Can Good Be Accomplished Through Evil?

virgin_sacrificeA common attack on libertarianism is that it prohibits certain behaviors that seem to make sense from a utilitarian point of view. For example, if you could save your village from King Kong just by giving the beast one of the young women who live there, that might seem like a good idea, especially if the alternative is that everyone dies. So, while it might be evil to sacrifice her to the monster, maybe it is a good thing to do since you end up saving everyone else.

To fully appreciate this kind of argument, it is necessary to understand that the idea of evil is an objective quality of human interaction, while the idea of good is a subjective quality of any kind of behavior. Whether something is evil or not-evil can be defined in such a way that everyone can agree on what is evil and what is not. So the town saviour in our example could recognize that it is evil to sacrifice a young woman, but he might think that it is a good thing to do. There is no contradiction here because evil does not mean “very bad”. In fact, whether behavior is evil is totally independent of whether it is good or bad.

Just as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard might disagree on whether it is good or bad to smoke cigarettes, they would both agree that it is not evil. In the same way, anarchists and minarchists agree that stealing is evil, but anarchists believe that all taxes are bad and minarchists think that some low level of taxation is good.

So the answer to whether good can be accomplished through evil becomes rather dull: it depends on what you consider to be good. A more interesting question is what it says about your moral system if good and evil can ever be in alignment.

Fortunately, libertarianism makes sure that this is never the case. Any moral system that incorporates libertarian ethics does not need to worry about leading people to do evil things, because libertarianism explicitly states that all evil actions are also bad. This no-tolerance approach to evil has many nice properties: simplicity, great economic benefits, and it also maximizes individual liberty. However, it can also be inconvenient at times. What if someone’s grandmother is sick and they do not have enough money to buy medicine? The easiest thing to do would be to steal it, but libertarianism would say to instead work overtime, save money, and then buy the medicine.

Of course, you could develop a more extreme hypothetical where a very small evil will lead to a very good thing being accomplished. Let’s use Walter Block‘s example and say that aliens have informed you that they will blow up the earth unless you smash a “#1 Dad” mug that your neighbor’s kid made for him. Seems like an easy decision, at least from a utilitarian perspective.

What does libertarianism say about it? It says that there are some situations where it is not necessarily bad to break the mug to appease the aliens. For example, if your neighbor understands the alien threat and gives you permission to destroy the mug, then it is okay to do so. Even if he does not understand or does not give you explicit permission, it would still be okay to do so if you know that is what he would want. Also, if the mug was originally stolen from the aliens, that would be another reason to go along with what they want.

On the other hand, in what situations will libertarianism bring about the end of the world? That such situations are hypothetically possible is something that even libertarians struggle with, but that’s what happens when you have an absolute policy on anything. Anyway, one example would be that your neighbor understands the alien threat, he knows that they will explode the earth if the mug remains intact, he is of sound mind, and simply prefers to go out with a bang rather than give up his prized possession.

Some may wonder what right this man has to sacrifice billions of people for a stupid mug. However, the man is not going to kill anyone — that would be the murderous aliens. And can you really fault someone for having something or someone that they would not trade for the world?

And that is one of the perceived flaws of libertarianism. Usually not so much is at stake, but the principle is the same. Someone wants to build a school, and all they need to do is steal some money from everyone who lives in a certain town. Someone wants to have sex with their girlfriend when she does not want to, so all he has to do is hold her down.  Someone wants to get a loan that they may not be able to pay back, and all they have to do is lie about their finances.

Most people do not do evil things for the sake of being evil. They don’t view evil as an end in and of itself, but rather see it as a means to accomplish things that would otherwise be much more difficult. Justifying evil is easy when one takes a utilitarian approach — just point out all the good things that were accomplished. If nothing good was accomplished, just point out the good intentions. On the other hand, justifying evil is impossible under libertarianism.

It may seem strange that someone needs to write an argument to persuade people to abstain from evil actions, but that is the reality of the modern world. While many kinds of evil are socially unacceptable, many are tolerated, and some are even lauded. The hope for libertarians is that one day everyone will consider evil to be something that only bad people do.

2 thoughts on “Can Good Be Accomplished Through Evil?

  1. ME

    It’s thoughtful at some point I never got to look at this subject in this particular way, but what I wonder how does this apply to freedom seekers and freedom fighters whose liberty is in the hands of other persons who refuse to let go by peaceful means, how can they gain their freedom if not by retalioation in the same manner as they are being held forcefully

    1. rothbarddotcom Post author

      It’s not evil to fight to free yourself from government, but it is a bad strategy. Governments put a lot of the money they steal into military resources. More than that, fighting is scary and when scary things happen people look to government to protect them, which only strengthens them. So look to things like the Singing Revolution for inspiration.


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