The Failure of Ethics

Confronting the Holocaust, Genocide, and Other Mass Atrocities

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John K. Roth
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Failures of Ethics, John K. Roth carries out a philosophical reflection on the violence of our time focused on the intention of “salvaging the fragmented condition of ethics” (4). 

Ethics, says Roth, encompasses “deliberation about the difference between right and wrong, encouragement not to be indifferent toward that difference, resistance against what is wrong, and action in support of what is right” (foreword). Ethics is profoundly “vulnerable, subject to misuse and perversion” (3). The Holocaust, genocide, and other mass atrocities are “among the most discouraging and disheartening” (7) figures of its failure. Pronouncing the death of ethics or simply reaffirming it will not help us out of despair. As “ethics contains and remains an irreplaceable safeguard against its own failure” (4), the only right answer, according to Roth, lies in revolting against its collapse. The book’s architecture distinguishes between protesting failures and resisting them. Both parts treat revolt through an action-oriented perspective. Their various components can be summarized under four categories: addressing the lack of meaning, reaffirming moral injunctions, education, and remembrance.

The lack of meaning of mass atrocities is addressed by facing death and the failure of God. Under its first component,“listening, trying to hear what [the voices of the dead] might say to us … constitutes one of the most respectful and instructive actions we can take” (38). Under the second, as “no example of mass murder exceeds the Holocaust in raising so directly or so insistently the question of how, or even whether, such catastrophe can be reconciled with God’s providential involvement in history” (87), efforts in this direction constitute a milestone for a renewed sense of spirituality (101).

“The biblical narrative combines the introduction of murder into the world with injunctions against such wasting of life” (70). Roth’s interpretation of the sixth commandment distinguishes between killing and murdering, only the latter being intentional and unjustifiable (69). The value of all three Abrahamic religions rests on this commandment. Yet, all three are complicit in its violation. Self-criticism about such complicity can be “a touchstone for trialogue” (77) if it focuses on the dead: “the humanity of their mutilated bodies, the screams that cry out in silence, demand ‘You shall not murder’” (82). The purpose of such trialogue is less theological than ethical, as it is meant to foster mutual respect: “the hospitality of pluralism requires recognition that neither my nor your way is the way” (85). A wider perspective on pluralism suggests that “the key to resisting the failures of ethics is to persuade everyone to see the ‘other’ as human” (103).

Education is key to deconstructing the assumption of the inevitability of violence (42). The value of historical understanding of mass atrocities hinges on the resistance it promotes to the failures of ethics (131).The same applies when facing the numerous definitions of genocide: “genocide refers to a reality that deserves no more victories” (137). Scholarship serves this purpose when conducted with fidelity (157), humility, and fallibility (158).

“Telling it to the world” (140) to inform the world and to remember the dead (141/198), compels “resistance and action needed to bring genocide at least closer to an ending” (150). Testimonies might shatter confidence in ethics, but they also bring about the figure of Lorenzo in Primo Levi’s Moments of Reprieve as the face of hope (184).

According to Roth, the failure of ethics can only be attributed to ethics itself: “Where ethics is concerned, the gap between thought and action, between theory and practice, is about our failure, but our failure includes failure of the ethical” (24). What fails is “the authority and power of ethics” that “prove not to be sufficiently convincing or robust enough to deter us from doing … harm” (24). As to the question of why ethics loses its authority over our lives, Roth points out its “complex” dimension (17), emphasizing “social circumstances and individual decisions” (12). If ethics is described both as a deliberation process and as “an expression, a projection” (24) of the human, Roth does not seem to consider those expressions that only fall under the ethical in hindsight; projections that primarily refer to other types of “deliberations.” This is indeed how the “logic” of racism seems to operate.

 “Racism entails that difference among racially defined groups is threatening” (52). It follows that such threat to “the privileged racial identity that deserves hegemony” (56) should be dealt with thoroughly, a goal that is finally achieved through genocide: “racism can exist without genocide, and yet racism tends to be genocidal nonetheless” (55). Only if one understands the claimed superiority of an identity as the denial of its weakness can one fathom why a superior identity could feel endangered. If this is the case, the genocidal temptation of racism should be considered an expression, a projection of an identity threatened in its very existence. Ethical deliberation would be secondary to the necessity of such “logic.”

Is this the reason why Roth does not explicitly apply the “logic” of racism to the relationship between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam? Would not such “logic” underlie the “rationalization and self-righteousness” of all three religions when they “try to justify killing as non-murder, thus explaining murder away, while at the same time indicting opponents as murderers when their actions attack one’s own people” (80-81)?

Roth encourages philosophers to deconstruct the “logic of racism” and advance “views of universal human rights that can be as persuasive and credible as possible” (62). It is debatable whether anyone caught in the “logic” of racism can be “persuaded” of the validity of human rights, as this “logic” does not pertain to the deliberation ground on which ethics is founded. Encompassing all human decisions under the ethical realm might lead the revolt against the failures of ethics to oversee its principal target: the human in all its complexity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evelyne de Mevius is a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Geneva and in Philosophy at Paris Nanterre University.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John K. Roth is the Edward J. Sexton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights (now the Center for Human Rights Leadership) at Claremont McKenna College. In addition to service on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, he has published hundreds of articles and authored, co-authored, or edited more than fifty books, including Approaches to Auschwitz, Ethics During and After the Holocaust, and The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies. He has been Visiting Professor of Holocaust studies at the University of Haifa, Koerner Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and Ina Levine Invitational Scholar at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2012 he received the Holocaust Educational Foundation's Distinguished Achievement Award for Holocaust Studies and Research.


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