Real vs. Hypothetical Evil

Real vs. Hypothetical Evil

In an article on the Huffington Post, Aaron Taylor suggests a variant of the famous saying, All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

His variant? “Sometimes evil triumphs not when good people do nothing, but when good people fail to distinguish between hypothetical evil and real evil, and end up doing something about the former when they should be doing something about the latter. ”

I’m not going to go over his post in detail, so you need to read it to follow what I’m about to say.

The specific example is the Arms Trade Treaty which is under discussion. Taylor sees this as a good, while the claim that there is a threat inherent in that treat to the 2nd Amendment rights of Americans is the hypothetical evil. Thus one puts up the real good of the treaty (even incomplete) against the hypothetical evil of potential erosion of the 2nd Amendment.

Before I go forward let me note that I would like to see an effective Arms Trade Treaty completed and put into effect. There are some very nasty people around the world getting weapons all too easily. At the same time I would note that in many cases such weapons start out with perfectly legal sales, such as sales by governments to people they support. Sometimes they are weapons we have sold. Just how much good would such a treaty do?

My point here is that even though I support such a treaty, the good it proposes is also hypothetical. Neither the good that is proposed, nor the evil that is feared have actually occurred. Both are hypothesized. The question, rather, is which of these hypotheses is correct, and what the balance is going to be.

Contrary to Taylor’s assertion, we can’t simply accept the real good of the treaty and assume that the hypothetical evil is less important. Neither is yet real. So we must ask first whether the treaty is likely to do the good that its sponsors claim. Then we must ask whether the treaty will, in fact, have an impact on the 2nd Amendment rights of Americans, and indeed one might ask whether such impact would be an “evil” or a “good.” Americans might also ask whether such a treaty can be entered into legally, i.e. constitutionally.

But the question is not which is hypothetical and which is not. The question is which is likely to happen, and which is not, and which effect is truly good, and which evil.

By calling the good real (by implication) and the evil hypothetical (explicitly), Taylor privileges the position he favors (ratification of the treaty) without doing the hard work of demonstrating that it will, in fact, have the good results he claims.

This type of argument is all too frequently used in debating bills and treaties. Proponents make the assumption that the bill will accomplish that which its name implies. Very frequently that is not the case. How can one oppose a bill to reduce crime, for example? Well, one can simply note that the crime reduction implied in the bill’s name is hypothetical, and ask whether that hypothesis is likely to be confirmed by reality. If all the bills passed accomplished precisely what their titles claimed, we’d likely live in a utopia. But they don’t and they won’t.

I’m afraid I don’t see that Taylor has improved upon the traditional statement.

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