Can 'Good' Be The Greater Evil?

Published: Tue 26 Mar 2024 10:27 AM
Much of our conflict in the world has been (at least at the time it was happening) framed as Good versus Evil, and with Good therefore having a moral imperative to prevail 'at any cost'. Once upon a time – and in my lifetime – many of us regarded War as the greater evil, especially but not only Nuclear War. Alternatively, many saw Communism as the great Evil, and believed that if the Communists were not defeated in Vietnam then the 'Commies' would be all over the rest of us; it was the Domino Theory of Evil spreading across the planet. That domino trope is back, and the finger of the domino theorists is once again being pointed at Moscow; it's just the Commie bit that's missing, though there is a sense that Vladimir Putin might be a neo-Communist or a post-Communist.
(In the early 1970s, as domino presumptions were subsiding, two other contestants for the Evil prize became more prominent: Capitalism, and the rapidly growing awareness of what today might be called Ecocide; today's version of ecocide is 'climate change'. Further, in those 1970s' times of Southeast Asian strife, we were becoming aware that the evils of War, Capitalism and Ecocide were not unrelated.)Chess as War
In professional chess, both Good (white) and Evil (black) are rational players. (I'll stick with the racist colour trope; eg Jesus in white versus Darth Vader in black.) Professionals, presumed to be rational, know when they have 'lost' before the bitter end. And they sense a 'draw' long before a formal stalemate occurs.
Chess is an abstraction of war, with the pieces being the foot-soldiers and the elites. Almost no games of professional chess end in a checkmate or a formal stalemate. Chess players do not contest to the bitter end. The loser concedes well before the pieces are almost all removed; or the contestants agree to a draw before each side has only one or two pieces left. That's rationality, knowing when you have lost and acting upon that knowledge to minimise losses.
In professional chess, the armies and the elites – winners, losers or drawers – bear no more costs than are necessary. Additional cost is gratuitous.
War is more complex than chess for three main reasons. There may be more than two sides to a conflict. There are degrees of success (ie not simply the formal capitulation of the opponent), and both (or all) sides should have born significant costs. Even a party which achieves some or all of its goals might have incurred costs which exceeded its gains.
Secondly, the range of outcomes is neither binary (win or lose) nor trinary (with a draw as a third possible outcome). In many actual wars, including the present wars contesting global media coverage, definition of success is conspicuously absent.
Thirdly, there are the 'external costs', the 'third party' costs. We note that, on the chessboard, there are no peasants, labourers, or small businesses. Farmers, workers, tradespeople, artisans (and their families), denizens, and retirees may not care too much who rules over them; their preference most of all is for the opportunity to lead good lives with a practical degree of economic and social autonomy. Dead soldiers aside, civilians always have been the principal victims of wars fought on or near their territories. The elite democracy on the white side of the chessboard is a great thing, but so (perhaps even more so) is peace and sustainable prosperity.The costs of War
First there are the internal costs; essentially the labour and environmental (natural and built environment) resources diverted to sustain the war efforts. Then there is the destruction of life and property in the warzones, including the natural property. Then there are the diseases which proliferate in warzones.
There are two types of warzone. The political territories (eg the sovereign territories of the combatant nations) in which the fighting takes place (primary warzones), and the territories of the non-combatant allies who finance and otherwise egg-on the combatants (secondary warzones). Populations in both the primary and secondary warzones should expect to incur direct monetary costs; both the undertakers of conflict and their declared supporters.
In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Aotearoa New Zealand is a declared supporter of Ukraine, so must expect to bear some cost for that stance, though nothing like the costs facing the primary combatants. Supporters of wars have an interest in the outcomes of those wars; they cannot expect to free-ride. Being 'good' is not a costless exercise. (During the US-Iraq War, the United States free-rode to the extent that federal income taxes were reduced! That war – or at least the US-allies' side of that war – was largely paid for by China's current account surplus; though also allied lives.)
Second are the costs incurred by the innocent victims within the warzones. These collateral costs are called 'negative externalities'. Those are people and ecosystems who and which live in those territories, but who have no contributing allegiance to the warring elites. They are the 'civilian' casualties of war. In historical times, these were the only third party victims.
In modern warfare, there's a wider global externality problem. The lesser global issue is that, with global supply chains, the people living in neutral and non-aligned countries also, inevitably, suffer an economic cost. The greater issue is that modern weapons – especially and most obviously nuclear weapons – have a global fallout. But possibly the greatest issue is that of global ecocide – geocide – arising from the combination of the present global climate crisis and the greater global scope of just about any modern war that escalates. In the present age of globalisation, war is effectively globalised; a critical mass of countries take sides.
Military emissions, especially but not only arising from active warzones, outweigh any savings in carbon gas emissions arising from modified civilian consumption patterns. Perhaps even more important, with wars of global scope (ie with secondary participants like New Zealand being located in far-flung parts of the world) raging, we stop paying attention to medium-term existential problems such as global environmental tipping points.Good versus Evil
Of the two major global wars at present – and both the Russia-Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine wars are global wars – it is the Russia-Ukraine conflict that is commonly presented as a war against Evil. In this kind of war, the countries fighting Evil are all-too-easily recast as Good.
And when our side claims to be Good (and when does any 'we' or 'us' not claim to be on the side of Good?), the war comes to be cast in moral terms; in terms for which it can never be correct to concede defeat or failure. God guides the side of Good, and Good must therefore fight – if necessary to prevail – to the last man and woman, maybe even to the last bird or beast, fowl or forest.
How does Good know when it is time to stop being Good and instead to be Alive? Professional chess players know to stop early, or to negotiate a draw, whether or not their opponent is Black or White. Should Good go for the nuclear (or other 'mass destruction') option if it finds itself otherwise militarily beaten? If Evil wins, at least it's not the end of the world. That makes 'Evil' the Lesser Evil. For Good to avoid conceding to such Evil, it may have to be at the expense of the world. Good, then, would be the Greater Evil.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.
Keith Rankin
Political Economist, Scoop Columnist
Keith Rankin taught economics at Unitec in Mt Albert since 1999. An economic historian by training, his research has included an analysis of labour supply in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and has included estimates of New Zealand's GNP going back to the 1850s.
Keith believes that many of the economic issues that beguile us cannot be understood by relying on the orthodox interpretations of our social science disciplines. Keith favours a critical approach that emphasises new perspectives rather than simply opposing those practices and policies that we don't like.
Keith retired in 2020 and lives with his family in Glen Eden, Auckland.
Contact Keith Rankin

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