Friday, April 25, 2008

Don't be Evil



"Don't be evil" is the informal corporate motto for Google, established by Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit. Buchheit, who suggested the slogan in a meeting, said he "wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out," adding that the slogan was "also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent." "Don't be evil" is said to recognize that large corporations can often maximize short-term profits with actions that destroy long-term brand image and competitive position. By instilling a Don't Be Evil culture, the corporation establishes a baseline for decision making that can enhance the trust and image of the corporation that outweighs short-term gains from violating the Don't Be Evil principles.

As with the Golden Rule, one would think this is all obvious. But it is not. Evil exists, and it's not Snidely Whiplash types who say they wish to do bad things, like sadists, but rather, paranoids using principle as a pretext. I think that all the poster children of evil in the the 20th century--Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Manson--were sincere in thinking they were making the world a better place. They were just 1) wrong in their assumptions and 2) indifferent to the suffering of individuals. That is, even if you think that Germans are the Master Race, or that socialism is utopia, expediting the journey via massive starvation and slaughter is simply immoral and wrong. Further, in every case, it was not even true their assumptions were right, so the path they were so excited about getting to was not utopia, but rather, hell. Clearly these errors are correlated, in that, Hayek might think a republican government of state minimalism is optimal, but it would be inconsistent to treat people as means to an end. Milton Friedman wanted to shrink the government, but because he believed in liberty, and the value of individuals, it would have never occurred to him to kill groups to get there. And so, I think evil is basically ignorance, and has absolutely nothing to do with sincerity.

Further, given the intelligence of the German high command, intelligence has nothing to do with it. Ignorance, as any educated person knows, is not confined to the underclass. Many smart people adopt a paranoid worldview that makes them evil.

It seems there are many people who own mansions and corporate jets, and are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, who treat individuals as means to an end, and wish to make examples out of them based on some paranoid principle. These people are clearly sociopaths, but I feel no pity for them, any more than I feel pity for violent rapists because they are obviously mentally unhinged. It is their victims who deserve our support; sociopaths, especially ones of means, need disincentives, not more group hugs. They have enough enablers telling them that their behavior is somehow reasonable (all on the hope of getting some of the power or money from such rich people).

But clearly those with the means to inflict such evil are small, relegated to wealthy sociopaths. But what about those in a position to help, but choose to do nothing? As Abraham Lincoln said, 'Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power'. And so, most cubicle slaves aren't in a position to manifest any sociopathic qualities. But many are given small opportunities, that are like little 'tells' in poker, and give away a moral emptiness.

To not step forward and testify, or challenge, because it may expose them to the wrath of the evil person? Remember the Kitty Genovese story? This kind of immorality by omission, like not being good Samaritan. One has, I think, a duty to act, because choosing to do nothing is a choice. Further, when the choice merely asks one to behave reasonably, to espouse the truth, the 'risks' are always there but are small, not like asking someone to jump into a race riot to save their lone buddy.

Most of us, after grade school, are no longer called upon to exhibit physical courage. But intellectual courage is called upon, and generally journalists and educators prop up the heroes of the past and say, I would have been behind Galileo or Ruby Bridges. Who wouldn't? The real question is, if you saw someone getting railroaded, would you stand up and say, to someone important in the process, this is not right, knowing that you would incur the wrath of the powerful instigator? Unfortunately, most people, even seemingly very religious, and empathetic people, do not.

Flaubert said, 'Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times. People have always been like this.' Most people are intellectual cowards, that is, are afraid of reprobation, or making enemies in social circles. My kids learn about Civil Rights constantly, as if this is to teach them courage, but learning about courage this way is very misleading, because we have a case where there was a bad thing that is no longer defended by anyone sane. So to teach courage via this tale is like teaching about scientific courage by pointing to the idiocy of the flat-earthers. I think a better education would be to look at Hitler, and see, OK, he needed a pretext to arouse the masses, and the Jews were good. Why? Because they were unsypmathetic. Why? They were disproportionately successful. Why is that sufficient? Because they were depersonalized, rationalized via social Darwinism, etc. That would be much more informative than merely saying that those in favor of allowing blacks to enroll in white schools were right. My boys learn about a caricature of evil in school, they don't learn the real thing, and I see the moral effect this has on current adults--they have learned, or become, nothing. Hopefully, my kids won't experience evil, but as Flaubert noted, it's as probable as ever.

5 comments:

J. said...

In Plato's The Menos, Socrates says "...those who are ignorant of the nature of evil things, do not really desire those evil things but they desire good things, and they choose evil things because they mistakenly think that they are good things." Evil, for Plato, is a mistake, the ignorance of the real nature of the thing.

But then, evil actions can be profitable, and evil-doers can be fully aware of the evil things they are doing.

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