggravated by rape, mutilation, torture, forced labor, humiliation, and so forth. Second, the victims are innocent. They suffer grievous harm only because they belong to a group singled out and persecuted by the evildoers. Their victims are not guilty of anything that would warrant the grievous harm inflicted on them. What is done to them, therefore, cannot be reasonably explained as punishment, revenge, or self-defense. Third, the evildoers are normally intelligent and not incapacitated in some way. They cannot fail to know that torture, dismemberment, forced labor under life-threatening conditions, prolonged starvation, and murder are grievous harms. If they nevertheless cause it, then their actions are deliberate. Fourth, their actions are motivated by ill will. Cruelty, envy, hatred, jealousy, malevolence, and ruthlessness, or some combination of them, are examples of active ill will. But ill will can also be passive, as in indifference, callousness, or inattention toward the grievous harm done to the victims, or in the cold, unfeeling efficiency with which it is inflicted on them. Active ill will leads to evil actions; passive ill will is uncaring about the obvious consequences of actions. The atrocities were motivated by the combination of some moral, political, or religious ideology and active ill will. The vilification of members of some group encouraged and were meant to justify large-scale evil actions. I discuss passive ill will in greater detail later.

An action is evil, then, if it deliberately causes grievous harm to innocent victims, and it is motivated by active or passive ill will. Actions that have these features may still be more or less evil, because they may differ in the quantity and quality of the grievous harm they cause, and in the degree of deliberation and ill will involved in them. In normal circumstances, evil actions cannot be reasonably excused or justified. But circumstances may not be normal, and then the vexed question of whether they can be excused or justified needs to be faced. For the moment, I note that this is one reason for the complexities of evil. Another reason is that ideological evildoers do not believe that what they are doing is evil. They believe that their victims are enemies of the great good their ideology aims to being about. Nor do ideological evildoers (p.196) believe that they are motivated by ill will. They believe that their motives are righteous, their will is good, and the grievous harm they deliberately cause is justified. Their beliefs are obviously mistaken, but they do not think so. Part of the complexity of evil is understanding what leads normally intelligent people, as evildoers often are, to hold and act on obviously false beliefs.

Isolated evil actions do not make human beings evil: they may be counterbalanced by many more good actions. It is then hard to know what should be the overall evaluation of the agents, although, of course, not of their actions. Actions may be good, evil, mixed, or neutral, even if their agents are not. But whatever the actions are, they reflect on their agents. Human beings, then, are evil if their evil actions form a lasting pattern and it is not counterbalanced by a like pattern of good actions. Customs, conventions, institutions, traditions, modes of evaluation, and evaluative frameworks are evil if they prompt those who follow them to perform patterns of evil actions. The ethnic, nationalistic, political, religious, or tribal ideologies that prompted the atrocities are evil for this reason.

The Aztecs

I have discussed the Aztecs briefly in chapter 7, but did so from the point of view of the evil Cortes and his followers did to them. I will now discuss them from the point of view of the evil they inflicted on others before Cortes destroyed them and their society. What Cortes did to the Aztecs, of course, cannot retroactively diminish the evil the Aztecs did to others. The account that follows relies on the work of Inga Glendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation.3 She is a respected historian and anthropologist.

The Aztec Empire was dominant from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Its center was where Mexico City now is. Central to the Aztec evaluative framework were rituals of exceptional cruelty inflicted on tens of thousands of victims the Aztecs have captured in incessant wars with neighboring people. The rituals involved the large-scale sacrifice of captured warriors. In one way or another, the whole population participated in the rituals. Only the priests did the killing, but they did it in plain view of the assembled people who celebrated what was done. The (p.197) killings took place not just in Huizilpochtli’s [one of their god’s] pyramid, the main site of their rituals, but also in neighborhood temples and on the streets.

The people were implicated in the care and the preparation of the victims, their delivery to the place of death, and then in the elaborate processing of their bodies: the dismemberment and distribution of heads and limbs, flesh and blood and flayed skins. On high occasions warriors carrying gourds of human blood and wearing the dripping skins of their captives ran through the streets, to be ceremoniously welcomed into their dwellings; the flesh of their victims seethed in domestic cooking pots. … [All this was done by] people notable for a precisely ordered polity, a grave formality of manner, and a developed regard for beauty (2).

After weeks in captivity, the victims

were paraded through the elaborate routines which were a prelude to their assent to Huizilpochtli’s pyramid. There they would be seized, forced back over the killing stone, a priest pressing down each limb to keep the chest tautly arched, while a fifth drove the flint blade of the sacrificial knife into the chest and dragged out the still-pulsing heart. The heart was raised to the Sun and the plundered body let to fall aside. It was then sent suddenly rolling down the pyramid steps, to be collected at the base by old men … who would carry it away through the streets for dismemberment and distribution (89). [The priest] tore the heart from the victim and with it fed the [sacred] fire. When the watching populace saw the flames leap up they all (even the babies) had their ears cut, and splattered the fast flowing blood repeatedly in the direction of the fire’s glow, intent in their turn on initiating their own individual and household relationship with this most powerful lord (238).

This was not done on rare occasions, but as a regular part of life, as long as the Aztec evaluative framework lasted. One of the reasons for the incessant wars the Aztecs waged was to obtain captives for their ghastly rituals.

What reason did the Aztecs have for their rituals? They believed that their continued existence depended on the mercy of gods whose caprice made life uncertain. Their sense of the uncertainty of life and (p.198) their fear that it may all come to an end unless the gods are propitiated by the blood of the sacrificed victims and the self-mutilation of the Aztecs—even of their infants—was one of the deepest beliefs on which their evaluative framework rested. It dictated their evaluations that overrode all other considerations.

The uncertainty of life was symbolized by the sacred fire. It was the absolute duty of the priests in charge to keep it burning. While it was burning, human life could go on and threats to it could be kept under control, but as it flickered so did human lives and fortunes. The less it flickered, the more steady human fortunes were. The sacred fire was the link between the Aztecs and their gods. The capricious gods had to be propitiated by valuable sacrifices. And that was why the sacrificial victims were honored warriors the Aztecs captured, not common people, and why even the common people mutilated themselves as a token of their submission. All the blood and the ministrations of their priests kept the sacred fire burning.

The Aztecs could not have failed to know the grievous harm they had deliberately inflicted on tens of thousands of victims, as well as on themselves, throughout the centuries. Their ill will was not active. They did not despise their victims, but valued them as worthy objects of sacrifice. Their ill will was passive, in that they were indifferent to the suffering they have inflicted on their victims. They regarded that as insignificant compared to the great good of placating the gods so that their society and its evaluative framework could continue to flourish.

What made it even more horrible is that it was refined by an aesthetic element that beautified it: elaborate ceremonial clothing, precious implements, grave and dignified manner, and a punctilious observance of the sequence of the rituals. The more beautiful it was, the more it would please the gods. It was “aesthetic, expressive, interrogative, and creative.” Interrogative because the priests could tell from how the fire flickered whether the sacrifice was well received by the gods. By enhancing the ritual with the aesthetic element, they hoped to make their offerings more attractive to the gods. They created high art. Huizilpochtli’s blood-drenched pyramid was the Aztecs’ cathedral dedicated to the glory of the gods.

As the Aztecs saw it, their horrible evil practices underpinned all else they had. If they had not offered the frequent human sacrifices that involved cutting the heart out of tens of thousands of living human beings, then they could not propitiate Huizilpochtli, and they would be (p.199) subject to the uncertainties of life that would sooner or later destroy their civilization and all they valued in life. They believed that they had to choose between what it took to propitiate the god on whose good will everything depended and forfeiting what made their lives worth living. They naturally chose the former and committed the great evils they regarded as necessary for continued divine favor.

It may occur to readers that a similar account could be given of evil actions in Christian Europe and elsewhere, but I will put that thought aside. The more basic question is whether there can be good reasons for a pattern of evildoing, regardless of whose it is. If we consider this question, we will realize that strong reasons can be and have been given both for and against patterns of evil actions. These reasons may conflict, and if we think about them deeply, we will become conflicted about our evaluation of these reasons. This will force us to make difficult choices between evaluating the relative strength of these reasons. Evaluative frameworks throughout history, as well as in the contemporary world, have often led to such conflicts and forced participants in them to make difficult choices. Do we, then, have strong enough reasons to resolve these conflicts and make the choices for or against evil?

The End of Reasons?

It may be thought that even to raise this question is to concede too much to misguided attempts to defend evil. It should go without saying that evil actions ought not be done. That does not require justification. What does require justification is doing them. This thought has been widely accepted for several reasons, one among which is Wittgenstein’s support of it. He thought that there comes a point at which everyone runs out of reasons:

If I exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’ [At that point,] what has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life.4

This raises obvious questions: what exactly are forms of life? what is the connection between them and evaluative frameworks? and why must forms of life be accepted, rather than doubted or rejected?

(p.200) I do not know how Wittgenstein would answer these questions. But there are answers that have been given in a Wittgensteinian spirit. An answer to the first question is that

the idea of a form of life applies … to historical groups of individuals who are bound together into a community by a shared set of complex, language-involving practices. These practices are grounded in biological needs and capacities, but … our human form of life is fundamentally cultural (rather than biological) in nature. … It is this vital connection between language and the complex system of practices and activities binding a community together that Wittgenstein intends to emphasize in the concept of a ‘form of life.’5

The answer to the second question might be that an evaluative framework is part of the form of life of a society. A form of life must include, in addition to the prevalent modes of evaluations, also non-evaluative demographic, geographical, historical, linguistic, technological, and other conditions which basically influence life in a society. But an evaluative framework is also a part of a form of life, and if the form of life has to be accepted, then, apparently, so must be the evaluative framework that is part of it.

This then brings us to the third question to which I find the Wittgensteinian answer most doubtful. Our form of life has to be accepted because we cannot do otherwise:

Inside the general structure or web of human attitudes and feelings … there is endless room for modification, redirection, criticism, and justification. But questions of justification are internal to the structure or relate to modifications internal to it. The existence of the general framework of attitudes itself is something we are given with the fact of human society. As a whole, it neither calls for, nor permits, an external ‘rational’ justification.6

The Wittgensteinian view is then that we can give reasons for or against evaluations, but the reasons are internal to our evaluative framework. This must be so because our evaluative framework determines what count for us as reasons. We can disagree about the relative merits of various reasons, but that is the end of the matter. Asking for reasons for reasons must come to an end. It is futile to ask for them (p.201) because if we did, and, impossible as it is, actually found some reason, then the same question would arise about that reason, and the demand for reasons would lead to a never-ending regress. We have to stop somewhere, and the reasonable stopping point is the evaluative framework that is part of our form of life and guides how we live. Others have other evaluative frameworks and from them perhaps other reasons follow, but we have ours, and we derive from it all the reasons we need and only ones we can have for our evaluations.

There are strong reasons against this view. There may come a point at which we run out of reasons, but that point is certainly not the evaluative framework we happen to have. We know that some evaluative frameworks are bad. And since we are often critical of our own we may wonder whether it may not be also bad. This is not unreasonable when we behold the injustice, harm, killings, and worse that have been inflicted and justified by reasons derived from our evaluative framework. And when our evaluative framework is called into question by our children, students, and domestic or foreign critics, we need a better answer than “this is simply what I do.”

If the Wittgensteinian view were correct, it would be unreasonable to question our entire evaluative framework. But such radical questions have been and are being asked by poets, rebels, philosophers, prophets, revolutionaries, reformers, and skeptics. Their questions cannot be disarmed by saying that they are only about some parts of the evaluative framework while they rely on other parts of it. Thoughtful critics often question all parts of it. And they could question even those parts that they themselves have accepted. Critics can be also self-critical. Countless critics have disowned their own evaluative framework and abandoned it for another they regarded as better. Surely, it is far too cavalier to condemn as unreasonable all those who emigrate, convert, lose faith, or become disenchanted because they have demanded and failed to get reasons for the evaluative framework they have come to distrust. Yet, consistency requires Wittgensteinians to do just that.

Perhaps the truth is that the demand for reasons for our entire evaluative framework cannot be met because there are no such reasons. In that case, we rely on a fairy tale we have been told, convinced ourselves of, and adhere to because we have nothing better. If true, this would be a devastating indictment of how we live, but it would not be a reason against asking for reasons for so much of what we believe and do. This is especially so if we bear in mind the widespread criticisms of how we (p.202) live now, as well as the wars, crimes, and political and social turmoil that permeate contemporary Western societies.

The Need for Reasons

Defenders of the Wittgensteinian view are right to stress that our form of life with its evaluative framework is given to us, but they are wrong to claim that we have to accept it. We should accept it only if the reasons for it are better than the reasons against it. The Aztecs have accepted their evaluative framework. If they had not, it could not have endured for centuries. Nor can it be doubted that they had reasons for accepting it. They made sense of their lives, drew the necessary evaluative distinctions, and ordered their lives in terms of the evaluations they derived from their evaluative framework. Moreover, their authorities, whom they trusted, vouchsafed for it, and its rituals appeared to them to succeed in propitiating the gods, since their lives had been going on as far as their memories could stretch back in time. But there were also reasons against accepting it.

The first reaction of someone steeped in our evaluative framework is to say about the Aztecs that regardless of what they believed and did, their beliefs were false and their actions were evil. Even if we set aside the vexing question of the existence of God or gods, it is not true that human lives and the entire world depend on the ghastly ritual murder of tens of thousands of people, on eating their flesh, and on wallowing in their blood. We know that these beliefs are false because human lives and the world have been going on both before the Aztecs and after their rituals have been consigned to the graveyard of defunct horrors.

We would say that any reasonable evaluative framework must meet certain minimum conditions, among which have to be the condemnation of Aztec rituals. The Aztec evaluative framework systematically cultivated large-scale patterns of cannibalism, self-mutilation, and human sacrifice. They deliberately caused grievous harm to innocent victims, therefore they were evil. The prohibition of evil actions is among the minimum conditions that all reasonable evaluative frameworks must met. Furthermore, the social cost of the rituals was enormous. It required training and maintaining a class of warriors who went to war to supply the victims for the ritual and a priestly class whose members sanctified the proceedings. And above them all were the few hundred (p.203) aristocrats who lived in great luxury that far exceeded what was enjoyed by contemporary European rulers, priests, and warriors. The cost of all this had to be borne by the multitude of common people (estimated at 25 million), who served the elite, produced the food, mined the gold and silver, made the weapons, built the monuments, and lived short lives close to the subsistence level.

These reasons for or against the Aztec evaluative framework conflict, but they follow from two different points of view. The reasons for it are reasons the Aztecs had. The reasons against it are reasons we have. The Aztecs were not in the position to know the reasons we have because they relied only on their evaluative framework. They believed, even if mistakenly, that the survival of their society depended on their rituals, and that justified the evil they inflicted on their innocent victims. From their point of view, that was reason enough. We cannot reasonably condemn the Aztecs for not having the reasons we have, since their evaluative framework prevented them from having it. But we can reasonably say, knowing that their beliefs were false, that there are better evaluative frameworks than the Aztec’s, and that the Aztec evaluative framework is unreasonable. We have good reasons for condemning the actions that followed from it, even if we do not have good reasons for condemning the Aztec agents who performed those actions.

This is not a conclusion that follows only from our contemporary form of life and evaluative framework. It does that, but it also does more. It follows from the human point of view. All reasonable evaluative frameworks should condemn rituals that involve the torture and massacre of innocent people, of waging war in order to obtain victims, and keeping large numbers of people in servitude in order to sustain these rituals. Evaluative frameworks that lead to valuing such practices violate minimum conditions that any reasonable evaluative framework must meet. Since this conclusion appeals to reasons that are not just internal but also external to our form of life and evaluative framework, the Wittgensteinian view is mistaken.

Matters, however, are more complex than this conclusion suggests. It might be said in defense of the Aztecs that they did not know that they were mistaken about having to propitiate their god. They had reason to believe and no reason to doubt the effectiveness of their rituals. They did not know what happened in the world before their society and its evaluative framework came in to existence, and they certainly could not know what happened after it was destroyed. They could also agree that (p.204) a reasonable evaluative framework must protect the minimum conditions under which human life can go on. And then tell their critics that they were doing just that by their rituals. They could acknowledge the enormous cost in human lives and resources of providing that protection, and say about it that they had reason to believe that the alternative to it would have been disastrous. They could reasonably deny that what they did was evil. They might agree that they deliberately inflicted grievous harm on innocent victims, but they were motivated by good rather than ill will. They acted in good faith, did as well as they could, in, what they had reason to believe, were the prevailing conditions.

Two considerations may be added to this. First, those who committed the ideological atrocities with which this chapter began could say just what the Aztecs might have said. But the ideological evildoers would make it even stronger by denying that their victims were innocent. They would say that their victims were guilty of being enemies of the great good that their ideology aimed to bring about. Second, if our hypothetical successors look back on us from a distance, say, of five centuries, they may well be as horrified by what we do in wars, in the exploitation of natural resources, and in letting technology rule our lives, as we are by the rituals of the Aztecs and their ideological atrocities.

Might it be then that the Wittgensteinian view is, after all, reasonable? I deny it on the basis of two reasons: the availability and importance of alternative evaluative frameworks, and the significance of good will that is also part of our motivation.

The Importance of Alternatives

Part of the reasons why I have discussed the Aztecs is to compare our evaluative framework with theirs. They must have had conflicts between various possibilities and made choices between them. Their conflicts and choices, however, were not as difficult as our own now are. There are two reasons for this difference. One is that they knew of no alternatives to their own modes of evaluation and evaluative framework, so they could not have examined them in the light of others. We, however, know about alternatives to ours and we can compare ours with them. The other is that the Aztec evaluative framework was hierarchical, and ours is not. In a hierarchical evaluative framework, all conflicts can be resolved in favor of what is regarded as the overriding (p.205) value. For the Aztecs, it was the propitiation of their capricious gods on whose mercy they believed they depended. We have many modes of evaluation, each has many values, and none is always overriding. And that leaves us without an obvious way of choosing between our conflicting evaluations.

Consider first the importance of the availability to us of alternative evaluative frameworks. We know a great deal about the evaluative frameworks of ancient Athens, Rome, early and medieval Christianity, Confucian China, Hindu and Buddhist India, Parsi Persia, Muslim Middle East, Japanese Shinto, Socialist Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and of the many others in early America, Africa and the South Sea Islands that generations of anthropologists have tirelessly studied. None of these, or indeed any other, was known to the Aztecs.

My point is not that it is a realistic option for most of us to cope with our conflicts, make choices, abandon what we have and opt for one of these alternative evaluative frameworks. Some few people have done that, of course, but the vast majority of us is tied by language, family, morality, politics, religion, work, comfort, education, and habit to our familiar evaluative framework. The importance for us of the availability of alternatives is that we can compare our own with them. This makes it possible for us to criticize, justify, revise, and improve our own evaluative framework. The availability of alternatives liberates us from the condition of those who are locked into their own evaluative framework without the possibility of comparing their own evaluations with those available elsewhere. We have often misused the knowledge we have acquired of other evaluative frameworks for titillation about their sexual practices, getting a frisson out of horror stories, condescending to their simple-mindedness, or using them in support of a naive relativism that refuses to make adverse evaluative judgments. Nevertheless, having the knowledge gives us important possibilities that those without the knowledge lack.

The deep mistake of the Wittgensteinian view is that it assumes that we are bound to consider other evaluative frameworks from the point of view of our own. We can and often do that, of course. But we are not doomed to be as parochial as that. We can imaginatively enter into the literature, religion, philosophy, customs, and practices of evaluative frameworks that are not our own. We can, as it were, vicariously walk in their shoes for a while, and try see the world as it appears from their point of view, not ours. This is the possibility whose importance defenders (p.206) of the Wittgensteinian view miss. Its importance is not just the description and interpretation of such alternatives—anthropologists do that very well—but that when we return home from this imaginative journey, we can see our own possibilities with fresh eyes and our conflicts and choices with greater detachment than we could muster before.

The knowledge of alternative possibilities on which all this depends yields great benefits, but it also carries with it great burdens. For with the comparisons it provides come conflicts between what we can have, given the possibilities of our evaluative framework, and what we might have if we adopt those of evaluative frameworks into which we have imaginatively entered. The resulting conflicts are not between staying here and moving there, but between remaining committed to the possibilities we have and reforming, enlarging, or replacing them by others, knowledge of which we have brought home with us. Reflective people in all but the most primitive evaluative frameworks had to struggle with the question of whether their criticisms of what they have are serious enough to call for deep changes that may endanger their entire evaluative framework. Nothing less is at stake for such people, as it now is for us, than the sense they or we have of life and of the evaluative distinctions that need to made between the good, bad, and in-between possibilities of life. The burdens that come with the growth of knowledge are conflicts about how to cope with the conflicting evaluations that follow from our nonhierarchical evaluative framework. Among the consequences of such conflicts are the difficult choice we have to make.

In hierarchical evaluative frameworks, there are conflicts but there is a clear way of resolving them. At the peak of the hierarchy there is an overriding value, Conflicts between evaluations can be resolved by deciding which of them is more important for the pursuit or the protection of the overriding value. There may be disagreements about that, but there is no disagreement about how such disagreements should be resolved. There is general agreement about the overriding value and the method for settling disagreements. The rest are matters of detail. In our evaluative framework, there are many candidates proposed as an overriding value and many methods favored for resolving conflicts among evaluations, but there is no general agreement to accept any of them. The reason for this is that our evaluative framework is not hierarchical, it has numerous modes of evaluation, and none is always overriding.

There have been and continue to be persistent tendencies in our evaluative framework to claim that conflicts among evaluations that (p.207) follow from different modes of evaluation should always be resolved in favor of the overriding mode. Such claims have been made, at one time or another, for each of our modes of evaluation. But none of these claims has been or should have been accepted by all reasonable people.

The central problem with all such claims is that those who advance them cannot give a reasonable account of the force of the “should” in their claim that the favored mode of evaluation should be overriding. If their claim is that the reason why it should be overriding follows from the supposedly overriding mode of evaluation, then they arbitrarily assume what needs to be justified. They will convince only those who already accept that their favored mode of evaluation is overriding, and then they do not need to be convinced. But if the “should” is not derived from any of the modes of evaluation, then what is the reason for it? Any such reason must ultimately appeal to some evaluation, and the same question will arise about that evaluation, whatever it is.

We should recognize, of course, that economic, legal, moral, political, religious, and other modes of evaluation are indispensable parts of our evaluative framework. But from that it does not follow that any of them should always override the others. If the conflicts concern vital matters, then reason requires resolving them in one way or another. But it is a mistake to suppose that reason always requires resolving them in the same way. Sometimes one kind of evaluation should override a conflicting one, sometimes the reverse should happen. We need to decide the relative importance of the reasons for conflicting evaluations in the context in which their conflicts occur. Contexts, of course, change, and the relevance and importance of the reasons for different modes of evaluation change with them.

In the light of these consideration, I conclude that the Wittgensteinian view is mistaken. Knowledge of alternative evaluative frameworks enables us to appeal to considerations external to our own and compare our possibilities with those of other evaluative frameworks. Reasons, therefore, do not come to an end with what we do because we could do differently.

This, however, leaves us with reasons for and against nonhierarchical evaluative frameworks. The reason against them is that they saddle us with conflicts and difficult choices between incompatible evaluations, which are familiar features of our evaluative framework. But they are wrenching, not just familiar, because most of us, who are not fanatics, are committed to several different modes of evaluation and that makes the conflicts not only public and social but also private and personal. (p.208) The availability of evaluations that follow from other frameworks and the frequency of conflicting evaluations that follow from our own make it a serious problem of how we should cope with the resulting conflicts. The Aztecs and ideologues had no such conflicts and did not have to make difficult choices. But we do. These reasons against our evaluative framework, however, are counterbalanced by reasons for it.

We have an alternative to hierarchical evaluative frameworks from which evil actions follow. We do not have to vilify people who disagree with our evaluations. We can recognize that there will be reasonable disagreements about which mode of evaluation should reasonably override others in particular contexts. That, however, still leaves us with the problem that commitment to a particular mode of evaluation in a particular context may be so strong as to be thought to justify the infliction of evil on those who oppose it. I now turn to that problem.

Good Will

We have our modes of evaluation and evaluative frameworks, and we do what we can, given the facts and our evaluations of them. But there is a set of facts whose evaluation is of exceptional importance: those involved in deliberately causing grievous harm to other human beings who do not deserve it. For the moment I leave aside the question of whether causing grievous harm is motivated by ill will. It is enough for my present purposes that these facts are and have been parts of human lives since time immemorial. The vast majority of humanity has a visceral reaction to coming face to face with the spilled blood and guts, the visible signs of excruciating pain, and the cries for mercy of the victims, especially if they are helpless children or feeble and aged. We feel pity, outrage, and even if we cannot do anything about it, we feel that something ought to be, or have been, done.

We may call what prompts this emotional reaction benevolence, compassion, fellow-feeling, pity, solidarity, sympathy, or, as I will do, good will. I do not know whether it is innate or acquired. It is not universally shared because some may be altogether without it and, others may culpably or otherwise lose it because their experiences harden them. It may be overwhelmed by ill will, such as cruelty, envy, hatred, jealousy, malevolence, and ruthlessness; or by reason; or by other urgent and pressing concerns. Good will motivates action, but the motive may not (p.209) be acted on because of fear, prudence, helplessness, or because we are at a great spatial or temporal distance from what provokes it. Good will makes us outraged by actions that deliberately cause grievous harm to innocent victims, regardless of whether they are motivated by ill will. What is important for my present purposes is that good will prompts us to challenge defenders of a mode of evaluation who, supposing it to be overriding in a particular context, think that acting on its dictates is justified even if the actions deliberately cause grievous harm to innocent people. But since this may happen in a just war, triage, or the distribution of badly needed but scarce resources, the challenge can be met. Being contrary to good will is a reason against such actions, but certainly not a conclusive one. If the actions are the least bad in wretched circumstances, then good will may actually motivate causing deliberate grievous harm to innocent people.

Good will is a reason we have for condemning an evaluative framework, regardless of whether it is our own, if it involves the deliberate infliction of grievous harm on innocent victims. But we may also have reason for defending such an evaluative framework if it enables us to live as we think we should, evaluate the possibilities of life, cope with adversities, and do not believe that there is a better alternative available. Thus we can have strong reasons both for and against modes of evaluation and evaluative frameworks, and these reasons may conflict. If we are motivated by both good and ill will, as most of us often are, and by the need to rely on the evaluative framework on which we and our society depend for living as we think we should, then our conflicting good and ill will and the conflicting reasons we have for and against our evaluative framework become conflicts within us. We have to choose between them, and the choice is difficult because so much depends on how we make it. Since conflicts between our good and ill will are frequent, as we know from personal experience, and since we often have to make difficult choices between them in particular situations—think of deep moral, political, and religious disputes—the reasonable way of coping with such conflicts and choices had to be faced again and again throughout the past and the present.

This, however, is no more than a bare beginning of grappling with the complexities involved in finding reasonable ways of coping. Both our good and ill will may be misguided. And our belief that there are or are not better alternatives available to our evaluative framework that leads to such conflicts and choices may also be mistaken. How could (p.210) we tell whether or not good or ill will in a particular situation, at a particular time, directed toward particular societies, people, or actions is misguided? Whether it is really good or ill will that motivates us or others when we or they deliberately cause grievous harm? There are no reasonable unconditional answers to these questions. There are reasonable answers but they are conditional on the context and particular circumstances.

Were the Aztecs reasonable in believing that their survival depended on propitiating their god by tens of thousands of ghastly human sacrifices and the blood-drenched rituals that accompanied them? Obviously not. They had commercial and other dealings with neighboring societies whose evaluative framework did not involve similar hideous rites, and yet they survived without them. And even if we accept for a moment their belief, it does not explain the frequency with which they murdered their victims, nor eating their corpses and cutting their children to mix their blood with their victims’. Why then did they do what they did? Because they were motivated by ill will, by cruelty and ruthlessness. The evil they inflicted on their victims was disproportionately more than their belief called for. At the foundation of their evaluative framework were orgiastic evil practices that cannot be justified.

A similar condemnation is warranted of the ethnic, nationalistic, political, religious, and tribal atrocities I listed earlier in this chapter. What was done could not be explained by the ideology alone that motivated the evildoers. To adapt a catchphrase of the gun lobby, ideologies do not kill people: people kill people. Ideologies enable them to express their ill will by providing them with a justification for it. It is enough if the ideology has a semblance of reason in its favor. The vilification of Armenians by Turks; the Chinese by the Japanese; city dwellers by rural Maoists; gypsies, homosexuals, and Jews by Nazis; the bourgeois by Communists; Hindus by Muslims and vice versa; members of a tribe by members of another tribe; one and all rest on patently false beliefs that involve indefensible generalization. It proceeds from a few individuals, who may have acted the way their persecutors condemn, to countless others who belong to the same group but have not acted in the condemned way. These atrocities were not motivated only by ideologies. Ideologies encouraged and justified the evil actions that ill will motivated evildoers to perform.

It is reasonable to condemn active ill will that has motivated evil actions in the past and the present. But what about passive ill will that (p.211) takes the form of callousness, indifference, or inattention? It enables but does not motivate evil actions. Are the reasons against it as strong as they are against active ill will? No, they are not because there are also strong reasons for it. This is one of the hard lessons that history teaches those who pay attention to it.

The great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome were based on slavery. Christendom was enabled to flourish by the feudal system that century after century doomed millions of serfs to short lives and unceasing toil that made it possible for religious and secular rulers to live piously and fight with Muslims, who were also enabled by their serfs to do the same. The settlement of America was coextensive with the murder of well over half of the native Indian population. A large majority of the natives of South America were massacred by the conquistadores. A semblance of law and order was established in Europe by the West-phalian Peace, but only after 30 years of war, disease, and starvation that killed a substantial percentage men, women, and children because they were Catholics or Protestants. England derived immense wealth from the slave trade and West Indian slave labor. The industrial revolution was enabled by the labor of children and adults during long hours, in dangerous conditions, and for barely subsistence wages dooming them short, disease-ridden, and miserable lives. The French Revolution of 1789 and the defeat of the armies of Napoleon and Hitler cost countless innocent lives. And so on.

Now consider the predicament of reflective people who lived in these circumstances. They were as committed to protecting their evaluative frameworks as we are to protecting ours. They knew that it enabled them to live civilized lives, although at the cost of causing deliberate often grievous harm to innocent people. And they let it happen because they thought that it was justified, that the protection of civilized life was more important than the lives of the victims. And that gave them a strong reason for passively condoning the ill will directed against those who seriously threatened the conditions on which the evaluative framework of life depended. Of course they also had strong reasons against it. Indifference, callousness, and inattention to the grievous injury done to innocent people in their name and for their benefit is wrong.

These reasons for and against passive ill will forced them to choose. For those who are sufficiently reflective, honest, and decent, such conflicts will not be remote and social but personal, and they will find the choices they have to make difficult. The hard lesson history teaches us (p.212) is that having to face such conflicts and make such choices are not rare episodes in life, but frequent and recurrent problems of life. In Bernard Williams’s eloquently words:

We are in an ethical condition that lies … beyond Christianity. … We have an ambivalent sense of what human beings have achieved, and have hopes for how they might live (in particular, in the form of a still powerful ideal that they should live without lies). We know that the world was not made for us, or we for the world, that our history tells no purposive story, and that there is no position outside the world or outside history from which we might hope to authenticate our activities. We have to acknowledge the hideous costs of many human achievements that we value, including this reflective sense itself, and recognise that there is no redemptive Hegelian history or Leibnizian cost-benefit analysis to show that it will come out well enough in the end.7

What, then, should we do? We should face the fact that the world is not hospitable to our endeavors. We are vulnerable to forces we cannot control. But much of what makes us vulnerable is caused by us. The great evils of human life—war, slavery, atrocities, torture, tyrannies, mass murders—are caused by human beings to other human beings. Sometimes they are moral monsters motivated by ill will. But far more often they are human beings who believe that they are acting for the good of humanity in pursuing reasonable ideals that override contrary considerations. Those who resist it must be educated, and those who remain recalcitrant must be forced to act as they would if they were reasonable enough to join the cause serving the great good of humanity. And then follow the great evils that were throughout history deliberately inflicted on those who were condemned as enemies. This should not be obfuscated by stressing that there are also good things in life.

Those who face these facts naturally ask why human beings cause evil knowing what consequences it has. The answer is that all of us are motivated by both good and ill will and whether one or the other is dominant partly depends on the evaluative framework of our society. Most evaluative frameworks proceed as if good will were dominant and ill will motivated its participants only when social arrangements were bad. But social arrangements are bad because those who make and maintain them are motivated by active or passive ill will. Bad social arrangements cannot be the causes of the frequency of ill will because (p.213) without active or passive ill will there could not be bad social arrangements.

We all have to struggle with personal conflicts between good and ill will and make choices between them that are difficult because however we make them we have to go against part of ourselves. These conflicts and choices may involve personal decisions or social arrangements, but they always take particular forms in particular contexts. Our personal response should be to do what we can to understand the details of our ambivalent motivation, strengthen our good, and weaken our ill will. Of course this is easy to say and hard to do, but that cannot be helped. The social response should be to favor social arrangements that encourage the expression of good will and discourage the expression of ill will. This is a platitude, if it remains a generality. It becomes realistic if it leads to the critical examination of particular social arrangements and to the readiness to revise or abandon them in the light of the changing conditions in particular contexts. There is, I think, some hope in this respect by the emergence of nonhierarchical evaluative frameworks. But finding a reasonable way of coping with our ambivalent motives remains as difficult as it has always been. (p.214)


(1) The discussion draws on my Facing Evil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) and The Roots of Evil (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

(2) For further examples, see, e.g., Robert Conquest, The Great Terror (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Stephanie Courtois, et. al., The Black Book of Communism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999); Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust (New York: Henry Holt, 1985); Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); Paul Hollander, ed., From the Gulag to the Killing Fields (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), and my own The Roots of Evil (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

(3) Inga Glendinnen, Aztecs: An Interpretation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). References in the text are to pages of this book.

(4) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 217 and p. 226.

(5) Marie McGinn, Wittgenstein (London: Routledge, 1997), 51.

(6) Peter.F. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” in Freedom and Resentment (London: Methuen, 1962/1974), 23.

(7) Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 166.