On Necessary Evils

02 May 2017 Comments Off on On Necessary Evils


This has been such a long stretch of conceptual writing without narrative that I’ve developed a strong craving for fiction. But that’s not what I’m here for. Evil doesn’t make a good story; I mention it because it’s interesting, because I spent an hour on it fully clothed and wet in the midday sun. There, with that sentence I’ve expelled a good part of the poetry; it was undesirable, but I did so in order to finally be able to write with a clear head. It was a small enough transgression to not be called evil, but perhaps rather “foolish” or “tiring,” whereas this process – the sacrifice of one interest in favor of another – usually works on a larger scale, with the enormity of one act set to balance the good it should produce. This is really the definitive part in discussions of necessity – how bad are my actions compared with my intentions, and what really will come out of this? Will I harm something precious? Will I make something whole?

Our first consideration before such an act would be our ultimate aim. What is the thing we so desire? For the sake of argument, let it be something vivid: let’s say we’re attempting to save an old friend from mortal peril, and let that peril take the shape of a fellow human being. Perhaps he has a gun, and our friend is on her knees, and from our excellent vantage point we can see all the subtleties of the scene – the strange tilt of her mouth against her teeth, the man’s hands all blue and steady – but we can’t see the future or the past: there is no context for violence. At this stage we choose, as most people would, to side with our friend – despite our absolute lack of information we do so, and now that we have a purpose, we may commit our crime. Let’s say we’re considering the lengths to which we’d go – our intention is to incapacitate the threat, but to remain as innocent as possible. We recognize, consciously or unconsciously, that necessity does not preclude monstrosity, and fear perhaps the possibility that we will become another form of trouble to be dealt with in the same way we now deal with the attacker. How are our current actions more justifiable than his, whose motivations and desperation we are so damnably ignorant of? So we term our actions evil – but for the sake of another, so a necessary evil – and then lift our observer’s hands to meddle. And now to continue our drama, let’s say something goes very wrong – maybe now the attacker is incapacitated, but permanently, and we have committed a truly unconscionable act. To save our friend from one fate, we have condemned a stranger to the same, not knowing the full extent of the situation and purely because of our personal feelings for one of the parties involved, and then – and this is what strikes us as truly terrible – excused it as necessary and judged ourselves more lightly than we did our victim; and now the means seems only weakly to justify the end. Our initial question – will I harm something precious? – grows quieter, because it seems we have, and our friend is alive; and as she shells her wrists against her hard hips, we realize very tenderly that she is as much to blame for this as we are. After all, if she had indeed been the aggressor in the altercation before, it is on her conscience that her quarry is dead. We had no choice but to rush to her aid through the very definition of friendship, which plays the role of contract in times of need, and if she was to blame for the situation, she had deliberately hidden this from our discerning eyes. Therefore our intentions were pure, but their conclusion was impure, and despite this we choose to term ourselves good, in the full knowledge that had the stranger been our friend, and our friend the stranger, we could well have chosen to shield the other party instead; in full knowledge of this we deem our act a necessary evil – with the emphasis on necessary, rather than evil – and stroke a good path down her plain shoulder, slightly glad she is alive.

This is the essence of all such reasoning. In more common real-life situations, such as political elections, we choose largely along the same lines: we intend to secure good government for our country, and concede that we might have to vote for a party more popular than the minority one that represents our own views, say, so that our vote may prevent a greater evil from taking power. In this context the evil is much less obvious, and we are not at as much risk of implication as we were in the previous example, where the means were more violent and the ends more clearly defined regarding ourselves. In fact, here the evil is not the act itself but its consequences. The voting is not generally unconscionable; it is the stripping of support from one party in favor of another, to the detriment of the political interests of the same individual who is voting, that constitutes the evil in this situation. This time we term it evil because it hurts ourselves, and only if we lose this political game – if the party that comes to power through our influence turns out to be a worse alternative – only then will the evil be general, and in this latter context it will also lose its necessity: the results will violate the intentions for which the evil was committed in the first place. It’s interesting that in the frame of this argument, a bad vote is more evil than murder: the latter act is performed out of good intentions, and for all its ignorance and violence serves its purpose perfectly, while the former turns out to be senseless, and in the end is destructive to both the people who act and those who are acted upon. It is no longer even necessary.

The final definition of necessary evil hinges wholly upon functionality. It must have a clearly defined purpose, must be committed purely in relation to that purpose, and the result must be as intended, or it will not be functional, but simply evil. When viewed in this manner it seems that all smaller and larger infractions based upon other relative goods would become necessary evils, if their purpose were so tailored: I might intend to rob a bank as my higher purpose, and then take a bystander hostage as a means to an end and call it necessary. It seems indeed that we might want to cast off our moral pretensions completely: every trick, every ploy and scheme and well-hatched plan, is only a sort of evil after all. Necessity has little to do with it.