A Choice Between Evils

I’ve recovered from being sick just in time to face down three midterm exams this week, so my extended response to your comments on my two case studies in my moral thought is still being delayed, but a recent post by Alex Knapp at his new blog at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen gave me a nice opening to address one common critique.

In a post titled “Pet Peeves: ‘A Necessary Evil’” Knapp wrote:

Let me tell you a phrase that I hate. That phrase is “a necessary evil.” It doesn’t make sense. If something is necessary, how can it be evil? And vice versa! The entire phrase seems to be premised on the idea that there’s some sort of separation between morality and pragmatism — in other words, an idea that moral things aren’t practical. Ergo, practical things are immoral.

I beg to differ. In the long-term, the moral course of action is also the practical course of action. Else, how can it be moral? If moral actions don’t result in beneficial consequences in the long-term, how can you judge them to be good? It doesn’t make sense.

I disagree with Knapp’s argument, because we’re starting from different premises about what moral choices entail. It looks like Knapp is a consequentialist and is judging the moral worth of an action by the good or harm it produces for you and for others. The ‘right’ choice is the one produces the best outcomes for everyone. A moral dilemma might be caused by a limited ability to project consequences or the difficulty in assigning weights to different sorts of negative or positive outcomes, but you never face a true dilemma between two immoral choices.

As someone with deontological/virtue ethics instincts, I disagree. The choices I make take a toll on me and my ability to act morally in the future. Even if I am picking the ‘better’ of two courses of action, I may be acting immorally, and I’ll be worse off if I don’t recognize that fact.

Steeling myself to take a particular action that hurts people requires me to override my moral instincts, and I fear that consciously ignoring those impulses makes it easier to do it again in less dire circumstances. I might end up thinking of those moral impulses just as an estimator of harm, rather than a fundamental part of my character.

Even when I make the least bad choice, I’ve had to act immorally. That wound in my character is not salved by the fact that the choice was necessary to prevent a graver harm. I tried to explore this a little in my discussion of the ethics of drone strikes and soldiers’ actions in the Vietnam War. No matter how high the stakes and how just the war, soldiers are asked to transform themselves into the kind of person who can look at a possible child suicide bomber through their crosshairs and pull the trigger.

Such an action may be necessary. It is certainly ugly and evil. Ignoring the evil by virtue of the necessity interferes with any attempt at redemption since it ignores the reality that something was wrong.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • orgostrich

    I think it's worth mentioning that there is a view point that says that the action (shooting the possible child bomber) isn't necessary. A person does not have to act to save his own life, he can choose to sacrifice himself to not do evil.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17359788578212299468 Dylan

    "The choices I make take a toll on me and my ability to act morally in the future. Even if I am picking the ‘better’ of two courses of action, I may be acting immorally, and I’ll be worse off if I don’t recognize that fact."Ironically, you're making a consequentialist argument for the use of the term "necessary evil" (though it's a sophisticated kind of consequentialism). You just consider a larger set of relevant "consequences" than some consequentialists. A "stain on the self/soul" argument can be made in favor of virtue ethics or deontology. Your argument, though, actually sounds like consequentialism. A consequentialist would say that It is important to recognize the "wrongness" of what one does and seek redemption, because not doing so is itself a "bad result" (remember, in its most general case consequentialism is not about "maximizing utility" or even "produc[ing] the best outcomes for everyone" as you claimed). It's about producing THE BEST RESULTS (which may include things other than outcomes for "people."). Here, you're claiming that you'll "be worse off" if you don't recognize the wrongness (a consequentialist might say "negative" or "bad-making" quality) of your actions.Later, in contrast, you say something that sounds more genuinely non-consequentialist: "Such an action may be necessary. It is certainly ugly and evil. Ignoring the evil by virtue of the necessity interferes with any attempt at redemption since it ignores the reality that something was wrong."Again, though, be careful. Ought we to call such actions "ugly and evil" *in order to enable* acts of redemption? That sounds consequentialist (where acts of redemption are a good result). Ought we to call them ugly and evil because of "the reality that something was wrong"? *That* sounds deontological.


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