Monday, June 23, 2008

"Clean Hands" and the Triumph of Evil?

Nazi Party Rally

Neo-Neocon offers a highly philosophical post in her meditation on "clean hands" and the triumph of evil:

Commenter “gringo” wrote in earlier thread:

Re keeping hands clean. That was one motive for my becoming a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War.

The genocide in Cambodia changed my mind. One has “clean hands” and stands on the sidelines while others are slaughtered.

Sorry, “clean hands” become bloodstained in such abstention, from my point of view. What is that quote about standing by and doing nothing when evil men are doing their deeds?

What is that quote? The answer is not so simple; although the quote is usually attributed to Edmund Burke, the original source appears to be lost. No matter who said it, it is justly famous because it expresses an idea not always fully appreciated and yet profoundly important:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Note that the sentence states that inaction by good men (we’ll update that to “people”) is all that’s required. The speaker—whomever he or she may be—assumes that the existence of evil intent, and the willingness and means to act upon it effectively, are always present and always will be present among human beings. The author implicitly rejects the idea that humans can ever reach the sort of perfection that eliminates this impulse, its enormous capacity to harm, and its tendency to seek control. That’s why the author speaks not just of the “existence” of evil but its possible “triumph,” and posits that action on the part of those who are “good” will always be required.

However, the sentence offers no guidance on judging what (or who) is evil and what (or who) is good. Nor does it take into account the unintended consequences of action, only of inaction.

That’s why there’s another saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” One of the hallmarks of those who do evil is that they often think they are doing good. The situation is made even more complicated by the fact that it is difficult, although necessary, when evaluating an action, to try to imagine as best as possible its consequences, knowing that some will always be unforeseen and even unintended. And still another problem is trying to imagine the consequences of inaction—as in the quote attributed to Burke.

It’s a tall order, is it not? But if we are to be moral beings acting in the real world, and not in some ideal one that exists only in our minds, we must attempt it.

Neo-Neocon's putting her reflections in the context of the Supreme Court's recent habeas corpus ruling in Boumedine, but the enormity of evil is something I've grappled with in both personal and professional ways.

As 20th-century international politics demonstrates, good intentions - for example,
Neville Chamberlain's appeasement - often have enormous implications for the triumph of evil.

I agree with Neo's case,
at the post, that in comtemporary American politics, it's easier to discern moral weakness in the forces of the left (who wrongheadedly embolden evil in the nihilist terrorist mayhem of our times). But we see evil as well in domestic ideologies of racial eliminationism, which still have significant currency on the extremist fringe.

Thus, I would hold that in both the domestic and international realms, dirtying our hands is necessary to beat back the most primitive human impulses to evil, including
the normalization of hatred.

I'll have more on this and related topics in future essays.

Photo Credit: "The Mythology of Munich."