The Failures of Ethics: Confronting the Holocaust, Genocide, and Other Mass Atrocities

By Anyaduba, Chigbo Arthur | International Journal on World Peace, June 2017 | Go to article overview

The Failures of Ethics: Confronting the Holocaust, Genocide, and Other Mass Atrocities


Anyaduba, Chigbo Arthur, International Journal on World Peace


THE FAILURES OF ETHICS: CONFRONTING THE HOLOCAUST, GENOCIDE, AND OTHER MASS ATROCITIES John K. Roth Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 287 pages, Hardcover, $20.00

John K. Roth's book, The Failures of Ethics: Confronting the Holocaust, Genocide, and Other Mass Atrocities, is a significant resource on Holocaust and genocide scholarship. The book is Roth's recent contribution to, if not a meditative summary of, his staggering body of research on the Holocaust. Interspersed with the author's personal reflections on his influences, motivations, and actual experiences researching and teaching the Holocaust for more than four decades, The Failures of Ethics pursues, in Roth's word, a "thread" of thinking that refuses to succumb to despair in the face of immense human destruction. This "thread" speaks in favour of resisting the urge to give up on ethics completely, notwithstanding the failures and complicities of ethics in genocides and mass atrocities. Hence, The Failures of Ethics, as the title of the book may suggest, is not merely a critical chronicle of the shortcomings of our moral practices and consciousness. Rather, it is an attempt to mend, revise and celebrate ethics in spite of the inescapable conundrums that realities of genocides throw at us.

Divided into two broad sections of five chapters each, The Failures of Ethics articulates its arguments in two parts that build on notions of ethics that emerge from the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as from Western philosophy. Roth's general conception of ethics seems to assume that there must be a kind of instinctive impulse in all of us, a moral intuition about the rightness and wrongness of things. Quoting Raul Hillberg, Roth claims that this shared ethical consciousness must be ingrained "in our bones" (p. 21). However, the failures of ethics results when certain conditions shadow the careful deliberation that we have to constantly make between right and wrong, thereby destroying our inclinations to show responsibilities for each other. The suspension of responsibility to one another enables atmospheres in which apathy produces such calamities as the Holocaust.

The first section of the book, "Protesting Failures," highlights some of the ethical failures that instigated and in some senses produced tremendous conditions for human destruction of one another. The five chapters of this section "protest" these ethical failures by examining the nature of moral attitudes and their complicities in encouraging mass atrocities particularly within the context of the Holocaust. Whether ethical behaviors deriving from religious authorities or other secular, non-transcendent authorities, Roth states that "the authority and power of ethics, which are neither separable from nor identical with human existence, prove not to be sufficiently convincing or robust enough to deter us from doing immense and irreparable harm" (p. 24). Bringing together philosophical, religious and theological disciplines and scholarship, these chapters query the ethical cultures and moral logics that sponsored genocides in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For example, Chapter 3, "Philosophy and the 'Logic' of Racism," examines how the logic of racism is entrenched in Western philosophical institutions and practices. This logic, for Roth, produced, nurtured and supported the execution of the Holocaust, as well as its denial in the Holocaust's aftermath. Genocide, after all, is racism put into full action.

Chapter 5, "God's Failures," extends the "protest" against the failures of ethics to the domain of the Abrahamic religions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These monotheistic faiths uphold an idea of a good and loving God who is credited with providential powers. If God so wields such providential powers, how could such a God permit the Holocaust? How could we therefore not hold him responsible for the Holocaust? Yet, does not the idea of a providential God take away responsibilities in some ways from human agents of death? …

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