What are you willing to do in the service of what you are convinced is the truth, for the noble cause that dominates your thoughts?
D.W. Criswell writes,
“The desire to prove what you intuitively or instinctively believe is so strong yet so insidious. In scientific research there is the phenomena of confirmation bias, where in some cases scientists alter data or just misinterpret their scientific results in order to prove or confirm what they believe. For years it has been debated whether the geneticist Gregory Mendel faked or modified his data, since it is too perfect to believe that he accurately collected and recorded the data. The prominent geneticist Daniel Fairbanks with others extensively analyzed the issue and came to the conclusion in the book ‘Ending the Mendel-Fisher Controversy’ that Mendel suffered from conformation bias, he probably adjusted his data to make it look better since he was convinced his ideas were right. So the compulsion to prove your beliefs is a universal behavior.”
It happens in all walks of life. There are Christians who are so convinced of the reliability of scripture and its inerrancy that they are not careful to make certain that an archeological “discovery” or “story” are true before sharing them on social media. They don’t think about whether they are spreading lies or misinformation: if it helps the cause of Christ and leads unbelievers to accept the Gospel message then what else matters? There are people who will push narratives that match their political leanings just because it trashes their opponents or makes their side look good, without finding out if it is really so. There are commentators and pundits for any number of fine causes who will push a narrative even though they know it may be a lie just because it helps the right side win and crushes their dangerous, unhinged opponents.
In the final Harry Potter novel, one finds Dumbledore and Grindelwald as young men being caught up in an ideology that would oppress and potentially harm people. But it would be for the “greater good” and they would be doing it for all the right reasons.
History is littered with organizations and individuals who did reprehensible things because they believed their cause was that important. They were certain that their truth would win out, and if they needed to shade it with a lie, the greater good, the ultimate reward, the danger inherent in the situation, made it necessary and acceptable. Like Dolores Umbridge who was willing to use the Cruciatus curse on Harry Potter in order to find out where Dumbledore was hiding, because protecting the Ministry of Magic from being overthrown was that important.
On the other hand: in episode 19 of season six of Star Trek Deep Space Nine we get an interesting episode entitled “In the Pale Moonlight.” In an attempt to goad the Romulans into war with the Dominion, the Deep Space Nine commander Benjamin Sisko enlists the former Cardasian spy named Elim Garak to help him create false evidence of a Dominion plot to invade Romulus in order to get the Romulans to join the war with the Federation against the Domnion.
On Garak’s request, Sisko secures the release of a forger named Grathon Tolar from a Klingon prison. Then, in order to obtain an authentic Cardassian secure data rod, he is forced to trade a large quantity of bio-mimetic gel, a rare, dangerous, and highly regulated material. Dr. Bashir strongly objects, and relents only when Sisko orders him unequivocally; providing the doctor with the orders in writing, the doctor still vows to lodge a formal complaint. Matters are complicated when Tolar stabs Quark in an altercation while drunk. To keep Tolar out of trouble, he bribes Quark and convinces Odo to drop the matter. At this point, Sisko recognizes the legal and ethical compromises he is making but presses on knowing it is for the greater good.
Tolar creates a holographic record of a Dominion meeting between Damar and Weyoun discussing plans involving the invasion of the Romulan Empire. Meanwhile, on Garak’s advice, Sisko invites Vreenak, an influential Romulan senator, to Deep Space Nine in secret. Sisko shows Vreenak the recording and gives him the data rod, but the senator discovers the forgery and departs, furious and vowing to expose the deception. As Sisko faces the possibility that his actions may actually force the Romulans to join with the Dominion once Vreenak returns to the Empire, he learns that Vreenak’s ship has exploded, killing all on board.
Sisko angrily confronts Garak, who admits he planted the bomb on Vreenak’s ship just in case the forgery didn’t work. Garak also admits he killed the forger Tolar in order to keep his work secret. Garak maintains that when the Romulans scan the wreckage of the senator’s ship and find the rod, any imperfections will be attributed to damage from the explosion, and thus the recording will implicate the Dominion as planned. Garak asserts that Sisko included him in the plan to do the things that Sisko was unwilling to do himself. Garak also states that Sisko can ease his conscience with the knowledge that the Alpha Quadrant has been saved, and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer.
Subsequently, the Romulans join with the Federation and declare war against the Dominion, quickly striking at nearby Dominion outposts.
At the end of the episode, as he’s recounting all these events in his journal, Sisko admits that Garak was right about a guilty conscience being a small price to pay. He admits that he can, in fact, live with his decision. And then he erases his journal.
What lies, what crimes, what evil would one be willing to commit in order to defeat the Nazis? Can we really fault Sisko for his choices? Wasn’t the greater good worth the moral turpitude?
In the first place, you’d better be damned sure you’re actually fighting the Nazis.
Existential evil on that level is rather rare. Oh, sure, we’re always certain that our political or religious opponents are “just like the Nazis.”
You might not want to go there.
Dolores Umbridge stands as a fictional example of how wrong you can be. So does the non-fictional woman in the news this week who called the police because “an African American man is threatening me” when he complained about her dog being off its leash.
The world is full of well-intentioned, but horribly deluded people who committed horrific crimes, or just did the “stupid” because they were absolutely convinced of things that simply weren’t so.
On balance, it seems best to not give into the temptation to think that “the ends justify the means.”
But that doesn’t mean we should focus our attention on always trying to do “the right thing.”
That focus on “the right thing” is in fact what leads us astray and makes us justify the ultimately unjustifiable. Wanting to do what’s right is what too often paradoxically leads to doing what’s evil. Remember, knowing “good and evil” was forbidden to humanity by God at our beginning. Eating from that tree was a huge mistake.
Instead, our focus must be on what it was supposed to be from the beginning. The new commandment, which is actually a very old one: love one another.
Jesus made it very clear: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) If we focus on that, instead of on “what’s right” it will keep us from harming others for “the greater good.”