“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”.
Often attributed to Edmund Burke, quoted by John F. Kennedy, and traced to Charles F. Aked – it is one of the most popular quotations of the modern world.
The origin of the quote is less important than the message. It seems to clearly state our individual responsibility to stand up against evil – things, people and practices.
I think, since this is such a popular quotation, it is safe to say that we collectively believe that we should take a stand against evil. Yet it seems that not a day passes without some corporation, business person or politician being caught out in deception or bad behaviour. This seems at odds with our stance against evil.
Perhaps the word “evil” is too melodramatic. I know it makes me think of old movies in which good and evil were clearly distinguished – sometimes by the colour of the actors’ hat – sometimes by his moustache. In any event – it was easy. You rooted for the good guys and booed the bad guys. And the cavalry rode over the hill and put everything in order.
I’m sure that most of us believe that we are “good guys”. Not necessarily perfect, but certainly not evil. And, I’d wager that those politicians and business people do not see Snidely Whiplash or another “bad guy” when they look in the mirror.
As humans, we have an amazing capacity to fill the information gap with stories of our own making. And since we never have complete and accurate information we have a lot of room to be creative. Given that we believe ourselves to be basically good we sometimes find the need to reconcile our temptations (and actions) against our self-image.
We do not know how many people cheat (or lie or pad their expense accounts). It is fairly obvious that in certain situations there is reward for cheating (or lying or padding our expense accounts). If everyone else is doing it then we reason that we can too and still be a good guy. [Comparison against social norms is a powerful tool.]
We don’t see as the small “bad” as evil. We excuse questionable business practices as “just business”, certainly not evil – unless the practices affect our stock prices. Well that’s different –although perhaps, still not evil.
We see evil in murderers and rapists. We see evil in foreign leaders – although we need to be told which ones are evil and which ones are just eccentric.
We don’t see evil in the small cheats, the deceptions, the shirking of responsibility. Evil is too heavy a word for those things. And so we can quote the saying and feel that we will combat evil – if it ever comes to town.
Whether it a business decision or a board room discussion we need to recognize those things that make us uncomfortable – if they are not evil maybe they are slithery or not quite right.
We cannot eradicate evil from the world but we can monitor ourselves. We can create new stories to fill the information gap – stories in which we believe that good people do not cheat (or lie or pad their expense reports). It is a small thing – but it may be all we can do.
[N.B. All references to “guys” should be read as gender neutral. Relax – this is not the worst thing you will deal with today.]