The inaction of “good” men


“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is when good men do nothing.”  – Edmund Burke

Regardless of whether this was Burke or not, I’d like to examine this statement in more depth and see if I find it true. Firstly, instead of trying to answer what is evil from my own reasoned perspective, I’ll choose to let it prevail as a subjective viewpoint of the “good” person. Let us proceed by tentatively agreeing that your viewpoint is the one that determines what is good or evil. So the only evil that needs attention for the moment is one that you can identify as evil.

Secondly, I’d like to distinguish between doing nothing as a reasoned choice and doing nothing for any other reason including indifference, lack of an imagination, etc. They are different because a reasoned choice involves a decision to refrain from action as a tactical choice which supports a strategy of opposition, whereas doing nothing for any other reason may appear to be indifference of one form or another possibly stemming from a lack of will, energy, or other causes. I believe that Burke is referring to the latter in his statement.

Now, if someone does evil in your eyes, how do you respond to it? For the sake of simplicity let us say that a thief has stolen a purse from a pedestrian on the street. What could the possible responses be? Do you raise an alarm? Do you give chase? Do you call a police line? If you have a gun, do you shoot at the thief? Would you approve of such actions at all? Certainly, there are a wide range of responses based on your personal perspective, but assuming you identify this theft as evil, is a response to it not appropriate? I believe that most of us would respond to stop this theft, and support actions to prevent this. This “evil” is of a direct experience and our responses to it are relatively simple. However, what happens when we look at a less direct evil and more complex evil?

Lets look at the use of DDT as a pesticide. DDT is a possible carcinogen and its use is not recommended except for malaria control. It has significantly serious harmful impact on the environment and human health. Now, what if you see your neighbor use DDT? What are your responses? If you’re like me, my response would be to repress my impulse to give them a piece of my mind. And to me this is “good” doing nothing to stop an “evil”. Now assuming that your neighbor cites lack of funds, do you lend him money?

Increasing complexity of our responses to indirect evils means that more of our time, energy and money may be needed to properly address the issue which is a disincentive to all but the very few who we label “activists”. So, we do have our excuses. However, what is the outcome then? Corruption becomes the norm, DDT use proceeds unchecked,the gap between haves and have-nots grows bigger and suddenly the polity finds itself alienated from the very mess that it has created through its inaction.

But is there a way out of it? That’s what I want to think about next. If you’ve got some ideas, or feedback, please do share!

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