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Is there such a thing as a ‘necessary’ evil?

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Dylan of Rivia Posted: Fri, Apr 20 2012 5:15 AM

It puzzles me how many people say this or that thing or particular action is a ‘necessary’ evil. Didn’t you just say it is evil? If it is evil then how is it necessary? How can you do good by doing something evil? Necessary evil seems pretty much like an oxymoron to me.

This happens a lot among statists: they use to say that the state and governments are a necessary evil. Therefore, probably without knowing it, they are admitting that the state and governments are evil and, hence, according to their own words, they’re defending evil. I mean, if I were a statist I would never say governments are evil, but I would try to convince others that they are not always evil, that they are sometimes very good.

And don’t take me wrong, I am not a moral absolutist (or that’s what I think at least). For example, I may say that I favor euthanasia in all the cases the patient has given its express consent, but I would never say that euthanasia is a necessary evil.

If evil exists in the universe and (most) humans want to end evil, why is there so many people talking about necessary evils? Are all of them contradicting themselves? Are people deceiving themselves when they talk about necessary evils?

Is there sucha a thing as a necessary evil?

It is not left versus right, it is social engineering versus spontaneous order.
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It is kind of an oxymoron, especially if an alternative that can actually be done exists.

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bloomj31 replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 9:30 AM

define "necessary"

define "evil"

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jdkdsgn replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 9:46 AM

I think evil exists, and if someone's goals can only be realized through evil force, plans, methods, etc. then the "ends justify the means". 

This is why people believe in statism. They think that society is better off with a State than without it. In order to have "order" in society, a State must act in certain ways (necessarily). 

You touched on a good point, that people end up defending evil for the sake of the future of the State, and "civilization as we know it", as most propagandists would put it. Get people to focus and justify their defense of evil, and make it so uncomfortable for them that they have to oppose it. 

I would ask that person whether or not they believe "necessary evils" are allowable in any other context. That would spark a lively discussion, and you could probably disseminate a lot of your ideas over a range of topics.

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Gman1944 replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 11:17 AM

To say the state is a "necessary evil" is to say: the state's a profoundly immoral and malevolent institution, which restrains cooperation and promotes hostility, reduces prosperity and breeds misery; but alas, society needs it. This is BS.

Society is an abstraction. It describes the vast network of interpersonal relationships within a given territory. It's a result of the market economy, itself a vast network of freely acting individuals who realize that voluntary exchange is the most favorable way to deal with others if they wish to maximize their own satisfaction. It exists in spite of the state, an institution whose mere existence is dependent on coercion and defiant of the principle of peaceful cooperation. It is not the force of the state, but peaceful cooperation among individuals that ensures order and flourishing. Cooperation is as necessary for society as air is for life; and the state's tentacles are wrapped around the neck of society, strangling it. The stronger it gets, the worse off society is.

What is necessary is, necessarily, good. If the state itself, by its very nature is evil, it isn't necessary.

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jdkdsgn replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 11:33 AM

Statists would reply that what you're talking about is a utopia. They would say that a State needs to exist in order to have a flourishing society. 

While Statists argue from evidence that supports their thesis, Free-marketeers argue from simple logic and deductions. This is a good and a bad thing - I've noticed that even though the free-market logic is consistent, the opponent usually remarks that what I am arguing for is not practical. It may be logically consistent, but there is no reason to believe that it would work in our imperfect world.

My experience is this: I show the elements of a free market that have existed in history, and point out that though no free society has ever existed, each particular part of it has, and each element works well in those socieities. Then the opponent falls back and says, yea, but there is still no full example of this utopia, and I believe it is impractical because I have no real world example of it's success or failure.

There is no arguing with them. They've already decided that no State is bad, and the only way to avoid cognitive dissonance is to say that some Statism is good.

I guess we have to determine if the person with whom we are debating is willing to be wrong. If yes, proceed. If no, present your ideas, but do not argue.

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bloomj31 replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 11:34 AM

Well, depending on how one defines the word "necessary" someone might be saying that they think evil is either essential or inevitable or unavoidable.

The distinctions matter when considering what these mysterious "people" are really trying to say.

Are they claiming that malevolence, in essence, is essential?  If so, for what purpose?  To what end?

If they're claiming that some form of malevolence is inevitable then why do they believe that to be true?  Why do they think the state embodies that inevitable malevolence?

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Gman1944 replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 1:17 PM

 

I'm pretty sure that, for the most part, when people refer to the state as a necessary evil, it is to say that it's essential. That the initiation of some violence is justifiable, because it's the only way to keep society from degenerating into a sort of arena of all-against-all war imagined by Hobbes. It's sort of like getting a flu shot. You actually accept a trace amount of the virus into your body, in the hope that it will stimulate your immune system to produce antibodies and prevent the onset of the actual flu. But sometimes it backfires, and you can become deathly ill. This is precisely what happens when you grant an organization the moral right to aggress people, ostensibly for their own good: it has the unintended consequence of ruinously infecting every aspect of society.

Society emerges spontaneously - that is, absent of any centrally planned direction. Through experience, people learn what works and what doesn't, and the application of this knowledge results in patterns of regular behavior. When people wish to satisfy their wants (as most people do), they quickly realize that cooperating peacefully with others is the best way to do so. The establishment of this custom is necessary for avoiding conflicts and promoting prosperity. In order to have the greatest effect, its principle must be applied everywhere. It's perfectly capable of shaping an enforceable rule of law applicable to everybody. It's opposite, the institutionalization of violence, and so the state, is unnecessary.

 

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bloomj31 replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 1:41 PM

Perhaps you are right.

It would help if we could ask these particular statists what it is they actually believe and what they mean by "necessary evil."

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Clayton replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 1:45 PM

Here is a natural metaphor of the State:

Hint: we are the caterpillar in the metaphor, I'll let you take a stab at who the State is. 

I'm not sure how inevitable (necessary) it is, but it sure is evil.

Clayton -

http://voluntaryistreader.wordpress.com
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Rorschach replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 1:46 PM

I was just reading some of Common Sense by Thomas Paine yesterday, which I believe is where this argument of government being a "necessary evil" comes from (emphasis mine):

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistably obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other cases advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unaswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to others.

So the assumption here is that, while government is evil, the absence of government is evil as well.  The term "lesser of two evils" portrays the opinion more clearly than "necessary evil", considering how the comparison is "government" vs. "no government".  Paine clearly believes that government is necessary in order to protect property.  Anarcho-capitalists would argue that there are superior alternatives and, maybe, had Paine lived in a later era, he would have agreed.

So I would have to disagree that "necessary evil" is necessarily an oxymoron.  Unless the greatest alternative is necessarily "good", which is debatable.  So instead of arguing that there is no such thing as a "necessary evil", perhaps it would be best to argue that the absence of government is not an evil at all, thus shattering the prerequisite of the argument.

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bloomj31 replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 1:55 PM

Well I would instead say that the absence of government may not be evil.

I've never lived in a stateless society, I have no idea if I would enjoy it.

I can only imagine what it would be like.

In the same way, statists can only imagine what it would be like.  Whether they're willing to give it a try or not would seem to depend on their personal values.

I do not understand why statists think they have to justify the state by saying it's necessary (essential) when it's obvious to me that it's not.  As a statist myself I can say that I accept that free markets can do anything the state can do.  I accept that the state is not necessary to protect private property.

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Rorschach replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 2:10 PM

Well I would instead say that the absence of government may not be evil.

That is a good point.  However, when arguing over what is/isn't evil, it's not going be an argument over inherently evil characteristics anyway, just value judgments.  The point is that some of their presumptions about what anarchy would be like are thoroughly challenged by theory.  And theory is never as solid of evidence as actual demonstration, no, but it will shake the basis of their beliefs nonetheless to understand how society can theoretically function without this supposed "necessarily evil".  I remember reading about how legalizing drugs could alleviate many of the problems we assume to be caused by free availability of drugs.  It completely shook my paradigm on the effectiveness of government and social control.

And your point is also valid, I think, in the sense that when debating someone in order to convince them, you can't come off as some dogmatist who thinks their opinion to be irrefutable.  We still remain ignorant.  But most who believe government to be a "necessarily evil" have likely never deeply considered the alternative.  I know I hadn't.  I'm still not absolutely convinced that anarchy is superior to all forms of government, but there are much stronger arguments for it than I had ever imagined when simply questioning my own beliefs, but not seeking answers.

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Rorschach replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 2:22 PM

I do not understand why statists think they have to justify the state by saying it's necessary (essential) when it's obvious to me that it's not.

I think if a libertarian were to say that "taxation is theft", the statist might need to believe that it must be done in order to avoid the discomfort that they support a system of theft.  They must believe, for their own self-comfort, that it's just an unavoidable fact of life.  I would agree with you that you can argue that the state isn't necessary, but that it is still superior to the alternative.  But this is a more common argument from an intellectual standpoint, as opposed to a simply moral standpoint, which is what many people solely base their beliefs on.  If I thought fascism were the best system of government in the long run, it would certainly make me uncomfortable with respect to the moral implication of supporting such a system, but if the evidence were clear enough I would have to commit myself to such a belief.  I value freedom and that is not something I will easily (to admit my own bias) let go of in my beliefs.  Other value justice, order, etc.

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bloomj31 replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 2:27 PM

Rorshach:
They must believe, for their own self-comfort, that it's just an unavoidable fact of life.

I think this is a very important point.

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Neodoxy replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 2:47 PM

"Evil" within the term "Necessary evil" is usually used in a somewhat sarcastic and non-literal way. It is somewhat negative, but not evil in the sense of a murder. At any rate, within the statist perspective the state is indispensable. It's either minor theft and violence or utter chaos in which much more of both would occur. In this way statism, within the statist perspective, is at worst the "lesser evil".

It's also important to acknowledge that statists usually have a radically different view on ethical behavior than most libertarians do, the main difference being the matter of property rights. If property is a construct created and enforced by the state, then how can the state do actions which are evil so long as what it does is "legal" under its own code? Indeed, this is the most impressive critique of the base of libertarianism, and, in my opinion, by far the most valid. Property does not exist without a collective and legal understanding of the subject, and therefore it's very hard to argue that something is inherently property or inherently force, especially if the majority of society buys into a particular world view, which, in our case, describes the statist scenario to the letter.

At last those coming came and they never looked back With blinding stars in their eyes but all they saw was black...
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Bert replied on Fri, Apr 20 2012 3:27 PM

This may be semantics affecting one's thoughts, but the idea of necessary gives the idea that it could or may be rid of, but we do not do so because of whatever importance it has; as to where instead it may be a perpetual evil, something always persistent and there, but never actually goes away.  This line of thinking is something ingrained into a lot of peoples perception of reality, the duality of right and wrong, good and evil, etc.  The state is perpetually evil, it's something that just is, so they accept it as a given.  The state being perpetually evil instead of a necessary evil would fit more in line with their attitude and view of the state.  Necessary, we must have it; perpetually, there's nothing we can do about it.

If you go by this you may sort out those who do want the state compared to those who do not, but merely tolerate it as their only alternative.  Those who view it as a necessary evil are more likely to grow accustomed to statist measures to bring about the best "welfare of society" and other nonsense; "for the greater good."  I think you may find some more libertarian minded people who view the state as perpetually evil, so it's a constant resistance for their own individual well being.

I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way. - Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols
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"Government is a necessary institution, the means to make the social
system of cooperation work smoothly without being disturbed by violent
acts on the part of gangsters whether of domestic or of foreign origin.
Government is not, as some people like to say, a necessary evil; it is
not an evil, but a means, the only means available to make peaceful
human coexistence possible."

~ Ludwig von Mises

(not that I agree or anything)

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
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Neodoxy replied on Thu, Apr 26 2012 10:56 PM

Gottem.

At last those coming came and they never looked back With blinding stars in their eyes but all they saw was black...
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