XXI. Be attentive to your heart and watch your enemies, for they are cunning in their malice. In your heart be persuaded of this: it is impossible for a man to achieve good through evil means. That is why our Savior told us to be watchful, saying: ‘Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there are that find it (Matt. 7:14).
Today the marvelous Nessie decided to do evil that good might come. Knowing that the neighboring dog surely wished to be her pal, she disregarded my good command, tail beating the air with joy, and strained at the leash, jumping and leaping. She fell to her belly, trying to drag me forward, showing the older and smaller dog, she was good and submissive. She ignored stay, heel, and frightened that poor senior dog out of any good meeting.
Nessie was sad. Hadn’t she meant well? Why hadn’t things turned out well? Nessie was sad. If the other dog (and his friendly companion) are willing, we shall try again soon.
Nessie had learned that even a dog cannot do “evil” that good may come. Of course, Nessie is not really a moral agent. She lacks the intent that is the content of morality, but she did remind me that disobedience to good moral commands is not justified by hopes for good outcomes.
The enemies of our soul, the establishment, the flesh, and devils, require attention. They would be powerless if we refused consent to their designs. Rarely does a man suddenly decide to go wrong for the sake of wrong. He does not twirl his metaphysical mustache, buy a lair, and decide to conquer the world. Instead, he does something bad, even with great regret, for some noble cause.
Not knowing for sure how his action will end up, all plans go awry, the man has traded a certain evil for a possible good. Certainties are worth more than possibilities, generally. There is a reason the proverbial bird in hand is worth two in a bush. What if there were fifty in the bush or a million? Shouldn’t we let go of the bird in hand for the possibility of a million?
Whatever the merits chasing after the million has as a business strategy, this is bad advice when applied to moral truths. Why? If one plays probabilities, one must also measure the cost of the certainties. A certain evil will do harm to the person doing the evil and have repercussions that extend beyond the single instance. If one man does evil that good comes and this seems to “work,” then another man, in a worse case, will be tempted to do evil that good may come.
Yet this probability, that greater evils will be justified because of some earlier compromise, must be placed against the possibility that good will come from the immediate evil we do.
Maybe our bad action will bring a greater good.
Maybe our bad action will cause some future man to do a greater evil.
All we know for sure is that we have done evil.
Some cultures love “strait gates,” but not our own. We love the latitudinarian and the broadway. When motivated by mercy and grace, there is virtue in our error. We should notice that the love of “narrow ways” also can have a good ethical motivation: a love of justice and truth. The “strait” man does not wish to see some potential good become a foe of present goodness!
At the end of all our reasoning, a Christian cannot accept bad means to a good end, because a Christian does not know if history will last. We know that time is in the hands of God and so tomorrow may not come. We probably will see normal outcomes, but we may not. Indeed, the Last Judgment will put our small temporal success, say some good earned over a thousand years, against eternal, unchangeable evil. God thinks in eternity, we must do so as well. The bad action done today endures as a bad action, but the “good” done by the bad may not endure forever!
What is excusable in Nessie the dog is no good in adult humans. We can stop and count the cost: our disagreeable natures cost us friends. We must not save the institution at the cost of people. We can never burn the village to save the village.
It is impossible for a man to achieve good through evil means.
Saint Nikodimos. The Philokalia: The Complete Text . Lulu.com. Kindle Edition.