Necessary Evils

Once upon a time, a scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates and voices its concern of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion assures the frog ‘if were to I sting you, we would both drown’. So the frog agrees and halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog asks ‘Why did you do that? Now we’re both going to drown’, to which the scorpion replies ‘It’s in my nature’.

This parable has been used for different purposes in folk lore. One of the messages is that’s it’s simply impossible for certain things to overcome their nature, even if they appear reasonable and rational. But I derive more meaning from the fact that to the reader, that story doesn’t leave you with the impression that the scorpion is evil. The scorpion didn’t deceive the frog; it genuinely wanted to cross the river and had no intention of jeopardising that goal, and the scorpion stood to gain nothing from harming the frog. Yet in the moment he did it anyway because that’s just what scorpions do, there was no malevolence behind the act.

I think this sets the foundation for looking into what humans consider to be evil, and under what circumstances an evil-seeming action actually deserves the label. Generally, I’d say that for an act to be evil, a person would need to commit it with some level of premeditation. If somebody strikes another person in the heat of the moment, it may be a crime, and it may be intentional within that moment, but we wouldn’t typically class it as an evil act. On the other hand, if I wake up each morning and go downstairs to my basement to resume torturing somebody for fun, I’m certainly committing an evil act because the intention to do harm persists across time.

But the other element here is the motive for causing harm. Various countries practice torture as a means of obtaining information in the face of terrorist attacks. It doesn’t take a background in maths to work out that the suffering inflicted by torturing somebody with information about a terrorist attack could very well outweigh the suffering inflicted upon the possible victims of that attack, assuming you get the intel you need. In these cases, though there is premeditated harm imposed on another person, it’s for the ‘greater good’, and if the torturers had the choice, they would prefer not to have to torture anybody.

This isn’t me endorsing torture, in fact I think it’s generally ineffective. But I’m trying to determine what deserves the label of evil, because I’m interested in what should be considered outrage-worthy. Is adding hidden sugars to food evil? It’s certainly premeditated; nobody has ever added hidden sugar to a supermarket pasta brand and updated the nutritional labelling in ‘the heat of the moment’. And it certainly does harm; obsesity rates are ever climbing and with them rise rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, osteoarthiritis, and depression. But is there a desire to do harm? I’d say no. The CEO of the pasta brand would love if he could add sugar without contributing to these epidemics, but there are natural pressures on the company to increase their market share, and there are plenty of ex-competitors who stuck to their moral guns and went bankrupt as a result.

I look at this situation and am reminded of the story of the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion’s innate desire to sting, almost indiscriminately, other animals was developed over millions of years of evolution. Plenty of scorpions existed who were far less trigger-happy, but one way or another their restraint got them killed. The result, after all those years of millions of variations of scorpions being pitted against the pressures of the natural environment, is a vicious killing machine. Yet to then view the actions of that killing machine as anything other than an unfortunate inheritance of evil-like behaviour would be completely irrational.

So what pressures of selection give rise to the institutions we look at today and call evil? In the food industry, there is a constant low-resolution dialogue between consumers and producers. Consumers signal their vast array of values through their purchasing decisions. Some of those values are moral, for example vegetarians who choose not to buy meat, or even regular consumers opting for free range eggs over caged eggs. But hunger developed far earlier in the evolutionary timeline than morality, so it’s no surprise that the main factor behind consumer decisions is simply satisfying hunger and the ancient desire for sugars and fats. If there is a brand that fails to satisfy the desires of a large enough demographic, it’s going to fail, and what little market share it had will be subsumed by its competitors. If a brand recognises the signals of consumers, it can respond with its own signals by adjusting its food to accomodate. Through this iterative process, given enough time, you will end up with an assortment of brands that have each succeeded in both satisfying the selection pressures of consumers, and outcompeting other brands trying to do the same. When you look at the result of this, do you feel anger that so much food has hidden sugars? Even if there is genuine deceit at play, and none of these companies want you to know that there’s hidden sugar in their foods, is there really cause for outrage?

You might say ‘but they should know better, they did the wrong thing knowingly’. That’s certainly true, but if the system is geared such that you can start with a huge number of brands, all with their own differing levels of morality and values, and then after running the engine for a while, all you have left is a small group of deceitful brands adding hidden sugar to everything, that says more about the system than it does about the individuals making the decisions in those winning brands. I look at morally bankrupt brands the same way I look at scorpions. If the natural pressures applied to scorpions over time gave kindhearted reasonable scorpions triumph over the trigger-happy ones, then we wouldn’t have any trigger-happy scorpions. If the consumer selection pressures applied to food brands gave transparent, healthy brands a far greater market share, then obviously we wouldn’t see many sneaky CEOs at the top pulling dodgy tactics. Dodgy people exist, everybody knows this. In any sufficiently large population space you’ll have pretty much every mental trait you can imagine in some non-zero portion. That problem will not be fixed any time soon and it will probably never be fixed.

This isn’t me justifying the unethical decisions of big corporations, any less than explaining the behaviour of scorpions justifies them stinging people. I’m saying that whenever you come across injustice, you can always zoom out and identify a pattern that puts the original injustice in perspective. And if you ever want to minimise said injustice, you’d fare better by looking at what you can do about the pattern.

This all begs the question of whether we have any systems in society where genuinely evil people, who intentionally do harm for the sake of harm, are selected for. I’m sure I could do a better job at coming up with answers, but one possible answer would be the subjects of exposés from 7 News.

If you sit down and watch 7 News, you are virtually guaranteed to watch a showcase on somebody who may very well be evil. You might be wondering ‘how could they do something so terrible?’. Maybe the person shows no remorse, and would happily do it again. Does that person belong in prison? Probably. Should you feel outraged at what they did? Maybe. Consider the fact that by sitting down and watching 7 News you are effectively participating in a signalling dialogue between consumers and producers, a dialogue that extends far before your birth. Over a long period of time, the commercial radio stations determined that reports showcasing emotionally provocative material, including outrage against evildoings, increased ratings more than other content. While a certain number of consumers signalled their interests by watching ABC or SBS, which focus moreso on geopolitical wide-scale issues, the commercial radio stations honed in on highly localised events like theft, murder, etc, and issues most relevant to a low-socioeconomic demographic, who really do stand to lose something if supermarkets are, for example, engaging in price gouging. Unlike hollywood movies, which are transparent in their advertisements about what kind of emotions the movie is going to try and evoke in you (This Summer, Prepare To Be On The Edge Of Your Seat), commercial news stations depend on the euphoric emotional journey being unbeknownst to the viewers. If you’re feeling outrage, and then reflect on how good it feels to be outraged, the feeling disappears.

So when you’re watching an evil person do evil things in a 7 News showcase, what is the right way to respond? The pain the victims suffered is real. The damage to the community is real. It’s all real, but if it didn’t happen, 7 News will have found something else to fill the void, and you’d be offered some other opportunity to experience the grief, empathy, anger, and indignation, all on a silver platter. You’re viewing windows into evil acts, that are truly evil, yet it couldn’t have been any other than evil. It’s been selected for by a broadcaster who in turn is selected for by consumers, whom you are one of.

A lot of this could be construed as a veiled endorsement of increased government regulation. Indeed, it’s government funding to the ABC which allows it to function without sacrificing journalistic integrity to satisfy the more primal inclinations of viewers. It’s government regulation that has increased transparency in food labeling, and the health star rating, though flawed, has given consumers the ability to better signal their more noble values, such as the desire to be healthy, so that producers in turn stand to lose market share by producing unhealthy food. Communist sentiment believes that systems built on agents acting in their own interests necessarily gives rise to injustice, and it has a point. But any system composed of signalling efforts between two groups has the ability to do good, so long as incentives are sufficiently aligned. One way to align incentives is to directly subsidise ethical practices. Another is to increase transparency. If I could get everybody watching shows dependent on outrage — like 7 News — to transparently see what they were really being sold, I think it could do the world a lot of good. But just like how sugar in food happened for a reason, so did outrage pieces in news outlets.

People want this stuff, and am I angry about that? No.

Because it’s in our nature.



Less and less certain of my opinions with every passing day

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