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To Commit Evil…

January 12, 2011

In “Crito” Socrates suggests that it is wrong to commit evil even if it is in response to another evil.  Upon first hearing this argument, I was in full agreement.  We are taught from a young age that two wrongs don’t make a right and in many situations it seems best to follow this advice.  However, there are situations in which an evil is so great that it cannot be dealt with through purely good response.  For example, the brutality of Hitler and his followers could not be put to an end without war.  I would assume that killing is considered evil by most if not all, and thus it is possible to suggest that war is on some level evil.  But is war evil if it is waged for the common good?  If it is started in order to put evil to rest and it is the only means of doing so?

It would seem that Socrates would argue that war is wrong even if it is initiated for the right intentions, for he believes that evil (i.e. the killing of others) is wrong even if it aims to fight another evil.  What Socrates does not touch upon when he makes this claim, is the idea that standing by and allowing for evil to be committed makes one an accomplice.  If we do not fight evil, we are a part of it.  It is the duty of citizens to protect the common good and in some situations this calls for evil acts.

5 Comments
  1. jdadamo permalink
    January 12, 2011 6:30 PM

    I think the first thing we have to determine is- what is evil? If we accept that acts of evil are actions that are morally wrong, what defines morality? What makes reading Plato so interesting is that the definitions seem to be quite different in an Athenian democracy compared to a modern democratic republic, such as our own. In the time of Plato, worshipping gods that were contrary to the state gods was considered morally bankrupt and perhaps evil, whereas in our own democracy we worship a litany of different gods (or don’t worship one at all). In general, I would agree that it is wrong to commit acts of evil as defined in today’s society, even if in response to another evil. Great blog post!

  2. lernerm permalink
    January 12, 2011 7:32 PM

    I think that you make a very good point in your article. However, it presupposes that there is an external moral structure of absolutes that classifies all actions and virtues as either “Good” or “Evil.” I have trouble accepting this to be true because it ignores the factor of perspective.

    A view of morality that is more compelling is put forward by Friedrich Nietzsche in his work, “Beyond Good and Evil.” Nietzsche argues that what is considered to be an absolute good can be considered to be evil if viewed from another perspective. Therefore, an unchanging moral framework cannot exist. The only morality that exists is one that is inextricably personal and biased by that individual’s past, goals, and present situation.

    If Hitler is seen in this light, one can see that values have a pluralistic nature. From the point of view of many, Hitler was an evil that could only be stopped through violence. In this case, violence is good. This same violence, when seen from a Nazi perspective, is unquestionably evil and a wrong done against Germany and Hitler.

    It is impossible to declare one of these points of views to be the “correct” one without having a bias one way or the other. That is not to say that it is wrong to be biased. An overwhelming majority would side against Hitler (including myself), but it is important to remember that judgments of “good” and “evil” that claim to be above outside influence are in fact intrinsically biased.

  3. Josh Platko permalink
    January 12, 2011 9:31 PM

    So I personally voted “No, it sometimes takes evil to end evil.” However, the point Mr. Lerner makes seems to be very true in most cases. Every situation that comes about has a biased opinion. For example lets say there was a murder, and the killer was put on trial. The family who lost their loved one, would most likely want the cruelst punishment put on this criminal. The family who “loves” the mudrer would find a reason to justify the murder. Either way we look at it there are biased situations. Now for the reason that I voted evil is okay at times is a situation in everyone’s favorite movie, “The Hangover.” Alan, Stu, Phil go and count cards to win enough money so that they can buy Doug back. In a situation where their friend was kidnapped, their only chance to get him back was to go count cards. This might not necessarily be as evil as kidnapping someone, but the casino might think otherwise.

  4. chrisshu permalink
    January 13, 2011 1:55 AM

    I think the most important assertion you need to make first before you make an argument against or for the topic of “evil reciprocated against evil” is your definition of evil. Evil in itself is a man-made concept, an abstract entity that has different meanings for different people. I feel that in order to define Hitler’s actions as evil, you must first give your definition of evil and show that his actions fit under your criteria. You allude to Socrates’ stance on murder, that “(i.e. the killing of others) is wrong even if it aims to fight another evil.” However, Socrates doesn’t have a direct stance on what is evil or not. He merely states that because the state decrees that murder is unjust, it is perceived as evil. Another question I have for you is what can be as you say, “purely good”? If good and evil are only human ideas, and technically do not exist in nature, is it possible for anything to be purely evil or purely good. One can be very optimistic and perhaps even find one “good” thing about Hitler’s fascist regime whilst another person can find one “bad” thing about Mother Teresa’s actions.
    However, for argument’s sake, let’s agree that what Hitler did is evil. You then state two arguments, that “If we do not fight evil, we are a part of it” and “It is the duty of citizens to protect the common good and in some situations this calls for evil acts.” Are you therefore saying that inaction in itself is an act of evil?, that not doing anything is just as bad as committing murder? or are there multiple levels of evil, that one evil act is worse than another evil act? If we argue as Socrates argues, within the law, then inaction is not seen as evil. We cannot be convicted of a crime if we don’t intervene when a robber steals Grandma’s purse. Thus, by legal standards we are innocent. Secondly, how can committing evil acts be good even if it is to stop another evil act unless one act is “less evil” than the other. And if one act is less evil than the other, what form of measurement do we have for that conclusion. Perhaps you can say that Hitler’s mass genocide was evil, but someone can argue that the war as a response to his invasion and genocide was even worse. (Ironically enough, the war wasn’t started because of Hitler’s treatment of Jews but rather fear of his total domination of Europe.) Does that still make action better than inaction? If fighting evil requires that we ourselves commit evil(er) acts, should we do it, or should we do nothing, which according to you is also “part of evil”.
    Thirdly, I’d like to address your idea that “It is the duty of citizens to protect the common good and in some situations this calls for evil acts.” One vague thing about this assertion is whether the citizens’ duty is to protect the common good of themselves, their state, or everyone, including people not in their citizenry? Why should I protect people who have no relation to me? The US itself didn’t wage war on the Axis until Pearl Harbor was bombed. Should I protect others to the cost of perhaps my own life? I think the only conclusion I can come to is that either way, whether someone commits evil against evil or doesn’t, they are making a moral decision. They themselves are deciding, in essence, what is more evil, inaction or action that may be just as evil as the catalyst for said action.

  5. kaylawan permalink
    January 18, 2011 5:40 PM

    I think you made a good point that ” If we do not fight evil, we are a part of it”.
    In this case, it sounds reasonable for us to fight back.
    We can choose to exit or voice as means of fighting.

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