The Conservation of Evil

Most of us, most of the time, rely heavily on intuition in our moral decision-making. Nothing wrong with that; it’s a lot more efficient than sitting down to philosophize every time we need to do or judge something, even if we had an abstract moral philosophy we were absolutely comfortable with, which most of us don’t. But intuition is vulnerable to certain types of fallacies, including those that seem solidly true because of their resemblance to something true in another field of life.

We’re all familiar with the principle behind the conservation of energy, even those of us who know nothing about physics; the basic idea of conservation forms a part of the body of received knowledge we call common sense. The moral equivalent of the conservation of energy could be called the conservation of evil. Unlike its physical analogue, the conservation of evil doesn’t stand up to more than casual scrutiny.

This fallacy boils down to the assumption that the amount of evil in a system stays constant, or, looked at another way, that the amount of evil that comes out of a system is equivalent to the amount that goes into it. Evil on the output end looks like harm to human beings, or whatever else moral bad looks like to you(1). Evil on the input end looks like guilt or moral responsibility.  This fallacy sometimes produces plausible results, as you’d expect from an assumption that’s been incorporated into our intuition. For example, if I try and succeed to kill someone, that produces a result much more evil than if I try and succeed to cause someone discomfort, and it seems fair to say that my moral guilt is proportionately greater.

But in other circumstances it’s easy to see that there is in fact no conservation of evil; for example, lightning could strike and kill someone, causing a very evil output without any evil input, since we can hardly assign moral responsibility to atmospheric conditions. Even with human involvement, there are cases where the conservation of evil leads to obviously false conclusions. If I have a friend of mine over for dinner and make a dish with almonds in it, not knowing that he or she is horribly allergic to almonds, and my friend subsequently dies from eating the meal I’ve made, it’s clear that something tragic has happened—something evil, by the definition we’re using. But I don’t think anyone would argue that my moral culpability is the same as it would be if I’d taken an axe to my friend; I’m not a murderer. Some people might argue that I’m exactly as guilty as I would be if my friend hadn’t been allergic to almonds and nothing at all bad had happened. Others might argue that I’m at least a bit guiltier, for various reasons. But surely no one who gave it much thought would argue that my guilt could be entirely inferred from the system’s output, the death of my friend.

But since no one would actually argue for the abstract validity of the conservation of evil, why bother attacking it? Moral intuition probably steers us right more often than wrong, but it does us good to recognize the systematic ways it can mislead us. A very moving episode of “This American Life” tells the stories of several people plagued by guilt because their actions resulted in evil outcomes, even though it’s widely agreed they bear little if any moral responsibility. It’s a deeply ingrained gut belief in the conservation of evil that keeps these three men feeling guilty against all reason. In lesser ways, this happens to all of us sometimes, when our actions have unexpected or unintended evil consequences. I’m not saying we should feel guilty only for things we intended—moral responsibility is probably not that simple. But it’s also not as simple as the conservation of evil, and we should be wary of our intuition when it suggests otherwise.

(1) I want to be clear that this isn’t about utilitarianism, an abstract moral philosophy that determines an action’s rightness or wrongness by its consequences for human utility. I would define moral intuition as an unconscious collection of heterogeneous mechanisms for producing moral judgments. What I’m talking about here is one of these mechanisms, the conservation of evil, which relies on consequences to produce judgments.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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