In the Failures of Ethics: Confronting the Holocaust, Genocide and Other Mass Atrocities (Oxford University Press, 2018), John K. Roth concentrates on the multiple shortfalls and shortcomings of thought, decision, and action that tempt and incite humans to inflict incalculable harm upon other humans. Absent the overriding of moral sensibilities, if not the collapse or collaboration of ethical traditions, the Holocaust, genocide, and other mass atrocities could not have happened. Roth does not point to such catastrophes in order to pronounce the death of ethics, but rather to show that ethics is vulnerable, subject to misuse and perversion, and that no simple reaffirmation of ethics, as if nothing disastrous had happened, will do. Importantly, Roth’s book, despite the ethical reckoning it brings, is not one of despair. It is, in fact, quite the opposite.
Jeff Bachman is Senior Lecturer in Human Rights at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC.