On Philosophy

February 5, 2007

“Don’t Be Evil” is Evil

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:17 am

Obviously if one lived perfectly by the principle not to be evil then one would, by definition, not be evil. So I am not attempting to critique the “don’t be evil” principle itself here, but rather the attitude of trying not to be evil, in other words the behavior that results from trying to live by the principle. For those of you who didn’t know already, “Don’t be evil” happens to be one of Google’s “informal corporate motto”, so really this post is about them.

The first problem with “don’t be evil” is simply that trying to live by it doesn’t lead to being good (obviously). There are a variety of actions that are neither evil nor good (for example, choosing to eat lunch at 1:00 instead of 12:00), or perhaps that are an equal mix of both. So living by “don’t be evil” doesn’t motivate finding the ethically best course of action, it simply motivates finding one that isn’t blatantly wrong. Again, this isn’t wrong by itself, but we must take into account the fact that people and corporations make the occasional mistake. Even when we try not to do evil occasionally we fail (well, you might but I never do, that would make me a hypocrite). Because of this, if we want to be good people, or corporations, in the overall scheme of things we need to do more good than we do bad, and a principle of “don’t be evil” doesn’t really motivate the extraordinary (or simply numerous) feats of goodness that are required to compensate for our occasional mistakes, meaning that even those who followed the principle “don’t be evil” alone to the best of their ability would end up being generally more evil than good in spite of their intentions.

A second problem, related to the above one, is that “don’t be evil” encourages a kind of apathetic attitude towards good deeds. But failing to do good is itself an evil action (for example, not helping someone in need when it doesn’t cost you anything to help them). Trying only to avoid being evil will generally lead to overlooking these opportunities (since you would be focused more on finding what actions are wrong and avoiding them, not on finding opportunities to do good and taking them). Now when it comes to individuals this isn’t a huge problem. As individuals we rarely have the opportunity to do much good, and even when we do it usually comes at a noticeable cost to us. So while we might fail at least our failings are small; hopefully we make up for them in other ways. Corporations, however, have much greater potential to good, and so when they pass up those opportunities it is a much bigger failing, even evil some would say.

Let me give an example. Recently Google purchased youtube for 1.65 billion dollars, that’s $1,650,000,000. Let me put that in more understandable terms. With that much money Google could have paid 825 people $50,000 a year for forty years. Not that I am saying that Google had to do this, or that they must give their money to charity. Obviously Google has some responsibilities to itself, to make sure it says on top of the market and to make enough money to keep growing. Just as we have a responsibility to ourselves not to give all our money away, because then we would end up living in cardboard boxes and needing charity ourselves. But the proper solution is a balance, not an absence of charity. Maybe Google should have spent a smaller portion of that money on improving their own Google video service and then used the rest for good works. And good works don’t have to be straightforward charity either (in fact straightforward charity is probably one of the worst ways to do good works). A much better way to do good is to use the money to establish other, non-profit, companies, that both produce something people want to buy and employ more people (hopefully the needy people you would have otherwise given the money away to). And it’s even better to do this in developing countries where they need infrastructure more than money. And again, that is just one possibility. And to reiterate, I’m not trying to say that Google must devote all their resources to good works, or that they shouldn’t have bought youtube, I’m saying that they should devote some of their resources some of the time to good works.

Of course here some will object, saying that corporations have a legal responsibility to make as much money as they can for the stockholders (although to raise this objection is to blur legality with morality). If that was really required of them then corporations would probably be destined always to be evil, or at best morally neutral. But really the law requires corporations to follow their charter. If their charter said that they were going to use 10% of their profits for good works they could (and that would definitely be a corporation that would be good in the overall picture, unless their main business was torturing babies or some such).

So what would make a better principle? Well “do good” would be a start. But both “don’t be evil” and “do good” suffer from a third problem, which is that they don’t specify what good and evil are, and, for “do good”, how much good to do. Without these clarifications there is simply too much wiggle room. If you try hard enough you can find some good in nearly everything (at the very least you made money for the stockholders, and that is good right?). I am sure that when Google decided to censor their search results in China they found a way to rationalize it to themselves (maybe they told themselves that some access to Google was better than no access, a poor rationalization). Of course it is hard to condense a whole ethical system into a few lines for a corporate charter, but isn’t impossible, especially if you wanted to focus only on the ethics most relevant to corporations (spend X% each year on good works defined as follows: …; respect the rights of individuals as follows: privacy, …; don’t use your money or influence to establish or maintain an unfair advantage over competitors; and so forth). I am sure they could even pay a certain philosopher (nudge nudge) to come up with a condensed “ethical charter” if they were really having a hard time getting started.

So, in summary, what I am trying to say is that “don’t be evil” is not the kind of principle that makes an individual, or corporation, good. Maybe if Google had picked something better they would have remained the ethically upstanding corporation we had hoped they would be, instead of ending up in the mud with everyone else like they did.

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