Thursday, July 30, 2009

Using evil and doing evil

Some folks equate using evil with doing evil. I’d add that folks like this tend to be impervious to reason, so I’m not writing this for their benefit.

However, there’s a rather obvious distinction between doing evil and using evil. A few examples should suffice.

A 22-year-old is murdered. He was in perfect health. Cut down in the prime of life. His vital organs were in pristine condition at the time of death.

Suppose his organs can be transplanted to save the lives of half a dozen terminal patients?

Murdering the 22-year-old was evil. But is it evil to use his organs as a means of saving the lives of half a dozen terminal patients? Is the surgeon morally equivalent to the murderer?

The surgeon is making use of evil-the evil of his unjust demise–to do good. Does that make the murder good in itself?

Take another example: totalitarian regimes typically divert their finest scientific minds into weapons programs to further the imperial ambitions of the regime. And it’s evil to help the regime do evil. It’s evil to empower an evil regime. Evil to enhance its ability to perpetrate even greater evil.

But scientists sometimes defect. Indeed, our intelligence agencies try to turn them. Encourage them to defect. We give them asylum so that we can debrief them and find out what our enemies are up to. Learn about the R&D programs.

What the scientist did was evil. It was evil for him to use his scientific genius to improve the weaponry of an evil regime.

But is it evil for us to give him asylum so that we can debrief him? Is it evil for us to exploit that situation so that we can know whatever the enemy knows? So that we can take countermeasures? Is that inherently evil?

Take another example: suppose the enemy is plotting an unprovoked attack on one of our cities. Suppose we intercept encrypted messages which alert us to the attack. Suppose we can use our advance knowledge of the plot to foil the plot. Our enemy was planning to do us evil. Is it evil for us to use that information to defend ourselves? Or would that be tainted fruit? Fruit from a poisonous tree? You decide.


  1. Steve Hays: "Our enemy was planning to do us evil. Is it evil for us to use that information to defend ourselves? Or would that be tainted fruit? Fruit from a poisonous tree? You decide."

    I don't think it's evil to use that information to defend ourselves.

    Is this a strawman? Who would argue that it's evil to use this information to defend ourselves? That seems just downright silly.

  2. The harder comparisons are these:

    Would it be evil for us to intentionally allow the murder of the 22-year-old, because we plan to use the vital organs to save half-a-dozen terminal patients?

    Or to take an action that we know will result in his murder, for the same reason?

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  4. Another example, one that has already been written about on Triablogue, is the question of whether or not you should vaccinate your children, since certain vaccines were supposedly developed using aborted fetuses. This is a good one because abortion is such an emotionally charged issue, and it's easy for Christians to take really hard-nosed positions in favor of what seems the most righteous because they hate abortion so much (e.g., You should NOT vaccinate your children... don't you know where those vaccines come from???).

    Here's one that hits home with me, or at least I think it falls into the discussion of "using evil versus doing evil". I enjoy music, and sometimes a musician will write a song that stems from an inward hatred, anger, or disappointment they have toward God. I love Metallica, but they have two songs of this variety: "Leper Messiah", which is about religious leaders who use religion to manipulate people, such as the tent preacher who comes to town, puts on a show, and begs for money, promising you a better place in heaven if you contribute. And "The God That Failed", which is about the lead vocalist's mother, who was a Christian Scientist, and as such, refused to seek medical treatment for her cancer, trusting God to heal her apart from medicine. But she ended up dying, and so her faith did not save her.

    Lyrically, I guess you would say that these songs are evil (Even that may be debatable, if you try to argue that the depictions of God the musician is writing about is either a charicatured or outright false representation of the true God). And because I always feel conflicted about these songs, I just never listen to them. In fact, they are both deleted from my iPod and my computer hard drive, although I do still have the CD's. But could the argument be made that it is possible to enjoy the other elements of the music, such as the guitar riffs, drum beats, etc., while overlooking the lyrical content? There is more to music than just lyrics.

    Anyway, this may be all rooted in my fundamentalist upbringing, but that's just one of my struggles.