As the saying goes, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
This claim is routinely credited to the 18th century Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, often as an item of motivation towards political reform. For this purpose it is admirably effective. It is also wrong.
While it is important for members of a society to oppose injustice, the juxtaposition of good versus evil is problematic. A man or, framing this in the conventions of 21st century usage, a “person” is neither good nor evil in any sense separate from his or her actions. The speech and the actions of an individual do not merely reflect good or evil qualities, the speech and actions are the only tangible good or evil as expressed through that person.
But using Burke’s preferred pronoun, a good man who does nothing in the face of recognizable evil is not a good man in any practical sense. Action and speech define the individual. If that action amounts to apathy and indifferent silence any claim of identity as a “good man” amounts to no more than self-serving rationalization.
Unfortunately, this very simple principle appears largely unknown to a broad segment of the general public. This apparent ignorance is demonstrated in the common adage that a noble goal justifies ignoble methods used in that pursuit. In other words: the ends justify the means.
The idea that any just society can arise from the application of unjust policies is, on its face, absurd. When not examined, this passes as an assumption based, in part, on the underlying conceit of the so-called “Good Man”. There is no good man, for the same reason there is no bad man. At least, not in the essentialist sense of good or evil being innate qualities, separable from speech and action.
There are intentions, and there are outcomes.
Bad judgement and error contribute to a major fraction of the actions and speech of individuals be they of benign, malicious, or indifferent intent. A well intended action may, conversely, produce harm despite its planned outcome. Thus, a “good man” acting in good faith might generate a bad outcome due to poor planning, incompetence, or other error.
However, even a consistency of negative results does not determine malign intention. Delusions, false assumptions, or an ideology which imputes motivations to groups and individuals might all lead a positively intentioned person to a routinely negative outcome.
As the saying also goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
This expression is commonly attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and only slightly alleviates the focus on the doer of good or evil by allowing for a charitable reading of motivations. Ultimately, neither the intentions nor the moral identity of the actor need be of concern to us. The results are what matter.
It is precisely this tendency to concern ourselves with personal assessments and judgements of our fellow men that can lead to ignoring the obvious misdirection a society may be taking. It is not necessary for a man to be good by nature nor well intentioned in motive to achieve some positive result. It is just as likely that men perceived as good are permitted to continue making grave errors by virtue of their implied, or claimed, good intentions.
Challenging authority or popular opinion takes a personal strength of which many people fall shy. Individuals, be they good or evil, malicious or benign, sometimes do bad things. As social creatures, people need validation from each other to maintain their sense of self, their esteem, and their pursuit of purpose. We group together with like minded people to embolden our vision of ourselves and the world around us, thereby eliminating the checks and balances of those who would disagree.
Dissidents are often demonized and distanced as a threat to the assumed “goodness” of the group instead of being embraced as the upholders of reason. While the majority of individuals scramble to be proven “good” or, at the very least, “well intentioned”, the objective voices who lack concern for such labels are trampled in the mad rush.
Community Organized Compassion and Kindness (COCK) was founded on the principle that true compassion must be offered without regard to maintaining a perceived personal assignment of moral value. Where sympathy can lead to misguided approval, and empathy can lead to a loss of objectivity, compassion cares more about arriving at the appropriate result no matter how uncomfortable that journey may be.
The work of Stanley Milgram demonstrates the importance of outcomes over appearances. In an experiment, Yale students who were neither good nor evil, and holding neither good intentions nor bad, found themselves inflicting grievous harm by their mere failure to objectively assess the outcome of their actions. When “rebellious peers” were introduced into the room, the results “dramatically” improved.
“It is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”
~Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority