Only a very small number of people actively set out to be evil, the Hannibal Lecters of this world. Most evildoers fall into one of three camps.
The first camp is those who genuinely believe that what they are doing or supporting is not evil because they lack the intelligence, the wisdom, or the experience to perceive the consequences of their actions. It is easy to distinguish between good and evil at the micro level; we all know that stealing from our neighbors is wrong and most of us refrain from doing it. But distinguishing between good and evil at the level of the nation state is much harder, evidenced by the level of disagreement between decent people about how societies should be organized. That these people disagree is prima facie evidence of confusion, and I believe this confusion results both from concerted propaganda, and a total lack of education. The necessity for education is not the point of this article, but it’s noteworthy that I attended one of the most academic “high schools” in England, and received my degree from one of the world’s greatest universities, without ever being exposed to a single word of economics or philosophy.
The second group are the corrupt self-deceivers. At some level they know that they are doing something wrong, but they convince themselves that what they are doing is only a little thing which doesn’t really matter, or even rationalize to themsleves that what they are doing is not evil at all. If you have ever “borrowed” a pen from your employer without explicit permission, or invented a traffic jam as an explanation for tardiness, or schemed to get a larger office then you have been guilty of such corruption. Even politicians pocketing fat bribes will convince themselves that they are only taking the money to do what they would have done anyway, or that the cost of the legislation they will pass in return for the bribe is so small that it doesn’t really hurt anyone. And they will look around and see that “everyone else” is doing it too, and allow that to act as a sop to their consciences.
The third group are those who believe that the end justifies the means, that “collateral damage” as the Pentagon likes to describe the death and suffering of countless innocent men, women and children is an acceptable price to pay for the greater good that will result from their bombing campaigns. It is this idea, that the end justifies the means, which I wish to refute.
In the case of American foreign policy I find myself disagreeing even that the proposed goal is good rather than evil, so I will instead address the philosophical argument that underpins this consequentialist system of ethics. The argument is usually introduced as a thought experiment known as the trolley problem. The basic version postulates a runaway trolley heading towards a group of people tied to the tracks. You are standing far away from the action next to a lever which will switch the train to a different track where only one person is tied. Should you pull the lever? Most people agree that they should pull the lever (although interestingly reframing the problem can elicit a different answer) and from there go on to accept that government is justified in incurring collateral damage in pursuit of its aims, whether the price is truth, liberty or even life itself.
But this is a philosophical trick; a deceit. Even if you decide that our hypothetical railwayman should pull the lever, it does not logically follow that we should organize our society or legal system on this basis. Let us leave aside the artificiality of the thought experiment in which the actor is faced with a choice where he is absolutely certain of the consequences of his action, where he cannot talk to or seek permission from any of the people involved, and where no other choice is offered than pulling the lever or declining to pull it; a set of circumstances which are never reflected in the real world. Consider instead the entirely different question of whether we should adopt a system of justice for society based on such an ethical framework. We would be unable to make any clear definition of what is a crime and what is not, because any action at all could theoretically be justified by the defense that it was for the greater good. And so, if we choose in principle to allow such a justification then we must empower some judge or group of judges with the ability to decide any and every case completely arbitrarily, based solely on their judgment of whether the end justified the means. Or we empower some group of people to act on our behalf according to this principle and grant them immunity from the law. This is absolute power without any limit, and no man or group of men can possibly be trusted with such power. Upon such justifications have rested all the great tyrannies in history including those of Stalin and Hitler. As Lord Acton noted, absolute power corrupts absolutely and the result is certain tyranny as we are seeing unfolding around us more clearly every day.
And so, we have shown that accepting the premise that the end justifies the means leads only to a terrible end which most certainly cannot justify the means. And that is what is known as the reductio ad absurdum logical fallacy.