Evil Deeds Can Have Good Results

It doesn’t exonerate the evil-doer. It doesn’t make the evil deed moral. But we have to accept that some people can benefit from the sins of others. The sinner can’t benefit. And victims obviously don’t. But innocent third parties can.

A thief dies. He bequeaths his ill-gotten gains to a college scholarship fund. Benefit to the students is real.

A lot of great art was made possible by Greek slave-drivers and Renaissance popes. Their victims’ rights were violated. But the Parthenon is still majestic, Michaelangelo’s paintings just as beautiful.

Some scientific research was evilly funded or conducted. The results are no less valid.

The good, however, does not, by outweighing it, justify evil. Virtue and vices are not collective quantities. Thefts were not made virtuous by the thief’s generosity. What Renaissance tyrants did was evil. Period. Not: net bad (or net good), after considering the beautiful art they commissioned. Four units of evil by Peter cannot be subtracted from three units of benefit to Paul and three to Mary, to conclude that in sum the evil deeds were net positive. Stealing a bicycle does not become virtuous when you give the stolen goods to a needy child.

So do not try justifying a rights-violating law with a cost-benefit analysis. If a law violates someone’s rights, it is wrong, no matter how large the benefit to innocent third parties. And if you vote for such a law, don’t try to exonerate yourself by saying, “Well, OK, this law violated someone’s rights, but relatively little. Just look at all the good that came of it.”

Also, on the other side, do not try to deny the benefit. Maybe some rights-violating law really did improve the health of some people, improve job prospects for some, bring better art to town, or bring electricity to Shelby, Kentucky in 1939. If so, those benefits did not justify the violations, but the benefits were real.

And you cannot say, “Well, but had laissez-faire capitalism prevailed, there would have been all those benefits and more.” You just cannot know this. Would wealthy businesspeople in town support the opera just as much with voluntary donations as they would through taxes? There is no way you can know that. “But the pie would be bigger.” Of course, but you still cannot know that the opera would end up with more. “Free markets reward reason and rational pursuits. And opera is a rational pursuit.” Even if opera is, you still cannot know that this rational pursuit will be better funded than another.

Accept that if you leave people free to buy and sell what they want, you really might get more pushpin than poetry, more Oprah than opera, more horoscopes than microscopes.

These two principles do not produce identical results.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

By [Creative Commons], via Wikimedia Commons

The “sum of good government” is to “restrain men from injuring one another [and] leave them otherwise free.” — Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Herbert Hoover

: ‘Hoover.150×150’

The “first consideration” of government should be “high and increasing standards of living.” — Herbert Hoover

John Maynard Keynes and other Progressives were right on this: You cannot guarantee that a free market will maximize all that is good. Ayn Rand’s statement of the same idea is that a free market will maximize “socially objective” but not necessarily “philosophically objective” value.

Defenders of free markets and individual rights simply must accept this. Objectivism (for example) and utilitarianism are not two ways to defend the same public policies. Their public policies really are different and will have different results. By some measures—even philosophically objective value—the utilitarian policies may rank higher.

If a health care regulation violates rights, don’t argue against it by insisting a free market would provide equivalent or better aggregate results. Just argue that improvement in health care for some does not justify violating individual rights of others. If such rights are violated, the public policy is immoral. Period.

It is immoral to kill, rob, or violate the legitimate freedoms of Jews, Texans, bankers, and movie stars, no matter how much the health of poor people could be improved by doing so. If you want to argue that some people shouldn’t be allowed to buy a particular kind of medicine or health insurance, argue that this would violate their natural human rights and you are finished. You needn’t separately establish the impact on illness rates among poor children, inflation rates for health care, utilization of emergency rooms, or any other social utilitarian metric. If you establish that some policy violates someone’s natural rights, your moral argument is finished.

Now do not think that any of this puts theory and practice at odds (a dichotomy Objectivism rejects). If there is a conflict between individualist theory and collectivist results, the conflict is not between theory and practice, but between individualism and collectivism. You can’t set up a collectivist result—GNP growth or adult literacy or incidence of lung cancer—as a standard and then fault individualist morality when it fails to produce those results.

If you are going to defend an individualist morality, you have to accept that it might not achieve particular social values—even philosophically objective ones such as health, prosperity, and science.

And on the flip side, you must accept that sometimes individual sins can have good collective results—and be ready to condemn those sins all the same.

white liberty
This is my argument against money-laundering laws. A robber steals your car, and he sells it. Then he spends the money on bitcoins, which someone else buys. There is no end to the reach of the law to swallow up everyone in its “anti-money laundering” drag net. Just as there is a statue of limitations, there has to be a limit, which used to, be that if you bought a stolen car, it isn’t yours, and you’re out of luck. Better that one person suffers, for not doing due diligence and having title insurance. Otherwise, we all get the perpetual probe.

Your flip side assertion is a classic case of context dropping. If I agree that Renaissance art or the Egyptian pyramids are examples of great works that I enjoy looking at I am not estimating the society that produced them, since that society no longer exists. In that context, such a society is no threat to me so estimating a concrete remnant of its past as “good” does not threaten my own life. On the other hand, in a society that does currently exist, estimating an indirect result of an evil act as “good” is, in fact, a threat to my life because it means that the next victim could be me so it would be a contradiction to estimate it’s indirect results as “good”. The only way to make that estimation is to drop the context and use some other worldly detached from reality standard.

John P. McCaskey, reply to dogmai
Much goes into whether something is a net value to an individual. And yes the calculation is simpler if the sinner (or his society) is dead. But that factor is not decisive.

A preacher in Iowa raises money by lying to his congregation. And he steals from a parishioner. He sends the money to Africa. A child is saved from malaria.

Yes, a world in which there could be thieving preachers in America is a threat to a child in Africa. But malaria is a bigger one.

Remember I am talking about innocent third parties. If I condone the evil that produces a cure to my disease, I am no longer innocent. I must condemn proposed torture even if the results of the research would cure me. Sanctioning it, as you indicate, would itself be a threat to my life.

dogmai, reply to John P. McCaskey
You can’t make that kind of comparison. Malaria is metaphysical fact, cures from a thieving preacher is a man made one. They must be evaluated separately. Malaria and theft are both threats, all your saying is that an instance of the latter negated an instance of the former but so what? Morality is about acting and if a person is innocent he/she would, like the child, have no knowledge of the efficient cause and thus would not have any basis to make a choice or have a moral dilemma at all.

Your imagining that a 3rd party observer has a basis to evaluate the life saved by evil but there is no such basis. Absent the theft, the child may well have died, but people die of diseases all the time, how does injecting a “what if” omniscience into a 3rd party observer become a new basis for evaluating this instance of surviving and/or dying of a disease as “good” or “bad” in a sense other than life, good. Death, bad?

John P. McCaskey, reply to dogmai
It sounds like we agree.

I say the theft was immoral, whether or not the child was saved. I’m just adding that there is nothing to be gained by denying that the child was saved. Good came from an evil deed.

I insist that, nevertheless, there is no collectivist calculus that lets us add, subtract, or compare the evil deed with the good result. Virtue and vice are not collective quantities. That’s my whole point. Sounds like it’s yours too. If so, we agree.

dogmai, reply to John P. McCaskey
I suppose this is my only nit: “Good came from an evil deed”, I am having trouble understanding what this means i.e. what you *mean* to communicate and its implications, if any. I don’t see any way to
interpret it benevolently but as you are so careful to point out, there are many ways to interpret it malevolently.
You’re making a statement of cause and effect, action A caused effect B. Then your estimating A as immoral, B as moral. I don’t think this makes any sense. Moral evaluations, by definition, are estimations of cause and effect, so how can “the good” come from “the bad”. There is a self contradiction here somewhere.
Yes, it’s a fact that the child lived, and living is good, but evaluating the whole cause and effect package as “good” is an ex post facto evaluation. I haven’t worked it all out but to me it smacks of an instance of the post hoc fallacy.

John P. McCaskey, reply to dogmai
I don’t evaluate the effect as moral or immoral, just as good.

And I don’t evaluate the “whole cause and effect package as ‘good.'”

I’m just saying someone did an evil deed and something good came of that. The “something good came of that” has no more relevance to judging the theft than judging the rock would have in “A rock fell and something good came of that.”

dogmai, reply to John P. McCaskey
Then we are further apart than I thought. What is the difference between “moral” and “good”? “Good” is a moral evaluation. If you are using the term “good” divorced from “moral” then its an empty concept, just a sound you are making, like a sneeze.

Adam Fitchett, reply to dogmai
The good is most definitely not the same thing as the moral; refusing to divorce the terms is not the same as refusing to grant them different meanings. If the term ‘good’ does not make sense apart from the term ‘moral’, then many valid instances of expression will become meaningless. e.g. ‘Oh good, the sun is out’ or ‘Good boy!’ (when talking to a dog) or ‘This dinner tastes good’ etc etc etc.

dogmai, reply to Adam Fitchett
If “good” has a different meaning than “moral” then the assertion that “evil deeds can have good results” is a blatant equivocation fallacy.
If the “good” is the “moral”, as I maintain, then the fact that some indirect outcome of someone’s evil deed was “good” has nothing whatsoever to do with “coming from” i.e. being caused by, the evil act. It’s merely a random coincidence that one is describing as “good” (e.g. sick child cured from stolen funds),there is no principle of causality that links acts of “evil” to “good” outcomes, not unless one drops the context and forgets that moral principles are meant to guide our choices and actions.

John P. McCaskey, reply to dogmai
On the difference, I concur with Ayn Rand. See “Virtue of Selfishness.”

Nick Newcomen
Thoughtful article. But if you simply argue individual rights and don’t mention the positive social results of such a policy you are in for an earful. You will immediately hear that such individualism ultimately leads to terrible things, such as people starving in the streets, mass unemployment, depressions, wars, the death of all life on earth, etc. Thoughts?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Nick Newcomen
Protecting of individual rights does not lead to those things. But, OK, to play along for a moment . . .

If a large-scale terrible thing—let’s say a war—could be avoided by forcibly handing over all 16-year-old Christian girls (or all Jews or just the mayor of Los Angeles), should we do it? Just this once.

If a depression could be avoided by killing Oprah and taking all her money, should we do it?

Does your interlocutor really believe it’s OK to sacrifice the rights of a few in order to avoid terrible things for many?

Shouldn’t have undertaken the civil war if all it was about was protecting the rights of black slaves?

Seriously, I’d ask, is there no line we cannot cross, no individual right worth protecting, if the sacrifice has sufficient positive social results?

Does this interlocutor honestly think protecting people’s individual rights is what leads to war, starvation, and extinction of the species?

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