Saturday, August 8, 2009

Benefiting from evil

A topic on which there has been some, but not enough, written is that of complicity after the fact. A standard case is the question whether it is permissible to use the small amount of usable Nazi concentration camp medical "research" data (apparently some of the typhus and hypothermia data is useful). Is there any reason to avoid benefiting from the evils of others? I've made a distinction between two sorts of benefits: those benefits that the original evildoer intended, and other benefits. For instance, the Nazi camp doctors may have intended to benefit medical science. If so, then by using their data, one is "playing along" with their plan—one is, in some sense, complicit. It does not follow that the action is wrong, but it does follow that one has a reason (perhaps not conclusive) to refrain from it. On the other hand, the police officer who gets promoted for catching a criminal benefits from crime in a way that the criminal did not intend. This kind of benefiting from an evildoer's action is not a case of complicity, and there is no prima facie reason to refrain from it.

It has hit me that an exactly parallel issue comes up for benefiting from one's own past evil activity. If one has lied on one's resume and as a result got a job, then one's continuing to have the job is a way of benefiting from one's own past ill deed, and, moreover, the benefit is one that was intended by oneself when one lied. It seems to me that one can and should say very similar things about benefiting from one's own past evil deeds as about benefiting from others' evil deeds. In other words, when the benefit is not an intended one, and especially if it was not even hoped for or expected, one is not playing along, and one need have no qualms. For instance, when one benefits from one's past sins by becoming more humble through reflection on one's past weakness, that is not something one has any reason against. On the other hand, one does have prima facie reason not to continue in the job when one got it illicitly. Nonetheless, ultima facie, one might have reason to remain in the job—for instance, if one's employer could not replace one without significant loss to the employer (for instance, because one's employer has put significant effort into training one), one may have sufficient reason to continue in the job.

I think that the parallel between complicity in one's own past sins and in the past sins of others is illuminating and worth plumbing further.


Richard H said...

Or what if I operate a farm that was maintained, many years in the past, by the work of slaves?

Or what if I own land that was taken from Native Americans many years ago?

Or, going a little farther abroad, I live on land in England taken from the original Britons by the Saxons (and then the Normans)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, the first thing we need to ask is the extent, if any, to which you figure in the evildoer's plans. In none of the three cases do you specifically figure in the evildoer's plan. (I think that does matter. If your uncle killed Native Americans specifically to provide you with land, you would have a quite strong reason to refuse the land--even if there were no Native Americans left to give the land back to.)

Now, you may figure in the evildoers' plans in a generic way. Thus, maybe, the slaveowner was thinking: "I will have my slaves maintain a farm that future generations of white folks will operate." Then, assuming you're white, you are a cog in the evildoer's plan if you operate the farm.

However, typically, the further away from the evildoer you are temporally and familially, the vaguer and less central to his plan are the evildoer's intentions for you. The slaveowner's primary focus was, most likely, on his own family and the fairly near future, and any thoughts for such a distant future were likely vague and occasional. Such considerations of distance may not remove the moral reason one has to frustrate his plan. However, they weaken the strength of the reason to such a degree that the reason can easily be overridden by other reasons.

Joshua Blanchard said...

One immediate criticism I have of the Nazi doctor case is that the concept of being "complicit" really doesn't fit here. It seems to me that complicity has only occurred when someone is causally involved in an ongoing event. So I don't think there's even a good prima facie reason in the case of benefiting from Nazi experiments. (Plus, it just seems absurd that one would, say, refrain from utilizing a life-saving or pain-reducing procedure for one's child in order to avoid benefiting from Nazis. This just reminds me of similar moral dilemmas where it seems like we are just preserving our piety - like Kantian reason not to lie to Nazis about there being Jews hidden in the house).

One interesting thing your post made me consider was the role of reconciliation and related moral events in the issue of benefiting from evil. For example, it seems like your falsified job application scenario would be satisfactorily repaired by admitting the deed to one's supervisor, repenting and being forgiven for it. In fact, just quitting could be construed as in some way morally cowardly.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose I have a very minor case of acne, and there is an acne cream that was developed by Nazis in some horrendous ways. In that case, there would be something indecent in using it.

On the other hand, if it was an effective cancer drug, using it would be acceptable, and perhaps even a duty.

These two cases suggest that there is reason to avoid such complicity, but that reason is sometimes overridden by other considerations.

Suppose you don't buy my acne cream example. Well, suppose you have a choice between two acne creams: one developed in ethical ways, and the other developed by Mengele in some horrendous way (subcutaneous injections of large quantities, etc.) They are equally effective, equally safe and have equal price. It seems clear that you should opt for the one developed ethically.

Madeleine said...

If the acne cream developed by Mengele was developed in another country before I was born then I am not sure that the force of your complicity after the fact idea is as strong.

It struck me in reading your initial two examples that in the first those using the Nazi data had nothing whatsoever to do with the gathering of that data and probably do not endorse in any way the methods used to gain it. However, in your employment example the actor is more entangled and I am not sure I agree you can justify you ultima facie judgments given that you have ruled the person complicit in the original wrongdoing.

Benefiting someone from cancer does not override the duty to not commit genocide.

Joshua Blanchard said...

"In that case, there would be something indecent in using it."

I understand that this is your assertion, but it's unclear what would be wrong in using it. It can't be "complicity," a word you used earlier, because the notion of complicity is bound up with participation in the actual act. Say the Nazis were still around, and my payment for acne cream went to Nazi doctors - then we could make a case for complicity. Otherwise, it strikes me as a new brand of superstition - akin to not wanting to a live in a house, because someone died there a generation ago. Sure, there's something eerie about it, but nothing immoral (in fact, had the person not died, maybe I wouldn't be able to "benefit" by living there now).

"They are equally effective, equally safe and have equal price. It seems clear that you should opt for the one developed ethically."

There might be a reason for this, but it seems like it is a-moral. Given that they are completely equal in other ways, perhaps you may as well avoid the eeriness of buying Nazi-made products. But what else could be factoring in? (Indeed, we have to assume that both companies at present are not engaging in genocide, and have honest workers and executives who benefit from us buying their product, etc.)

So to bring this to your main points in the post, I suppose it seems to me that this "after the fact" complicity has no moral implications by itself. (It certainly has no moral correlate - there's nothing noteworthy about benefiting from ethical scientific experiments) Any moral issue is going to derive from other sources. (For example, affirmative action might help prevent white students from benefiting from past racism, but that is an amoral byproduct of a legitimate moral cause: preventing black students from suffering from past racism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the eerieness is a guide to the truth of the matter. We have a prima facie duty not to be participants in an evil plan. This duty also applies when our participation is limited to non-evil parts of the plan.
A different route is this. One benefits from the success of one's plans. Indeed, accomplishment is a part of our well-being. Then, insofar as one is helping to bring the Nazi's plan to fruition, one is benefiting the Nazi, in a way that is prima facie contrary to justice which requires us to strive that evildoers be punished.

Alexander R Pruss said...

And there is a prima facie good about helping to bring a good plan to fruition. By spurning an ethically correctly developed therapy, one is frustrating the researchers' good plan, and that is prima facie wrong. Similarly that one's mother worked all her life (in ethically good or neutral ways) to build up the company you are now inheriting is good reason not to spurn that inheritance.

Joshua Blanchard said...

I feel like I'm belaboring the point now (and I don't disagree that this area of moral discussion is quite interesting and worthy of investigation), but don't you think that this usage of complicity (or the even stronger word participation) leads to a little absurdity?

For example, say a Nazi had the goal that philosophers would use his research as an ethical example in blogs? Or more complicated: Say the Nazi had the goal that ethicists would eventually convince people not to use his cream. It seems to me that it doesn't matter what the Nazi intended, or what his crazy scheme was. In fact, it seems to me quite clear that we shouldn't let Nazis influence our decisions one way or the other, in this way.