A phrase that gets a lot of use when we talk about the government or certain ills that are part of the various mechanisms of society is “necessary evil.” Some who take the minarchist stance, or full on state supporters like we see with establishment party members, will use this term to excuse the existence or their support of something that is by and large negative. To some, it is a necessary evil to continue attacking the Middle East lest the region deteriorates at the hands of extremists. It is a necessary evil to have taxation it is needed for the government to function, etc etc.
Let’s talk about the necessary aspect here first. On what grounds are these apparent evils made necessary? Usually, the response to that question will involve detailing the importance of the outcome that makes it worth the perceived evil. So, for example, the government is called a necessary evil by supporters of the state because they view what the state provides as worth its existence. Taking that further, when offered an alternative answer such as, say, privatizing the services of the state we are met with personal preferences and beliefs.
Anarchists believe that we can function fine without a state body operating, while minarchists and other pro-state groups believe having a state is preferable to anarchy. The key term here is “preferable” rather than “necessary.” In that sense, it becomes a bit of a circular argument where its necessary to have a state because they believe the outcome will be better and the outcome will be better because the state is necessary. Whether it’s truly a necessity should be the question, not the assumption. The concept of a course of action being necessary even when we consider it evil means that we are accepting that ends justify means. The “need to” only comes into existence once we’ve formed a “want to.” All of these necessary evils are driven by the desire of the end result, and the willingness to accept those evils to accomplish our desires.
Switching out from political examples for a moment, there are some things that could be called necessary evils such as having to face the cold, harsh winter winds in order to fill up your gas tank (as I had to face shortly before settling down with a coffee to write this piece), but those also follow the flow of want before need. As wicked as the winds were, I’m not sure if I would call them evil.
Before there are the obvious criticisms I feel the need to clarify that I understand that “necessary evil” isn’t usually used to describe actual evil. In most cases, it’s used to describe things that are mildly unpleasant or inconvenient. More “I have to file this paperwork” and less “Sophie’s choice.” My issue with the term “evil” in this phrase is how overdramatized it is. Similar to the boy who cried wolf, the usage of the term evil here lessens the impact true evils should have on us. We shouldn’t treat the existence of a monopolized force using their power to make their will a mandate for a country’s population on the same level as having to go to work or get up in the morning.
In the book Principia Ethica by G. E. Moore, he coined the term “naturalistic fallacy.” The short version of this is that if one defines good or evil by natural terms such as pleasant or unpleasant (respectively) then they have committed a naturalistic fallacy. While the term and idea behind it have been subject to criticism before, I believe there is some truth in its use. Couching our moral and ethical ideas purely in natural properties suffers from the is-ought problem as well. The “evil” in “necessary evil” when used as it commonly is finds itself suffering from this fallacy.
Most of the time necessary evil is neither necessary nor evil in the true sense of those terms. While this may seem a tad pedantic to nitpick over, I believe that it is important for us to be clearer in the language we use so that key descriptive and ethical terms retain their power. The terms and phrasing that we use define how others interpret what we are trying to say. This particular phase, at best, frames things falsely and at worst trivialized the concepts of evil.
You can read more from Killian Hobbs on Think Liberty here.