Estimated reading time 11 mins.
“I know I should be giving to that charity. But I can barely pay my daughter’s hospital bills as it is. And we’ve been saving for that new used car. I fear we’re going to have an accident one of these days with the clunker we’ve got. I want to be good, but I just have to look out for us first. Oh, that sounds bad like that. But nobody’s a saint. I guess we’re all just a little selfish and evil deep down. And people understand, really. They all do the same most of the time. It’s necessary. Yeah, sometimes you’ve just got to choose a necessary evil. I wish it weren’t so costly to be good, though.”
“Obviously it’s good to help people in need. But with this program I’m proposing, not enough people are voluntarily willing to chip in. I suppose we’ll just have to vote to take their money from them and force them to support this program I think is good. Yes, I can understand on a common sense level that it is one’s right and that it is just and good that an individual take care of himself and his family before strangers, and with that, it is also obviously wrong to take their money from them against their will. That’s stealing. I’ve got two evils, then. Which is the lesser? Hmm…I suppose we’ll just have to chalk the stealing up as a “necessary evil” to achieve the “higher” good. You’ve gotta break some eggs to make an omelette. I wish the universe was not so set against us, though. Why should evil be necessary?”
Why, indeed. But dare we consider that perhaps the universe is not set against us, but that it is our accepted moral code which is set against the universe?
What is the good?
The good may be defined as that which works to profit or advantage; that which is of worth or benefit. It is that which furthers one’s goals in any given context. For instance, if one wants to learn a new language, it is right and good to study, and it is wrong and bad to watch Netflix.
In ethics, however, what is a proper goal? And how do we know it is proper? Ayn Rand helps us define such a goal with the concept of an “ultimate value”, which she describes as
“…that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.
Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility. It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.”“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p.17
What is the evil?
The evil, by contrast, is that which is harmful or injurious. If the ultimate value or end in itself—the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated—is life, then any goal or action which threatens life is the evil. For a human being, this means anything which poses harm or injury to one’s life.
Evil is a negation. It is about the destruction of values. Observe even the most generic depictions of evil throughout all art and literature. Observe the virtually undisputed examples of evil throughout history. What is their common defining characteristic? It’s always about wiping out, eliminating the virtuous, the good. Sauron in The Lord of the Rings seeks to annihilate all of mankind and any of the other virtuous peoples or races in Middle-earth. Toward what end? Obviously obliteration of the good, but I mean, what is the final end for himself and for any evil actor in fiction or true history? It’s always left unclear, and the reason why is something that I struggled to understand for many years.
Evil is impotent
While I very quickly accepted the validity of Ayn Rand’s standard of judging good and evil, it took many years before I was able to grasp clearly and fully what she meant by saying that evil was impotent. It seemed quite evident to me that evil was a terrifyingly indomitable force when it chose to act. What I now see clearly is that the “power to destroy” is no power at all, and that evil is dependent on the good. It can only exist insofar as it lives off the blood (or virtue) of the good, like a vampire. The good is the only potent force, that which creates values—the values necessary for any form of life to survive. Left to its own nature, evil would consume itself.
This realization helps us understand the ultimate end goal of evil, which is death. Not only death to its victims, but death unto itself. In an earlier scene in the popular Game of Thrones series [Spoiler alert], Queen Daenerys declares that “I am not here to be queen of the ashes.” However, toward the end of the series, she goes mad with power and seeks to decimate the city of King’s Landing and anyone who defies her. Ashes are the end game of any nihilist, although it is often unbeknownst to them. They are so filled with hate that they never think of what will become of themselves when there are no victims left to feed off of. (Or they assume on some level that there will always be more victims.) Again, evil is a negation, and a negation is not a positive, potent force at all.
It’s science, baby
Most people don’t have a problem accepting demonstrable, scientific truths in “hard” fields like the physical sciences, including medicine. Take “health,” for instance. Once a clear standard is defined (i.e. “health”), it then becomes a matter of science to determine what promotes it and what thwarts it. Something can be said to be good or bad for us, given the objective goal. This is not to say it’s easy (observe how much debate there is in health science), but the results are at least observable and measurable. One would hope that fields like psychology and ethics would follow the same scientific framework, but while psychology is only beginning to define objective principles, ethics is far from it. In fact, in many normative issues, most intellectuals believe objective principles are impossible to define.
Once again, however, it is Ayn Rand who was able to codify objective moral principles. By providing a proper goal and objective standard of value, i.e. human life, the question “What should I do?”—the question morality exists to answer—becomes a matter of science. That which furthers human life is the good and that which threatens it is the evil. The moral is the practical. Once again, however (and perhaps even more so than in physical health), this doesn’t mean the answers are easy. The application of even true principles is difficult, but it’s way easier than trying to choose what one ought to do without any principles—or with false ones.
It’s not pragmatism
To say that the moral is the practical might sound like pragmatism, the philosophical approach that assesses theories or beliefs according to their practical applications. But pragmatism is subjective, as a pragmatist does whatever “works” to satisfy his feelings. If one chooses an irrational goal based on one’s subjective whims, then what’s “practical” will lead one toward self-destruction and ultimately death. For instance, if I feel that an exclusive donut diet is good for me, and I practice such a diet, I will get sick. I have chosen means set against reality, and reality will show me my error.
This is also the objectively demonstrable reason why lying, stealing, cheating, or sacrificing others to oneself in any manner is immoral. It is because these habits are impractical in the context of the span of a human life. To live snatching randomly moment to moment toward whatever ones feels is to one’s benefit is subjective and irrational, and it doesn’t work. It is only by defining a proper, rational goal that ethical choices become an objective, scientific matter by which we may judge what are proper, rational means.
By definition, if human life is the ethical standard of the good, the moral is the practical, i.e. what is necessary to live a long-range, rationally integrated, flourishing life. There is no clash. And further, what is impractical is more than unnecessary. It is evil, and it is necessary to avoid it. The idea, then, of a necessary evil is to say that there is a necessarily impractical thing to do, which is a contradiction in terms. So why do we still constantly come up against choices between two evils, seeing one as lesser and/or “necessary”?
Our morality is wack
It is only within an inverted moral framework, such as altruism, where such an inanity may sprout. Do not confuse altruism with kindness or benevolence. This is the beginning of the bait-and-switch that has kept innocent laymen from realizing its true nature and rejecting it. “Alt-ruism” literally means “other-ism,” and its highest moral principle is “unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others.” To do the opposite, we’ve all been told since we were born, is to be “selfish,” another concept whose true meaning has been distorted by intellectuals with a vested interest in promoting the ethic of self-sacrifice.
Remember keenly that “unselfish devotion to others” is an ethical principle which is to guide our action in reality—not just some of the time, but consistently. In any instance of deliberate thought (and otherwise), one is supposed to give up values for the sake of others, not gain them. Yet to live requires that we gain values, not sacrifice them. With such intellectual and moral guidance, one is left to think: “My accepted morality is impractical in achieving a desirable goal (i.e. to live). Therefore, I suppose we must break our code and permit evil sometimes—because it is necessary.”
What the wha’???????
All today’s predominant ethical codes promote self-sacrifice as a supreme virtue. Yet this principle practiced consistently and taken to its logical outcome leads us to death and therefore leads us to such absurdities as a “necessary evil.” Yes, necessary—if we want to survive. This, incidentally, is why so many people are wary or cynical of morality, not taking it too seriously most of the time. Yet because our integrity and self-esteem inescapably demand that we are good (i.e. act morally), people get caught in a cycle of happily improving their own lives and the lives of those they love, followed by bouts of guilt and evasion when they are challenged on moral issues.
Why should morality be set against human survival and happiness?
Call for intellectual independence and moral courage
It’s time we check our premises and challenge today’s prevailing moral code. Let’s stop justifying abhorrent means as “necessary.” We can do this by challenging the validity of our proclaimed ends. Ends do justify means, but only if the ends are properly defined. In such a case, ends dictate and validate the means, giving us guidance as to how to live and how to be moral—at once, without clash.
I don’t want to choose between evils. And I subscribe to a morality which doesn’t put me in an impossible position like that. You can, too.
If we’re calling for “necessary evils,” we’ve got to re-examine our standards of morality. We can’t keep going on accepting it and saying, “Well, everyone knows what we mean. You know, goodness, kindness, care about other people. We don’t have to be too strict about it.” This is the loophole which invites all evil to righteously sacrifice any number of precious individual souls to whatever end it can portray as “good for others” while disarming good people who are simply trying to improve their own lives and are wrought with guilt because of it, because being able to live sentences them to being unable to live up to their accepted moral code.
We have to take ethical principles seriously for what they mean in practice. I want an ethical code I can take seriously and practice consistently. I don’t want to be good “sometimes” while having to choose and do the wrong in order either to live my own life or to achieve some “higher good.” Let us stop sanctioning evil by saying it’s “necessary.” Only the good is necessary. The evil can rot in hell.
” An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.”
“The evil, by contrast, is that which is harmful or injurious. If the ultimate value or end in itself—the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated—is life, then any goal or action which threatens life is the evil. For a human being, this means anything which poses harm or injury to one’s life. ”
To save the life of some one else if you put your life in danger, then are you doing an evil act?
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Thank you for your excellent question. I got the notice of it yesterday just as I was preparing to drive three hours to the East Coast with my wife for a short weekend getaway. We’ll be driving back later today, so this is just a reply to let you know that I promise a more thoughtful answer in the next day or so. It is an important issue, and I don’t want to give you a rushed and unclear answer. I might offer as a lead for now that this question highlights the power of morality and how much depends upon the moral standard we choose to operate and make choices by. Talk soon! I appreciate the question!
Hello! I got straight to it this morning. For reasons stated in the post, I chose to post my answer to your question as an article, which you may view here: https://matthewboulton.blog/2020/03/02/is-it-evil-to-help-others-at-your-own-peril/
I hope it’s clarifying, and you may feel free to ask any follow ups. Once again, your question is very much appreciated!
Hello thank you for the enjoyable read. I’m was with you up until the part about self sacrifice leading to death being evil. I see the connection between evil causing death, as well as death leading to self destruction… however death is inevitable. And the reason self sacrifice is so valued is due to the symbolism of Jesus Christ, as well as the truth that self sacrifice can lead to continued/ saved life, and not always death of yourself. You can save your child and an event and die, but that doesn’t make you or your actions evil; you’re a hero. To not attempt to save your child would be evil. The point is death is inevitable and isn’t inherently evil, but rather death becomes evil when it comes from a place of ill intentions. You could argue if evil didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be in a position to save your child and die yourself. However evil isn’t always the cause of chaos, sometimes accidents occur. Just my take.
Hi, Jake. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to see this reply. (Perhaps it’s in part because I haven’t kept up on the blog for a long time.^^) In any case, having people engage is very rewarding when you put something out, and I appreciate it.
I agree that risking or giving your life for your child makes you a hero. I do not think it’s evil in the least. The difference in my view is that you do that because he/she is your value (hopefully among your very highest), and I do not consider it a sacrifice. I define sacrifice being a loss, the giving up of a higher value for a lesser or nonvalue. With this, I would actually say that if you failed to act to save your child, you would be evil, not because you were “selfish,” but precisely because you sacrificed that which was most dear to you. Being self-interested is not just about survival at any cost; it’s about what kind of life do I consider to be good and want to create. It is possible that some things are worse for me than death.
In the case of Jesus, while I can respect his integrity and courage, among other virtues, I don’t regard his sacrifice as a good thing. I never regard sacrifice as a good thing. He died for the sins of others, not for any of his own sins. I would die to continue/save a life I love and would have a worse life if I lost (e.g. wife, child, dear one). But I would not die for a random stranger, and I don’t think a stranger should die for me. (As to what we might be willing to give up for a stranger, see Ayn Rand’s “The Ethics of Emergencies” in ‘The Virtue of Selfishness.’ It’s not that you turn away from a stranger absolutely. It’s a matter of how much and under what circumstances we might spend some of our energy, time, effort, risk of injury for others whom we don’t know, as human life is a value to us in general.)
But as to Jesus, I can respect that he took his morality seriously. But my aim in writing this is to hope that others don’t take it seriously! He is a perfect example of what I mean that sacrifice inevitably leads to death, if you practice the principle consistently. Of course death, in the end, is inevitable. But this is why life is so valuable, and we ought to seek to gain values and life, not hasten to give them up.
Likewise, just my take! Thanks and good luck!