During the last presidential election (some of you may remember it) occasional memes floated through social media making pronouncements to the effect that choosing the lesser of two evils (e.g. Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump in these memes’ cases) is still choosing evil. These memes seemed often to come from first hopeful, then frustrated, Bernie Sanders supporters, but it’s a notion that’s by no means confined to such groups. Ideologues of all stripes, from the religious, to the political, to the social-scientific and beyond, fall prey to the classic mental fallacy of the false dichotomy—the notion that the world is divided into two absolute, opposite natures, and that if their own ideas are pure and good (and nearly everyone, on all sides, seems to believe this of themselves), then any choice other than the pure realization of their ideas in all forms is somehow a descent into evil. Many people implicitly believe that even to choose the “lesser of two evils” is somehow to commit a moral betrayal that can be even worse than simply choosing evil for its own sake.
I hope to explode this notion as the destructive claptrap that it is.
Good and evil are not nouns. They are not Forces of Nature. They are adjectives, no matter what our myths, religions, comic books, Star Wars movies, and fantasy novels might have taught some of us. There is no Force of Good, no Force of Evil in the world. Good and evil are legitimate descriptors, but their characteristics vary depending on situation and purpose. Reality is complex and does not readily separate into universal either/or classifications that apply to all circumstances.
If one has a bacterial infection, then taking appropriate antibiotics is good. If, on the other hand, one has a fungal infection, then taking antibiotics can make it worse, and so that choice is evil, if you will. If one wants to drive through rough terrain, then a Land Rover might be a good choice of vehicle. It would not, however, be a good choice for competing in the Indy 500. While morality is a slightly less simplistic subject than the preceding examples, it is also far from an area of dogmatic absolutes. We are forced choose the apparent lesser of two evils whenever we become involved in a truly justified war (such as World War II). To shoot and bomb other humans is surely not the best possible state of the world for which we could hope, if our goals are human flourishing, but to engage in pure Gandhian pacifism in the face of the Axis powers would simply have been to hand the world over to them, as it were, on a silver platter…almost surely the greater evil.
I invite you to think back to the math class in which you first learned about negative numbers and the number line. Here we have an infinite range of possible values, heading off endlessly in both directions. To the left (by convention) we have the negative numbers, those that are less than zero, and to the right we have the positive numbers, those that are greater than zero. If you didn’t go all that far in math, you might think that this is somehow an absolute division of mathematical reality, and for certain kinds of functions, it can be. Negativity and positivity are real, consequential mathematical notions, and for any two numbers, one will be greater (more positive) and one will be less (more negative). But of course, the location of the origin, the zero point, is to some degree arbitrary. On an infinite line, no point is more special than the rest. The zero point is chosen for the purposes of representation…rather like the way we split time by with the razor of the present, bounded by an ever-changing past and future.
The point I’m trying to make, with respect to good and evil, is to remind you of the mathematical concepts of “greater than” and “less than.” These are comparative notions, not absolutes. A negative number is greater than another negative number if its absolute value is lower. -2 is greater than -10. -10.3 is greater than -54.897. And so on and on, through the infinite range of the real numbers. -13,565,896 is not just less negative than -13,565,897, it is more positive, even though it’s a long way from the origin of the number line, and thus a long way from being a positive number.
Much of reality, including political and moral considerations, is like this. The real world is fuzzy and fractal and messy, and thinking, well-meaning people perforce disagree about many things. I do think that there is a moral reality—I’m certainly not a moral relativist—but I also think no human alive is wise enough or has enough information to know what the best ethical choice is for every particular question. This is why we have conversation. This is why we have debate. This is why we have freedom of speech. A person of modest intelligence can raise a point that will lead a genius to rethink her conclusions. Even from the mouths of babes can wisdom be found.
I repeat, I’m not promoting some notion of moral relativism—I think there are greater and lesser goods and greater and lesser evils. But to choose the lesser evil, if that is the only choice we are given, is to choose the greater good, by definition. As Hobbes (the stuffed tiger, not the political philosopher) said, a good compromise leaves everybody mad. But in political and social discourse, the only alternative to compromise in areas of significant disagreement is a stubborn refusal to bend, producing the maddening stagnation and polarization we see dominating our political discourse, leading ultimately to violence if no common ground can be located.
“My side is completely right, and therefore anyone who disagrees with me in any significant way is Evil, and even to dignify them with discussion is to lose the moral high ground and to betray my ideals.” This is the kind of thinking that has infected the minds of so many young people (and not-so-young people, more’s the pity) on college campuses and in other areas of discourse. It is the self-made bane of identity politics. It may have cost the Democrats the last general election, because a certain portion of idealistic voters who wanted Bernie Sanders to be president were so disheartened by his failure to be nominated that they refused to vote at all, thinking (apparently) that to vote for Hillary Clinton was somehow to give support to a corrupt system, to debase themselves, and to endorse evil. So, they abstained, and like pacifists refusing to fight the Third Reich, they handed the presidency over to the greater of their political enemies.
Perhaps we can do better than this. Again, I am not a moral relativist—I think there are truly, objectively, better and worse solutions to ethical problems, given any particular set of circumstances. I am also, however, a Philosophical Scientist, and thus I consider all but definitional conclusions to be, in principle, provisional. At least a portion of one’s criticism of all ideas must, I think, always be directed at one’s own. An idea that survives criticism and scrutiny is stronger for the trial. One that does not is well discarded.
Us/Them, Good/Evil, dichotomous thinking is not merely fallacious given the continuous nature of reality, it is also the source of dogma and tribalism that lead to polarization and sectarian violence at all levels. It makes Tea Party idealists on the far right and their counterparts on the far left each dig their heels in and refuse to make mutual cause at any level, leaving the political ground open for cynical opportunists. It leads, at best, to stagnation that engenders decay, and at worse, to open violence.
Good and evil, for any particular circumstance, exist on a continuum, a number line. There may well be a true and legitimate dividing point of positive and negative—there really are better and worse ethical approaches and conclusions. But the lesser evil is the greater good, and if you are presented with a situation in which you must choose from between two apparent evils, then do choose the lesser one. Then, by all means, work as hard as you can to improve matters so that, if possible, the choices of your future selves or your descendants are only between alternative goods. If you do not choose the lesser of two evils when presented with such a choice, then not only do you have no right to complain when the greater evil triumphs, you are also partially responsible for its victory.