Why Getting Away With Wrongdoing Does Not Make It Worth It

This past week across numerous different classes I am teaching in both ancient philosophy and ethics, I have been talking with my students about Plato’s Republic, Book II. We have discussed whether there would be any intrinsic goodness to justice such that it would be in our interests to choose just courses of action even were they lead to misery and that it would be not in our interests to choose unjust courses of action were they to lead to power, riches, love, fame, honor, sex, material gain, etc., etc. I have two lines of reasoning that lead me to think it is better to be just than unjust even under such circumstances. In this post, I will focus on just one of them.

Say you do something that you know, personally, is evil and it is something that everyone (or nearly everyone) around you whom you respect knows is evil too. Even though they do not know you did it, they hate the action itself and they would lose some significant degree of respect and admiration for you should they ever discover you do that evil action. They would likely develop feelings of disgust and contempt towards you. If they do not know you particularly well, this could become the most important, memorable, and morally decisive thing about you to them. You may become the poster child for such evil actions in their brain. If they do know you well, they may contextualize this one evil action or behavior as only a part of your larger, more generally admirable, person and admire you. Or this discovery may make them feel as though previously they were entirely deceived about you and want nothing further to do with you.

But what does all this matter if they don’t know? What it means is that to some extent, when you cross the line into an evil action or behavior, you start to be, in fact, the kind of person that the people you admire would likely hate. Sure, since they do not know about it, they still treat you affectionately. But this is only because they are deceived about who you are and what you do. They can only love you the way they do if they never know you for what you really do or what you really are. And every time you hear them disgustedly denounce others who do what you do (or have done), you know that they are denouncing you too, even if they do not realize it. So what are all their deceived showerings of love upon you worth to you if they are aimed only at the non-existent person they think you are and if you see quite clearly that they despise those who are like you as you really are?

The only pleasure I can take in myself is the pleasure in what is genuinely good about me. If others think they see something good about me that I know is not there, this is only embarrassing and a painful reminder of what I am not. To the extent that I realize that someone’s love for me is only predicated on their misapprehension of who or what I am or have done, I am alienated and ashamed before them. On the flip side, what I know is good about me or about what I have done is also something that goes unchanged even when people fail to appreciate it or, worse, confuse it for evil.

As far as I can tell, our minds are wired to try to deceive ourselves and others a great deal. We are always interpreting what we do for ourselves and for others in the ways that are most advantageous to ourselves. Most of the time, we can face up to harsh truths only when deceptions would hinder our long-term advantages worse than confronting reality would. But the rationalizations we tell ourselves and the deceptive modes of presentation which we offer to others do not alter the realities that we have actually done what we have actually done, that when others rightly hate those actions they hate us whether they realize it or not, and when others love us mistakenly by believing we are better than we are they do not truly love us as either they or we would like to think they do.

In short, when you decide to do something you know is evil, you do what the good and admirable people you know hate. When evil behaviors become entrenched habits of your character, you become who the good and admirable people you know hate. Their ignorance never changes this.

In fact, the only way not to rightly infer that those you love and admire would not hate your actions or your very self for doing the things you have done which you know that they hate, is if you do the scariest thing in the world and confess everything to them and submit yourself to their informed judgments. Only if you let them think for themselves about the fullest possible account of the facts of who you are and what you have done can you be assured that their overall judgments of you and their feelings towards you are authentically about the “real” you—i.e., the one who has actually been manifest in behaviors in the world. This is an extraordinarily vulnerable place for any of us to be. And—potentially an incredibly freeing one that makes genuine intimacy possible.

But if you do not want to have to be so vulnerable and so subject to a potential, rightful moral rejection by those you most respect and most love, and if neither do you want to live in doubt that what you have done or who you are makes you someone that those you love would still love if they saw you clearly, then it is best that you avoid in the first place doing the secret hatable actions that create alienation and make necessary the need for precarious reconciliation processes. Ultimately there is no real getting away with it without being caught. Because when you do the evil, you will inevitably be caught—either in confusion, in denial, in alienation, or in confession or in unwilling exposure.

Ideally, you would avoid doing the evil only because it was evil, of course. But insofar as our actual, successful psychological motivations to be good are indeed social (or socially reinforced), these considerations should be of some importance. I know they are for me.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • usagichan

    I notice that the motivations that you are discussing are almost entirely judgemental – by that I mean that you either judge your own actions according to your moral standard (however that is derived) or your actions are judged (evaluated) in the light of a shared moral standard. While that is clearly one component of the motivation to act in ways that are “good” according to our moral framework, I would say that this is a partial picture.

    For example, actions that are bad might generally (certainly if one takes the “factual” definitions of expressed in your previous posts) be harmful to others. Another of the characteristics that appears to be “hardwired” in the human conciousness is empathy – we are able to experience to a greater of lesser extent the emotions of others. If actions that are “bad” are harmful to others, our empathy may cause us to experience (albeit to a lesser extent) the negative effect on others, whether or not the others are aware of the source of the bad actions. This would also seem to me to be an inhibiting factor towards “bad” actions.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      yes, I’m assuming the context at which you might be able to “get away with” something and so are not feeling the normal concerns for others, etc. that might normally inhibit you. In such cases, the appeal becomes to how you will yourself be damaged.

    • usagichan

      I tend to think that empathy is not something that can be ignored, whether or not you can “get away with” something – I still think that the situation is not as simple as you are implying here. Even in terms of a social rationale for good actions, the more basic proposition that a socially aware animal is able to discern that actions that are detrimental to the group (or by extension, members of the group) is detrimental to itself – an analogy might be that while it may be possible to drill a hole in the bottom of the boat while no-one is looking, the act of doing so is both foolish and self destructive.

      For me, the impulse or drive to do good is not one that is simple, and I do not believe that its expression is universal either. Of course there may be fundamental human characteristics that tend towards it, but I think that there is a complex cultural and historical component that shapes the impulse to do good/ not do evil. I think that there is a risk that if we assume these are broad and general motivations we may misjudge the actions and qualities of those outside our cultural sphere.

      Having said that, I do think this is an interesting exploration of some reasons that put a limit on the impulse to do evil. Beyond this I would be interested on hearing your thoughts as to why, given these relatively strong disincentives to do evil, they seem to be so often overcome.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I do think you’re totally right about the ways that harming others affects us through our empathic capabilities. I guess my interest was in this piece was more in meditating on the ways that shame works to help us see ourselves objectively and judge ourselves on behalf of those who do not even know we are guilty, and how even if we can commit evil actions which initially do not bother us in themselves (possibly because we can rationalize away specific harms we have done to our victims or our victims are remote or there are no real victims, etc.) we can come to regret them through the hypothetical judgment of those we know would disapprove of what we have done or become.

  • http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/ Marta

    It seems to me like there are two issues here. First, that acting evilly changes you into the kind of person the people you respect would hate whether they recognize you as such or not; and second, that being forced to hide yourself away keeps you from being authentic with the people whose approval you desire.

    The second line of thought seems the most promising to me. If you want not just these people’s admirations but also their affections, love, friendship, etc. then you need to be able to be authentic with them. Acting evilly, if you have to hide that, does keep you from really connecting with them fully. Glaucon might argue back that this assumes you want *more* than just their approval/admiration, and as such it’s more than Glaucon seems to be assuming when he’s laying out his definition of justice.

    On the first point, I think you have to ask, why should you care about what these people would think of you, if they knew the truth. If you valued their opinion because you think they are seeing the situation clearly, well, that seems to assume there actually is something wrong (objectively) with the evil thing you did. If what you did wasn’t really evil, then the fact that those people would disapprove of your character shouldn’t matter one way or the other.

    • usagichan

      You said

      acting evilly changes you into the kind of person the people you respect would hate

      which immeadiately struck me as being a case of putting the cart before the horese. I don’t think that your actions change you at all – they may be a measure of your intrinsic position in a scale of good and evil (although I think that there are big problems with such a judgemental interpretation, both in the establishment of universal metrics (unless of course you are happy that your values are universal), and with the fact that there are a number of mediating factors which act upon the underlying impulses (although again one might say that the extent to which you are able to restrain “evil” impulses is a function of your intrinsic “goodness” – arguable, but I would not currently subscribe to that position). In fact, I tend to a more extreme view that individuals are neither intrinsically evil or good, but that their actions may be. I feel that a person who has committed acts that are generally accepted to be unarguably evil, may be capable of acts that are generally accepted to be unarguably good (and vice versa of course).

      I think the second inference you draw

      If you want not just these people’s admirations but also their affections, love, friendship, etc. then you need to be able to be authentic with them.

      is more sound from an idealistic perspective. Of course the unspoken implication of this argument is that complete openness is the best basis for human relationships. Here I move from the theoretical into my experience, but I have found that in fact complete honesty is not a desirable thing in my relationships with others – for example if I know a friend really wants to go to a particular restaurant, even if I don’t really feel like that kind of food I will feign enthusiasm for the greater good of a pleasant evenings conversation and in the vicarious pleasure of my friends delight. Now that example might seem banal in terms of “good” and “evil” but the question that it raises for me is where does one draw the line between these acts of deception that are “social lubrication” and more fundamental hiding of aspects of your character? I find it hard to draw a line, and harder to apply the argument without lapsing into relativism.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    Suppose however, that you did not feel shame when you contemplate others reactions should they discover what you did? That you do not care if others believe a lie about you when they profess their love and respect, and thus don’t care for potential genuine intimacy?

    In other words, what argument is there for the sociopath to act justly when the sociopath believes, as you stipulate, that they will not be caught or found out?

    • http://fidesquaerens.dreamwidth.org/ Marta

      If a sociopath cares about maintaining friendships, I think Dan’s argument could still work. If a sociopath did what others thought was evil, he would still be faced with a choice: either be honest about his deeds (and have others hate him for it) or be dishonest (and keep from sharing his whole self, making it harder to form a genuine connection).

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      Except that part of my question was what if you don’t care about genuine intimacy/connection?

      If you want someone’s admiration/love/respect/friendship (perhaps for the advantages you perceive it bringing, or the ego boost from manipulating them), but don’t care if that’s built on a lie at all, then the choice seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? What incentive does this individual have for doing what’s just, assuming he can get away with being unjust?

      (side note, why didn’t my subscription tell me there were more replies to this than just the one directly to me?)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I have no idea how the subscription updates work, sorry. Did it give you a choice of whether to subscribe in a more limited way only to replies to yourself? Maybe it’s a setting to keep people from being spammed by every comment and not just those that directly address them.

      As to the question of the sociopath, there may be ways to persuade them but basically if they are not morally equipped from a brain perspective as I get the impression they are not, then I think few things can persuade them. if that’s true, that’s not a failure of moral logic but the sociopath’s inability with moral logic and moral sentiments at work.

      Nonetheless, my major tack for defending the worthwhileness of justice without honors and pleasures will not depend on moral feelings and will appear to the agent’s own egoism, so it may even have at least some appeal to the sociopath. I’ll get to that soon.

    • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

      It didn’t give me any choice that I noticed, and appears to be working properly now. I did just check the “manage your subscriptions” link at the bottom, and everything seems good.

      You’re probably right about the sociopaths and this argument. I look forward to seeing your next one.

  • Axxyaan

    It seems this piece is more about comforming than about acting good. Because about all the consequences you describe can just as much come about by acting against the local customs or taboo. Suppose someone is a homesexual in a evangelical environment. It seems your essay can be used very well in advising him not to engage in homosexual acts.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I worried a lot as I wrote this that it may be misconstrued as a paean to conformity and even worried about the gay evangelical. The key distinctions I put into to ward this reading off were (a) that this applies to circumstances where you know what your action is evil distinct from your group’s judgments and (b) that others’ false judgments of wrongness should never influence your self-perception,either positively or negatively.

      Now an evangelical gay person who is confused into thinking gay sex is evil may indeed avoid it on this reasoning to avoid the shame of knowing she would be doing something her fellow evangelicals find shameful. But the problem there is not that she fitS my account of a shame-sensitive person but that she is in the first place deceived about right and wrong.

    • Axxyaan

      But how does a person know whether he fits your account or not? It is all very well to start off with the statement that this applies to circumstances where you know what your action is evil distinct from your group’s judgments. But that doesn’t help the individual. So you have someone who is convinced that his action his evil distinct from his group’s judgments. How does he confirm that his conviction is true and not a deception?

  • Tisha Irwin

    I was raised in a Catholic family and even more than 20 years after rejecting it, I’m unable to shake my sense of guilt. I still feel guilty over minor things I did 15 years ago, like being rude to someone on the phone. I choose to do or not do things less because of how other people will perceive me or whether I’ll “get away with it” and more because of how I’m going to perceive myself.