Posted on 5 mins read

People have an excessive tendency to reason by definition. We want to understand events in terms of principles; we prefer stories to systems; we like brevity more than nuance. When something doesn’t fit our framing, most of us close our eyes and fool ourselves that it does.

This underpins the perennial debate of “X is good, X is evil.” Occasionally the topic, X, is a person, in which case the question is more or less answerable. Judging with an unpretentious morality, it’s possible for a person to be (on the whole) good or evil, though this is rarely easy to diagnose.

More often X is inanimate, a concept or system or object. (As offhand examples: economic systems, political systems, religions, symbols, laws, the roles of military and law enforcement, social illusions like money and gender, the disenfranchisement of children, medications, and all other kinds of devices and tools.) Then the arguer will endeavor to prove that X either is or isn’t primarily used for evil. This is thought to resolve the original debate. But it can’t, because the debate is impossible to resolve. To moralize a class of objects is always to invoke the supernatural. This isn’t to say that the tolerance of every object is morally sound, or appropriate to functioning society—just that the question of an object’s use is unrelated to the question of whether it is definitionally evil.

The flaw is in the question itself. “Is X inherently/platonically evil?” is an ethics insufficient to our time and every other. The device that feeds can also wound. Typically it achieves both. If we attempt to reconcile such a device with its own existence, we will end up either dishonest or unenlightened. But its mere existence is well outside the heart of the problem: namely, that humans have evolved to the use of tools.

(The question “Is X primarily used for evil?” also falls short. It demands a body of untroubled evidence that we typically cannot produce or agree on, and in some cases does not exist even in troubled form.)

If we can agree that any large population contains some number of people who wish to cause harm—the reason is irrelevant—and that these people are typically aware of the variety of things that exist in their society—that is, they can reliably participate in a layman’s conversation—then we can clarify the debate immediately. The definition, design, habit, and history of object X become illustrative examples rather than essential criteria. And the question “is X evil?” changes to “in the hands of an evil person, is X a tool of unusual advantage?”

The word “unusual” is doing some work here. All symbols, all systems, all objects are imprecise in their utility. You can use a picture frame to dig a trench, if you’re so committed. But a shovel confers a far greater advantage, and a backhoe greater still. If digging a trench is equal to injury in some circumstance, the widespread availability of construction vehicles might well be an intolerable nuisance.

Let’s review the benefits of considering something not as though it had agency but as a tool of material advantage or disadvantage in the hands of an ill-inclined person.

First, it allows us to leave behind other hypotheticals:

  • “What if a good person uses X?” Yes, obviously a good person will not use it to harm people. That’s off-topic.
  • “What if very few of the people with access to X are evil?” So much the better, but also off-topic: we’re not attempting to measure the trustworthiness of arbitrary groups of people. In doing so we would reveal little more than our own dogma.
  • “What about all the people who are unharmed by X?” It would be better to say “as yet unharmed.” Every person has the right to exist and pursue their interest until they cause harm or demonstrate intent to do so. Anything that is not a person has no such right; we don’t give inanimate objects or ideas the benefit of the doubt as individuals.

The question “What if X has greater potential for good than harm?” is still valid, as it’s an argument against the unusualness of the advantage offered by the tool. A loaf of bread makes better sustenance than weapon; it’s totally unfrightening in the hands of a villainous person. Loaves of bread are not an unusual advantage to someone who wishes to cause harm, and therefore are not a public nuisance.

Second, this framing makes it possible to discuss the harms of devices that are new, rare, or not well-studied. We do not need a large body of evidence and mathematical thresholds to delineate what should or shouldn’t be tolerated. The potential abuse of something is almost always clear even when its actual abuse is difficult to measure.

Third, it prevents the debate from getting mired in anecdotes and statistical non sequiturs.

Fourth, it naturally inclines one to propose laws and regulations to limit the harms of otherwise useful devices. If something is generally beneficial but becomes a nuisance when wielded by a particular kind of person or in a particular way, we should obviously take pains to prevent that kind of person from accessing it or deter them from using it in that way. The effectiveness of these efforts depends on whether the harms can be predicted in advance and how severe they are. In the extreme case, it’s appropriate to make X available only by the vote of a large group, to restrict its access as severely as possible, or to dispose of it completely. A great benefit does not necessarily justify a great harm.

We should be careful not to make this yet another debate over definitions and platonic ideals, and also not to treat it as a yes-or-no question. There are infinite options between overthrow and indifference. The point of this approach is to treat the existence of malice as an assumption rather than a question. We should not expect to cast evil out of the human heart, nor do its victims expect us to. But we can, and should, limit the tools available to it.

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