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In the progressive liberal church in which I attended high school, it would be a rare assembly where our charismatic Welsh choirmaster did not preface or conclude the misdeeds of others without the memorable quotation of Edmund Burke; “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. Recently, in the throes of a little historical revivalism and perhaps not a little influenced by this post, I have been considering whether it in fact holds true, and whether inside the glibness of its wit and the apparent accuracy of its content do not reveal a slight deficiency in its truth.

It sets up some interesting parameters for the question. That good is passive, unmotivated, unexceptional and therefore must be rallied by a potent call to arms, that it must fear the triumph of evil over all good, a dark empire ever enduring in which Good and its cohorts will see no hope. That evil on the other hand, seductive, easy and capricious is the default behavior of the vast hordes of humanity that thrive upon the Earth. That perhaps not everyone is the distilled essence of evil, but rather that without unceasing eternal vigilance, evil will seduce good one day and forever divest it of its innocence. And perhaps the suggestion that deep down inside, we all wish to be seduced and would be if not for the imperative demands of others that we do good.

Of course, as is the wont of words, there is the inherent ambiguity in ‘good’ and ’evil’, as if they were coherent concepts capable of clear dichotomy. Of course in the real world, there are no such clear divisions and the individual person has no recourse either to an absolute indicator of morality that is self-evident or otherwise independently confirmed to be correct, nor is it as easy to abdicate the individual as the agent of moral choice and accept that enforcement of the collective morality is the correct position to maintain. We chose the criteria on which we make our moral choices, chose before it can have moral criteria applied to it.

Secondly I find an interesting exhortation contained within the quote, the exhortation to action. The notion seems to be that passive evil is a virtue, while passive good is not. The man who is evil, has evil thoughts and evil intents but does no evil acts is actually doing something good, because wittingly or unwittingly he is preventing evil from happening. The passively good on the other hand are failing. Their inaction is directly or indirectly to blame for the evil that does occur. They are weighed down by a moral responsibility to act to prevent as much evil as they can, and every instance of evil triumphing is a personal failure. This kind of reasoning parallels closely to my mind the covenant of the Old Testament, where the collective obligations could only be failed or passed collectively. I do not believe that such a moral model naturally finds itself within my derivative moral taxonomy. In a theological and worldly model based on the individual, either as rights, responsibilities, obligations or ownership, such collective reasoning seems flawed.

The other reason that I find myself uninclined to accept Burke’s glib division is that I do not believe really in the exhortation to action. I have always cast myself as the observer, I see what occurs record remember. I do not do, until the moment for doing is correct, where the right action at the right time, weighed before and properly calculated is aimed at the right goal with the right force. I believe that exhortations to action are always flawed if they don’t tell you what the action is and why it is necessary. On the other hand I don’t hold with total passivity. The trick, and as in all things there is a trick, is to wait as long as necessary and not a second longer. Not so easy to do but essential. At some point David has to fight Goliath, but the moment when the pebble is released for maximal impact must be waited for, not hoped for by throwing a hundred pebbles simultaneously. Not all action must be done know, nor should it. That at its core is my objection to Mr. Burke, and those who would weigh upon us the imperative to act



    • md
    • Posted September 14, 2006 at 10:34 am
    • Permalink

    since you have put my post in there, i now feel obliged to respond 😉

    two things -you have said that you are an observer, you record and remember. that, to me, is not necessarily passive behavior. secondly, you have said you would act when the time is right -so you are indeed going to act; why say that you don’t believe in the exhortation to act?

    i assume you have gandhi’s quote on your blog because you identify with it .. how can you effect change without action?

  1. Wow at last WordPress ‘possibly related links’ is bringing up some good stuff on my blog. I’m glad to have found you guys!

    I am a political philosopher with an agenda to bring ethics and politics together in a single discipline. I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about good and evil recently and was inspired to write these 2 articles. Please take a look and let me know your views.

    Good and Evil, Choice and Responsibility
    Consciousness and Original Sin

    Just for the record, I don’t believe that it is possible for us to be passive. Once conscious, everything we do is a choice, even choosing to do nothing is a conscious choice which will have an effect for which we must accept responsibility. So taking action doesn’t have to mean doing something, it could also mean refusing to do something.

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