One of the most fascinating, and disturbing, concepts I have come across is the term necessary evil. I would like to demonstrate in this essay that the concept of necessary evil is not what we mean to say in common usage, an oxymoron, but rather a justification for truly evil acts and intentions.
There are two ways in which to define necessary evil, both of which are remarkably different.
- Questionable Ethics leading to a greater good
- Something you don’t like but must exist in order to achieve a certain outcome
Arguments for necessary evil
Let’s examine the first definition and make the case for necessary evil to see if we can learn more about it. The first thing to notice about this definition is the term questionable ethics. What does this mean and when are questionable ethics applicable? The classic textbook examples of questionable ethics are lifeboat scenarios.
Wikipedia gives us the following example of a common lifeboat scenario in which a “solution” would be, either way, questionably ethical:
A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch? We shall explore questionable ethics in other areas as well.
The second part of our first definition states that practicing such questionable ethics leads to the greater good. The greater good, along with life boat scenarios, are hallmarks of utilitarian ethics. A utilitarian ethicist would likely label the greater good as altruistic, pertaining to society or some other collective group or entity (real or imaginative), and that doing questionable acts for this collective is an important duty; so that others will not have to do it.
In the second definition, we are referring to an act one does not prefer to do. This also entails some kind of preferable end, and there are certain means one must execute or carry out to reach that end. Also apparent in this definition is that your choices may be limited in reaching that end, thus the reason why one would choose to do something that is not preferable in order to get something preferable.
Examples of necessary evil
Necessary evil is a common expression because there are many occasions and situations in which people think a necessary evil is appropriate. I would like to give a few examples in which I think give rise to one or both definitions of necessary evil.
The following are some examples I was given by a random selection of people that would likely fit into the second definition above for necessary evil. These necessary evils include:
- Going to the dentist, because root canals are painful.
- Getting married and putting up with your spouse’s little annoying behaviours and quirks.
- As a corollary to the above: Having kids and putting up with their uncontrollable nature; we all know kids are “just soooo evil.”
- Getting a degree in order to find a good job.
- Working for a paycheck and putting up with a terrible boss on top of that.
- Negotiating—making a compromise or sacrifice in order to get what you want.
- Breathing! (Would you care for a pillow over your head?)
- and so on…
Some of the best examples of necessary evil arise to justify the State. According to those in favor of government, there is a concept called the social contract which states something like the following:
Because we live in a complex society and, further, since there are evil people in the world we need a group of people who can protect the rest of us good people from these baddies.
Unfortunately, that comes with the necessary evils of the State: Launching wars which sadly include collateral damage, jailing people for possessing forbidden vegetation, then mixing these people with rapists and murders, and taking half your income to fund an endless plethora of government programs whether they actually work or not (they usually do not). The State doesn’t work for free, it is a necessary evil and one must pay taxes so that they can receive all of these great “benefits” from the State.
In other words, evils committed by governments are necessary because otherwise the alternative is:
When it comes to the state, the concept of necessary evil is widely used and accepted. They vote in their little booths, and only complain about government so long as they do not suggest it should be abolished.
Many religious and formerly religious people are familiar with the conundrum that evil exists in the world despite an all-good and loving god. There are religious authorities and those who, in the name of religion, have done unspeakable acts of evil (child molestation, holy wars, inquisitions, abuse of women, witch hunts, etcetera). So how is one to continue in the face of this conundrum?
As with the examples above, family plays a huge part in the spread of religion to the next generation. Whenever a child rightfully, asks “Why all the evil?”, He or she is given a response like the following:
God allows evil in the world because he wants to test us.
Or: God allows evil in the world because people are born with original sin and must accept Christ and avoid temptation from the devil; many people fail to do so and that is why evil exists in the world.
Or: Priests molest children because there are bad people in all groups. God is aware of this and the church will eventually correct it.
Or: Those religious people who do evil are not true Christians/Muslims/Buddhist/Hindus, etcetera.
Or: Yes, people can use religion to do evil, but it is necessary to go to church so that you won’t face hellfire and brimstone!
Regardless, evils committed by religion are often seen as necessary and that it is necessary for one to keep associating with such people because there are intimidating threats of hell, myths about original sin, violence or threats of violence, looks of disappointment, shame and/or threats of excommunication by your religious community, imperfection of man acting on behalf of god, and so on…
John, now 34, continues to see his parents even though he’s an atheist and his parents have always been fundamentalist Christians; they are always trying to tell John how he will rot in hell forever for turning his back on an all-loving god, and so on… John hates being around these people, but is sold on the moral rules that family is everything and that despite the fact that his parents are religious lunatics, it is a necessary evil that he must continue to associate with people who have, since early childhood, continued to threaten that he will be tortured by their imaginary friend, and continue to bully him into believing in their superstitions.
To take an extreme but unfortunately common example, let us say that uncle Bob had sexually abused Sally when she was four years old. Sally attempts to seek help by telling other relatives about the horrible trauma she has endured. Unfortunately, the rest of the family feels for Sally, but wants no part in bringing uncle Bob to justice because they fear it would tear up the family. Sally is told time and again and that blood is thicker than water, and that family comes first.
“Sure, what uncle Bob did was horrible”, they repeat to her, adding a moral rule that “but we do not turn on our family members.”
So it is a necessary evil that Sally must continue to associate with uncle Bob, her abuser, in order to keep in touch with the rest of the family.
In another example, Timothy is telling his friend Bill about how abusive his parents were to him as a child. While Bill acknowledges what Tim endured as a child, he responds with, “sure, all that was evil, but look what came of it! You got clothed, fed, sheltered and all you do is talk about how mean they were on the side!”
The necessary evil here is that sometimes one must put up with evil parents in order to get the basic necessities that every child must have in order to survive. It is also implied by Bill that one should “only focus on the positive” in the family, which is hypocritical to say since Bill is correcting Tim by focusing on the negative of what Tim is saying.
There are many other examples where the term necessary evil may be used in the context of families, some more or less extreme than those given above. Whenever a child in a family gets the short end of the stick, it is always justified as being moral (if the evil acts are even acknowledged at all). If it is acknowledged that an evil or inconvenience has occurred, it is still necessary to associate with these same people because of the virtue of family, and so on…
Debunking necessary evil
Now it is time to pull the wool away from our eyes and do away with this erroneous concept of necessary evil. Let’s take on the second definition first.
If you have read Stefan Molyneux’s Universally Preferable Behaviour, you will notice that in relation to ethics, aesthetics there are non-enforceable preferences. For example, I could say that chocolate ice cream is the best, but that is only a personal preference. I would be insane if I made the next leap to say that chocolate ice cream MUST be the best and not eating chocolate ice cream is evil. There is no way I can enforce such a preference rationally or universally. Obviously, it is just an aesthetic preference and those not liking chocolate ice cream can either pick another flavor or avoid ice cream all together.
Our second definition of necessary evil still has the problem of an evil that is unavoidable. Yet many of the examples given, especially the common ones, are avoidable, and none of them have an element of evil to them. You do not have to go to the dentist. You can take the cavities and tooth decay, or you can simply avoid the more painful trips to the dentist by practicing good dental hygiene and visiting the dentist regularly for painless checkups. Alternatively, you could choose to avoid seeing the dentist when you have a cavity and suffer greater pain. There is always a choice.
If you do not want to put up with a spouse you will argue with, you can either find one you get along with well, learn better communication skills or avoid marriage all together (and subsequently having children).
In everyday occurrences, our second definition of necessary evil can be restated as an exchange of short term pain for long term gain. To say that any of these things are necessary is quite absurd as it would suggest there is no choice in these matters; to call them evil is to obfuscate the definition of evil.
Speaking of choice, morality requires that when there is more than one person, people must be able to make a choice in order for morality to exist. Choice and responsibility must be accepted for morality to be properly understood. Further, morality is meant to prevent bad things from happening.
Earlier in this essay I had mentioned lifeboat scenarios. Morality is properly understood when one can ignore lifeboat scenarios as “morality exercises”. Lifeboat scenarios are rare, state-of-nature events and compared to everyday examples, there are no real choices that can be said to be either moral or immoral.
To further illustrate the point, we could compare morality with the science of nutrition. Nutrition is meant to be preventative, and implies a choice of either eating healthy or not. If some one is stranded on a boat and the only source of food is a candy bar, if they were to ask a nutritionist if they should eat the candy bar, despite it being an otherwise unhealthy snack, what would they say?
Obviously, given the circumstances any nutritionist would say go ahead and eat the candy bar, given that you have no other choice of survival. It would be absurd to claim that this lifeboat example is test of nutrition, just as it is absurd that people give lifeboat examples in the attempt to test moral theories.
We can see where necessary evil arises when we consider that life boat scenarios are used to conflate morality with necessity. It may be necessary to kill in order to stay alive but this is not the case compared to situations where choice is available. The robber assailing you has made the choice to do evil where he could have otherwise chosen to do good; your choosing to defend yourself is a reaction out of necessity to survive. The robber is evil, not you, should you happen to kill or injure the attacker. To argue that you were doing a necessary evil is invalid. What the attacker was doing was an evil by choice, what you did was defend yourself by necessity.
In a life boat scenario it is understood that actions in this context would be evil in another context given more choices. What happens when a robber or politician commits an evil and gives the excuse that it was necessary? Well, we can then understand that our first definition of necessary evil is simply a way to rationalise evil acts as necessary so that they become acceptable justifications.
The most powerful argument is the argument from morality. Assuming we move away from aesthetic preferences (for example, I like chocolate ice cream), we then must use the argument from morality for those later preferences.
One then justifies the evil by admitting it was evil, but then tacking on the necessary part so that, implicitly, there is some kind of good end to be achieved by sometimes evil means. This is absurd, if evil is bad and it is necessary to combat it, how can you achieve a good end by evil means without creating more evil?
One logical explanation is that the person making the necessary evil argument (the politician, for example) wants you to do an act that is not moral, but would benefit him.
In the examples I gave above regarding families where a necessary evil is invoked, the truth is that said family member wants to impose an unchosen positive obligation on you.
John is convinced by the necessary evil argument that he has an unchosen positive obligation to see his parents and continue to put up with their harassment. It is unchosen in that he would rather not be around abusive people, and a positive obligation in that he has a moral obligation to keep these people in his life because they chose to raise him.
Similarly, Sally suffered a great evil at the hands of her uncle, but rather than taking responsibility, the family (out of cruel cowardice) chose to whip out that handy necessary evil argument to create in Sally an unchosen positive obligation that says she must continue to associate with her family, and thus her abuser, in order to keep the peace. Implicit in this argument is the premise that by being born into a family, Sally and her family magically entered into a social contract which states that Sally owes her abusers time and resources for the rest of her life, regardless of how poorly she was treated.
This is not to say all families are evil, just that those families in which evil people exist will do what they can in order to justify, continue and assuage the consequences of their bad behaviour by creating an unchosen positive obligation in everyone, which says they must remain in the relationship. One can find similar examples of unchosen positive obligations in the realm of religion (that is, Jesus died for your sins) and in politics (that is, the social contract).
What is essential to unchosen positive obligations is that one is following the preferences of others and not their own. There are no unchosen positive obligations in reality. It should also be apparent by now that there is no thing in reality that is both necessary and evil at the same time.
Acceptance of the necessary evil argument has many thorns that come with it, including unchosen positive obligations. There are also no questionable ethics to combat evil that require one to do evil in order to achieve good ends (Universally Preferable Behaviour is a good guide for this). Necessary evil is a nasty little concept that I think we would all be better without.