From The Confusion, by Neal Stephenson, Book Three of The Baroque Cycle. The Duchess of Oyonnax, in the court of Louis XIV, explains why good people do bad things:
In this world there are few who would kill for money. To believe that the Court of France is crowded with such rare specimens is folly. There used to be, at court, many practitioners of the Black Mass. Do you really think that all these people woke up one morning and said, “Today I shall worship and offer sacrifices to the Prince of Evil?” Of course not. Rather, it was that some girl, desperate to find a husband, so that she would not be sent off to live out the rest of her life in some convent, would hear a rumor that such-and-such person could prepare a love potion. She would save her money and go into Paris and buy a magic powder from some mountebank. Of course it had no effect at all; but she would cozen herself into believing that it had worked a little bit, and so conceive a desperate hope, and a desire for something a little bit stronger: a magic spell, perhaps. One thing would lead to another, and in time she might find herself stealing the consecrated Host from some church, and taking it to a cellar where a Black Mass would be sung over her naked body. Errant foolishness all of it. Foolishness leading to evil. But did she set out to do evil? Did she ever conceive of herself as evil? Of course not.
We’ve all stood on similar cusps, and either made a choice we couldn’t explain later, or knew where an innocuous choice would lead. A few years back, I was blogging about an election, and digging up dirt on a candidate I opposed. I heard a rumor that the candidate had, as a high school student, gotten a younger girl pregnant, and that she disappeared from school for a few months to deliver, then returned and never said anything to anyone. His wife is said to look a lot like that ex-girlfriend. I was told that a previous campaign had dug up a lot of the documentation already, and that I could probably track down enough details to run with it.
And I thought about it. I really wanted to win that race, I really did think that this candidate deserved to lose, I thought the story was probably true and that his hypocrisy should be exposed if so, my source seemed legit, and a lot of the legwork had already been done. Given this candidate’s moralistic way of presenting himself, those charges would probably have hurt him on election day, and rightly so.
In the end, I passed on the story. I didn’t want to win that way, and I didn’t want to drag myself into the muck along with this candidate. I didn’t invest time researching it, I never wrote it up (and am not sharing enough detail now to trace it back), and he lost the race anyway. But I can easily see how I could have spent a few days researching the issue, which wouldn’t have cost me anything but time and would certainly not have been unethical on its own. Having invested time and confirmed something, I can easily see how it might have seemed foolish not to post a story telling what I’d found. And then to dig deeper, trying to keep the story alive and to flesh out the details, I’d have gone further down a path that would be ethically murky at its best. And before long, the whole thing with the Black Mass and naked bodies would ensue.
I’ve been remembering that incident in light of the Heartland documents; I expect every choice Peter Gleick made seemed reasonable and even ethical as he was making it, though in hindsight it was clearly wrong. It’s worth bearing in mind the ease with which someone pursuing ethical ends can wind up caught acting unethically whether we’re considering why Peter Gleick pretended to be someone else to get documents from the Heartland Institute, or in pondering how folks at groups like the Heartland Institute or Discovery Institute can feel OK about constantly undermining children’s education and endangering the planet, or in remembering the life of provocateur and reputed libelist Andrew Breitbart.
Not that we shouldn’t condemn an unethical but possibly journalistically acceptable act by Gleick or unethical agendas like those of Disco. or Heartland or Breitbart. But recognize that people don’t set out to do evil, and that however absurd and unethical the end result might look, it nearly always starts out with an intention that’s laudable.