Perhaps the most debated issue in human history is whether actions which we normally view as evil can be made righteous under certain circumstances. The primary example involves killing people. Normally we classify one person killing another as evil. But then we decide that when I feel threatened by another person, I should be able to kill the one threatening me without being judged evil for that killing. My insecurity becomes a means of justifying what would otherwise be unacceptable.
This is rationalization defines necessary evil, an act or practice which we normally reject but are forced to accept because our lives depend upon it. Within this general category we address things like warfare, capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, or the withdrawal of life prolonging medical procedures when there is little hope of meaningful recovery.
Of course, the commitment to necessary evil is the basis behind all forms of coercion or punishment. If we use the threat of inflicting pain, even short of death, to force compliance, that is just another form of doing what is normally rejected in order to promote a necessary greater good. If the outcome can be described as good or desirable, then required actions to achieve that outcome don’t have to measure up to normal standards of decency.
For example we wouldn’t normally condone assaulting any one with blows to their body. That would be repugnant. But, if as parents we whip our child as a disciplinary measure, we quite often feel totally justified and maybe even a better parent than if we don’t whip.
Now some forms of punishment, like making monetary restitution, might not fall so squarely into the category of necessary evil, but the primary ways we handle law enforcement, prison time and execution, definitely do. Laws require punishments and the standard punishments involves causing pain through actions that are otherwise rejected in polite society.
So there is no denying that our legal/justice system is built on the very concept of necessary evil, evil which is totally justified if not an actual form of righteousness. Edmund Burke, the British 18th century politician famously said- “All it takes for evil men to succeed is for good men to do nothing”. And, of course, the opposite of doing nothing has always been to return evil for evil, calling the latter unnecessary and the former absolutely essential.
All legal systems that I have ever known stand or fall on this principle that evil is often required in order to survive. In order to prevent chaos.
Well guess what folks. Necessary evil creates all the chaos we could ever hope to avoid. It does it remorselessly and with absolute certainty. We can ignore that certainty and we have throughout human history, but the chaos will remain.
When we label something as a necessary evil, the only certainty attaches to the word “evil”. The modifier, “necessary”, is all a matter of opinion and rarely if ever certain.