Moral responsibility and evil

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We often describe the perpetrators of mass violence and genocide as evil. For example, to call what the Nazis did merely wrong is to undersell the moral gravity of the genocide they perpetrated. What the Nazis did was evil, not merely wrong. However, if we are to describe the perpetrators of genocide and other horrendous crimes as evil, then we need to be able to hold them morally responsible for their actions (Formosa 2008). But this is no easy task, since perpetrators of evil seem to give rise to a paradox of responsibility (Watson 2004, 9). On the one hand, the more extreme the evil, the more we want to blame the perpetrator. On the other hand, the more extreme the evil, the greater our doubts about the sanity and moral responsibility of the perpetrator. After all, how could any sane and morally responsible person perpetrate such horrific deeds? But this creates a problem: how can perpetrators of extreme evils be both especially blameworthy and yet not responsible for what they do? The key to resolving this paradox is to understand that moral responsibility has what Gary Watson (1996) calls “two faces”, answerability (being responsible to someone) and attributability (being responsible for something), and that not all types of perpetrators of evil are equally responsible for what they do. I will make this argument as follows. First, we shall look at the concept of evil and categorize the different types of perpetrators of evil. With this background in place, we can see that some types of perpetrators of evil are more morally responsible for their evildoing than others. This requires seeing moral responsibility as a matter of degree. While this might seem a straightforward move to make when thinking about moral responsibility, in the field of philosophy this is simply not the case. In the vast philosophical literature on moral responsibility, there is surprisingly little direct and sustained discussion of degrees of moral responsibility. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on whether people are ever morally responsible at all for what they do (Faraci and Shoemaker 2010), and there is very little focus on how to give a philosophical account, as I shall do here, of why some perpetrators are more or less morally responsible than others.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge international handbook of perpetrator studies
EditorsSusanne C. Knittel, Zachary J. Goldberg
PublisherRoutledge, Taylor and Francis Group
Number of pages11
ISBN (Print)9781138103245
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2019


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