• Josh

Sympathy for the Devil

(Content warning: the worst things in the world, including murder, rape, genocide, and people who do these things on purpose with smiles on their faces.)

Socrates. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil? Meno. That appears to be the truth, Socrates, and I admit that nobody desires evil.

I think about Socrates' dialogue with Meno a lot.


I think about it when I hear that Monsanto is twirling their sinister mustaches while they drive farmers to suicide and endanger the global food supply. I think about it when I see people who think Bill Gates is sterilizing Africans because he's a racist. I think about it when my very-Right friends tell me Obama was "intentionally trying to destroy America", or my very-Left friends tell me that Trump "wants to destroy the world order."


Following Socrates, it's not too hard to see how all of these people might easily see themselves as the good guys, in spite of doing things others see as clearly evil. Bill Gates believes strongly that vaccines are the best way to improve global health in the long run, which is his self-reported reason for giving billions to this cause. If it were true that the recipients had some accidental risk of sterilization (a claim that seems rooted in a 1990s moral panic (paywall)), I expect that Gates would apologize, or at secretly feel bad and change tactics. Or, if he really did think it was worth the risk because vaccines are that important, he would keep putting needles in arms, with a heavy heard and a focus on doing the greater good in spite of some risk of downside. In all versions of the story that sound halfway plausible, Gates thinks of himself as the good guy.


Similarly, Monsanto can point to GMOs reducing the need for pesticides and making it easier to end global famine forever. It doesn't make them right, it doesn't make their actions right, but it does make for a good story one can tell oneself in the face of people calling you the devil.


Similarly, I'm sure Obama and Trump felt their actions were totally justified by whatever compass guides them.


But this is all still Easy Mode. This is just making excuses for ambiguously bad actions. What about actions that are truly, unambiguously bad?


Movies often portray villains as pure evil, wanting to spread chaos or death or destruction as a terminal value (think Hela Odinsdottir, Goddess of Death, in Thor: Ragnarok). But this feels awkward to watch and quite contrived, partly because (I think) nobody has ever met a human who is like that. Yes, humans can be selfish, cruel, harsh, greedy, sadistic, short-sighted, cowardly, weak, stupid, misguided, hopeless, depraved, bitter, resentful, bad in all the ways it's possible to be bad... but they have a story to tell you, if you'll talk to them.

Socrates. But if there is no one who desires to be miserable, there is no one, Meno, who desires evil; for what is misery but the desire and possession of evil?

The best villains are ones you can relate to, because they've thought through their vision for the world, and they tell a story in which they're the good guys (think Thanos from Avengers). That's relatable. That's what people are like. You may disagree, but you can at least see where they're coming from.


Now comes the scary part: the real world contains truly horrific things. Nazi Germany. Imperial Japan. Internment camps are still around today, and gas chambers are making a comeback. Drug cartels and terrorist groups cut people's heads off and use them to threaten their children. Women are captured and sold into sex slavery, starting at very young ages. It's not new, and it's not old; atrocities are and have been committed all over the world at all times in human history. And at every level, there are people involved committing these atrocities, and then going about their lives.


How can anyone do this?


You can say they are evil, like the Goddess of Death, but this is a cop-out. They are humans, driven by something, however twisted that something may be. I believe Socrates when he says that nobody knowingly desires evil; they always think they are doing good, but are often misguided. So how do these horrific evil-doers justify their actions?


Lest you misunderstand my project here: I am not justifying any of the horrors on the table. They are wrong and bad and should never be done. But I recognize the human capacity for evil, along with the human capacity for self-justification, imply that people are telling themselves a story that sounds good enough to justify, in their own minds, the horrible things they are doing. Or good enough to justify, in their own minds, that the horrible things are not so horrible. I want to understand this tendency, and in doing so, hopefully inoculate myself against justifying my own failures in similar terms.


I thought for a long while about this, and made a list of possible stories. The words below are not ones I stand behind, but rather what I can imagine another person saying to justify their own bad actions. To make this clear, imagine the character of Bob saying the words below.

  1. "I'm just following orders." (Example: soldier or prison guard) This is appealing when you don't want to do what you feel like you're supposed to do, but you trust the system to make it right in the end. "Yes, I [Bob] have to torture this prisoner, but my boss needs the information, or he says it may deter future criminals from following the same path." "Yes, I [Bob] bombed that village of innocent civilians, but it is part of a grander picture in which I am on the just and righteous side of the war."

  2. "This is bad, but it's for a greater good." (Example: undercover cop) See also: "You've got to break a few eggs to make an omelette." An easy trap for Utilitarians. If you do the calculation and a horrific act leads to the best outcome, how can you argue? The undercover cop commits many crimes in pursuit of the "big fish", the crime lord, the cartel leader, who will do much worse things if left unchecked. "Yes, I [Bob] will push the man in front of the trolley to save five about to be run over; and tomorrow, I'll kill the innocent man to use his organs to save my other patients. On net, I saved many lives!"

  3. "I do it for my family / loved ones." (Example: reluctant drug dealer) If you hold certain things in your life a factor of 100x or 1000x higher in importance than others, you will sacrifice a lot to save those things. If you could save five children from a burning building or just one that happened to be your own daughter, what would you do? "Some people mean the whole world to me, and I would do anything to keep them safe. My [Bob's] wife is starving, so yes, I'll cheat and steal and murder to bring enough money home to feed her." "My daughter was kidnapped, and I [Bob] would kill anyone in my way as I find her and free her."

  4. ”Somebody‘s going to do it, why shouldn’t I be the one to get paid?” (Example: associating with a known terrorist group) "Yes, our company [Bob Co.] sells armaments that are used to commit genocide, but if we don't, our competitor will! The genocide will still happen, we may as well be the ones to profit from it!" This one actually seems more contentious than the others, partly due to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics; once you're involved at all, you're culpable for whatever happens, whereas if you stand idly by nobody minds. If, like me, this one isn't compelling enough to convince you it works, consider the following variants: 4a. "Somebody's going to do it, and if it's me, I'll be a little [less cruel / more caring / more helpful] than someone else would, even while doing the bad thing.” That is, it'll happen and it'll be bad no matter what, but if you're the one doing the bad thing you can make it marginally less bad than it would be otherwise. "They were going to torture him, but I stepped in and shot him instead; it was a kindness, by comparison." 4b. "Somebody's going to do it, and once I get paid for it I’ll use the extra money to give to charity and make the world a better place overall.” Moral offsetting can be very compelling. If the head of the drug cartel gives all his drug money to effective charities, has he done the world a net service? At least in principle, it's worth some thought. (This overlaps a lot with excuse 2 above.)

  5. "Nothing matters, so I might as well do what benefits me." (Example: all of the above) In the depths of bitterness and resentment, people sometimes question whether existence can be good at all. Nihilism is often (though not always) a nightmare, and in its full grip the whole world can seem useless and pointless and worthless and bad. If everything is bad, what does it matter if you do bad too? Truly, sadly, scarily, this could be used to justify anything.

There are surely more, but these are the ones I was able to come up with that sound, at least in the abstract, as plausibly convincing. If you find yourself in a bad situation, or about to do something you feel bad about or know is wrong, think hard about whether you're justifying it in one of the ways above. Maybe you'll still do the thing, but maybe not, and at least you'll have a better handle on what you're going through.

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