The Evil Within

Why We Need Moral Philosophy

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Diane Jeske
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The premise of this book, The Evil Within: Why We Need Moral Philosophy, is promising. It posits that we seriously ask ourselves how we might have more in common with the defenders of slavery, and the Nazis, than we want to consciously admit, instead of engaging in an unreflective distancing of ourselves from them. However, I am not fully convinced that the book delivers on this proposition.

The author, Diane Jeske, teaches philosophy, and the text of this book is a blend of narrative accounts and philosophical reflection. The main characters in the narrative include slave owners Thomas Jefferson and Charles Colcock Jones, and high-level Nazi officials Rudolph Hoss, Albert Speer, and Franz Stangl. Serial killer Ted Bundy is also included, though his psychopathic personality, as she admits, is of limited use for the author’s intentions. An intriguing contrast to Jefferson’s de facto acceptance of slavery– despite his philosophical critique of it–is provided through the story of Edward Coles, who moved in the same social circles as Jefferson and James Madison and who was, like them, also a slave-owner. As a young man, Coles became convinced by the Abolitionist arguments, and put his beliefs into action by moving with his slaves to the Illinois Territory, where Coles freed them and gave them land that he had purchased. The author wrestles extensively with the moral evasions and rationalizations of Jefferson and others like him, concluding that self-interest, comfort, and protecting one’s own “self-schema,”–or good opinion of oneself–prevent human beings from seriously considering  the needs and suffering of others. A focus on the Golden Rule would have been helpful here, especially given Jefferson’s emphasis on the moral teachings of Jesus, but the author makes no mention of that topic.

The philosophical exposition within the book introduces the reader to utilitarianism, relativism, deontological ethics, and the role of emotions in moral thought. Curiously, this survey makes no reference to Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, or the subject of virtue ethics more generally. In the context of  discussing the relation between means and ends, Jeske argues that we “must not fall into the trap of judging that an action cannot be evil because we can see ourselves performing it: that assumption begs too many questions about morality, evil, and human nature” (141). She provides advice for those who engage in consequentialist reasoning, such as: consider many different alternative actions that are available; ask ourselves about possible sources of bias in our thinking; consider the interests of others as well as ourselves; develop empathy for the inner lives of others and pay attention to how our actions effect others; consider long-term consequences, not just short-term ones. In reflection on the topic of moral evasion, the author concludes that Franz Stangl–the concentration camp head–failed to entertain hypotheticals, did not allow his thinking to range freely over alternatives, used rule-bound forms of evaluation, and narrowed the range of his individual responsibility. In these ways Stangl straightjacketed his thought and “put on intellectual blinders” (207).

The author criticizes the narrow thinking of Nazi officials and defenders of slavery, yet the book exhibits a disciplinary narrowness precisely when interdisciplinarity would have been most helpful. Jeske seems to have consciously chosen to place the rich literature on the psychology of violence outside of her scope, and she makes no mention of Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Eric Voegelin, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, René Girard, Chantal Delsol, Giorgio Agamben, David Bentley Hart, and many other authors who have wrestled  deeply with the problem of human moral evil. This is reminiscent of MacIntyre’s comments at the beginning of After Virtue, which describes the curriculum of the contemporary university as not being capable of fully comprehending our current cultural situation because we live within disciplinary silos that make the problem of the order and disorder of the soul invisible to us.

This book attempts to inform the reader about  the evil within, while it primarily argues that most of the time the evil is without, in the form of social structures and pressures of cultural conformity. Evil is characterized not as hatred and ill-will but rather inner vacuity, thoughtlessness, and blind obedience to authority (Arendt’s chief theme). The author expends great effort  to persuade the reader to have an open mind toward vegetarianism, but one can imagine the reader who likes to eat meat responding that the practices of factory farming are “out of sight and out of mind.” Why should such a reader care about the suffering of animals, if the reader is conforming to the consumerist mentality of late modern capitalism? What is needed is psychological and spiritual strength to resist cultural pressures and swim against the tide. But this book does not delve into what these sources of strength might be, thus failing to provide the substantive guidance in departing from the mistakes of one’s culture that seemed to be the initial premise of this book. For that, a relatively thick virtue ethics would be needed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
January 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Diane Jeske is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Iowa, where she has taught since 1992. She received her PhD at MIT. Her publications have focused on issues concerning the nature of friendship and our obligations to friends and other intimates. She is the author of Rationality and Moral Theory: How Intimacy Generates Reasons (Routledge, 2008).


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