Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Reflexivity of Evil*

  • John Kekes (a1)


The aim of this essay is to argue for the following claims: evil is prevalent; its prevalence is mainly the result of habitual and predictable patterns of action; these actions follow from the vices of their agents; in many cases, neither the evil actions nor the vices from which they follow are autonomous; it is nevertheless justified to hold the agents who perform these actions morally responsible for them; the widespread denial of this claim rests on the principle “ought implies can”; two versions of this principle must be distinguished; neither version can be used to exempt agents from moral responsibility for their nonautonomous actions and vices; this has fundamental implications for how morality and responsibility should be conceived.



Hide All

1 For more complete accounts, see Benn, Stanley I., “Wickedness,” Ethics, vol. 95, no. 4 (07 1985), pp. 795810; Kekes, John, Facing Evil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); and Milo, Ronald D., Immorality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

2 For an account of the difficult concept of autonomy and a bibliography of the large literature on this subject, see Dworkin, Gerald, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and “Autonomy,” in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Goodin, Robert E. and Pettit, Philip (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), pp. 359–65.

3 See Wolf, Susan, Freedom within Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 43.

4 See Gowans, Christopher, ed., Moral Dilemmas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), for seminal articles and a bibliography; see also Gowans, Christopher, Innocence Lost (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); and Rescher, Nicholas, Ethical Idealism (Berkeley. University of California Press, 1987), ch. 2.

5 This is a minority view, but see Brown, James, “Moral Theory and the Ought-Can Principle,” Mind, vol. 89, no. 342 (04 1977), pp. 206–23; Kekes, John, “‘Ought Implies Can’ and Two Kinds of Morality,” Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 137 (10 1984), pp. 459–67; Larmore, Charles E., Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 8490; and White, Morton, “Ought and Can,” in The Idea of Freedom, ed. Ryan, Alan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 211–19.

6 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Smith, Norman Kemp (London: Macmillan, 1953), A548.

7 Kant, Immanuel, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. Greene, Theodore M. and Hudson, Hoyt H. (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), pp. 43, 46, and 55.

8 See, for instance, Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, trans. Barnes, Hazel E. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), esp. Part IV.

9 Falk, W. David, “Morality, Self, and Others,” in his Ought, Reasons, and Morality (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 219.

10 See Frankfurt, Harry G., “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” in his The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 1125; Taylor, Charles, “Responsibility for Self,” in The Identities of Persons, ed. Rorty, Amelie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 281–99; and Watson, Gary, “Free Agency,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 72, no. 8 (04 1975), pp. 205–20.

11 Wolf, Susan, “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility,” in Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions, ed. Schoeman, Ferdinand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 4662.

12 Greenspan, Patricia, “Unfreedom and Responsibility,” in Schoeman, , ed., Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions, pp. 6380.

13 Fischer, John Martin, “Responsiveness and Moral Responsibility,” in Schoeman, , ed., Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions, pp. 81106.

14 Bennett, Jonathan, “Accountability,” in Philosophical Subjects, ed. van Straaten, Zak (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 1447; Scanlon, Thomas M. Jr., “The Significance of Choice,” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, ed. McMurrin, Sterling M. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), pp. 151216; and Strawson, Peter F., “Freedom and Resentment,” in his Freedom and Resentment, and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1974), pp. 125.

15 Wolf, Susan, “Asymmetrical Freedom,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 77, no. 3 (03 1980), pp. 151–66.

* This essay contains material from the author's forthcoming book Against Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), chs. 2 and 3. The essay has been much improved by the comments of the other contributors to this volume, especially by those of George Sher. The comments of the editor, Ellen Frankel Paul, have also been very helpful. All of their help is gratefully acknowledged.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed