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Moral Monsters

  • Renée Jeffery
Chapter
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Abstract

Despite the undeniable horrors of recent years that have reawakened “evil” discourse and scholarship, understandings of the term, at least in contemporary Western thought, are still most commonly associated with the Holocaust. Not only do the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps remain one of the most extreme examples of the human capacity for evil in history (if not the most extreme example) but, on an intellectual level, the meaningless suffering endured by millions of Jews, gypsies, and other minorities precipitated some of the most powerful and important reflections on evil in both theological and secular thought.3 Although, in the first instance, the horrors of the Holocaust were met with a profound reluctance to confront its reality, born in part of the shock that something this grotesque could happen in the heart of civilized Europe and in part out of a misguided sense of Holocaust piety, with time intellectual responses began to emerge.

Keywords

International Relation Moral Agency Mass Grave Rome Statute Jewish People 
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Notes

  1. 2.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London: Michael Joseph, 1988), 169.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    The intellectual discussion of the Holocaust in this context is mired in controversy, controversy that emanates from a number of different corners of the scholarly, religious, and secular worlds. For example, scholars and theologians alike have disagreed over the very term Holocaust itself. For many Jews, the term Shoah, signifying catastrophic destruction, is a more appropriate term than Holocaust, which is “derived from the Greek holókauston, meaning ‘burnt whole’” and brings with it connotations of sacrifice. In this vein, Walter Lacquer argues that the term Holocaust is “singularly inappropriate” as “it was not the intention of the Nazis to make a sacrifice of this kind, and the position of the Jews was not that of a ritual victim.” These arguments aside however, in most scholarship and general discourse, the attempted eradication of the Jewish race at the hands of the Nazis is known as the Holocaust. Richard Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 4–5. Walter Lacquer, quoted in Rubenstein and Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz, 5; although, as Rubenstein and Roth argue, the term Shoah is preferred in Israel, Israeli writers such as Adi Ophir and others still use the term Holocaust. Ophir, The Order of Evils.Google Scholar
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    The exception to this is, of course, Sigmund Freud who argued that alongside overt agency, human action is also directed by impulses that are not apparent to them. He wrote: “Psychological—or, more strictly speaking, psycho-analytic—investigation shows instead that the deepest essence of human nature consists in instinctual impulses which are of an elementary nature, which are similar in all men and which aim at the satisfaction of certain primal needs. These impulses in themselves are neither good nor bad. We classify them and their expressions in that way, according to their relation to the needs and demands of the human community. It must be granted that all the impulses which society condemns as evil—let us take as representative the cruel and selfish ones—are of this primitive kind.” Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents: The Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press, 1930), 122.Google Scholar
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    The focus in this chapter is on individual moral agency, leaving aside the moral agency of groups. For a discussion of this, see Toni Erskine, ed., Can Institutions Have Responsibilities? Collective Moral Agency and International Relations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); and Arne Johan Vetlesen, Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Evildoing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).Google Scholar
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    See also Joel Feinburg, “Action and Responsibility,” in Philosophy in America, ed. Max Black (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1965), 134–60.Google Scholar

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© Renée Jeffery 2008

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