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.


  1. #1 robertm
    March 1, 2012

    I doubt “the ends justifies the means” always occurs in such a sympathetic way. DI for instance is motivated by a monomanical quest for a science/religion combo to fix the world. Heartland is a shameless corporate shill, and the late Breitbart was motivated by plain old malice.

    While its tempting to think that everyone always wants to do good, it’s just not the case. Not to mention a persons vision of ‘good’ can itself be awful.

  2. #2 Gurdur
    March 1, 2012

    Extremely good post. There’s another point to add: do we really want to live in a society controlled by malicious salacious gossip?

  3. #3 Sven
    March 1, 2012

    Interesting, it kind of reminds of an idea I’ve had about antagonists in books or movies. In my opinion the scariest bad guys aren’t necessarily the psychopaths, but the rational people who relentlessly pursue their own agenda regardless of the cost. They have a mission, and they’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish it. If it serves their ends they’ll happily sit and have a nice dinner with you one day, and down the road calmly strangle you with out a second thought.

  4. #4 justawriter
    March 2, 2012

    Yes, we must make sure that those who jaywalk to halt a robbery must be punished in equal measure to the robbers. In fact, we must apologize to the robbers for the transgression.

  5. #5 Mike Olson
    March 3, 2012

    I agree a great deal with (#4). A similar scenario ran through my mind: I’m walking through the park late at night. I know this isn’t a good idea, so I’m anxious and feel I’m taking a stupid risk. I end up having someone attempt to mug me. I’m able to stop them, but in that situation I manage to hurt them badly. Perhaps, break a bone, or create a permanent limp, or the loss of an eye. I see my incapacitated attacker is a large fifteen year old boy, who is now crying. I feel horrible guilt over this. I end up tending to the kid til police arrive. The kid feels no guilt what so ever for attempting to mug me and create the situation that led to his injury. I feel horribly guilty for creating it. I’m left feeling as if I should have went a different way, responded differently, or simply given the kid what ever little bit of money was in my pocket. It just wasn’t worth the injury that was caused. I don’t feel bad because of anger or intent, but rather out of a result that was purely a response to someone else’s action. The kid feels no guilt at all. In fact he’s angry at me for having caused his injury. In that situation, it becomes possible that even the police will hold me accountable for the injury and the criminal becomes the victim. A conscience is a hell of a thing to have to live with…and feelings of guilt don’t necessarily have much to do with genuine guilt and responsibility for damages. Don’t know how much it applies in this situation…but, I’ve noticed that malevolent folks will simply allow someone else to self-destruct despite their own culpability.

  6. #6 aj
    March 3, 2012

    To posters 4 and 5. Not agreeing with the people who promote AGW is not illegal nor immoral. Lieing, stealing and wire fraud are.

    In the original story, the writer was wondering if he should sink to finding dirt about an opponent. He did not mention how he would go about it nor how he would distribute what he found. In this case Mr. Gleick could not support his beliefs with real science so he resorted to the oldest trick in the book, change the subject.

    For someone who is supposed to teach others about “scientific ethics” this just proves that he has none and that if he lies about something this trivial, when his pay check is on the line, what else has he lied about. I would not trust a single conclusion of his for any studies he may have published in the past. This one act shows he has no principles.

    Even worse is how people who believe in AGW condone what he has done. It shows that the science does not support their conclusions, if they side with a lier and thief who can trust anything they say.

    When the citizens of the US found out that they had been lied to about WMD’s in Iraq it did not go well for those who got them into that mess. Same things goes for people who believe in AGW. If they people you follow are willing to lie to you, you deserve what you get.

  7. #7 Harry Dowling
    March 3, 2012

    If those in the AGW camp believe that their cause can justify lying and faking documents to smear opponents, do they believe that the rest of us will not eventually notice the stench?

    Who will trust you now?

    None of those who have justified gleickism deserve the name of scientist.

  8. #8 lucia
    March 4, 2012

    What position where you running for? Were there only two candidates? If not, who won?

  9. #9 chuckr
    March 4, 2012

    Andrew Breitbart. was an American hero exposing corrupt big government organizations like Acorn and officials like Anthony Wiener. He championed freedom from tyrannical government. Heartland promotes limiting the cancerous growth of federal government and they promote debate unlike Gleick.
    Only in the deluded mind of the big government sociopaths are these bad qualities.

  10. #10 Wow
    March 5, 2012

    “If those in the AGW camp believe that their cause can justify lying and faking documents to smear opponents”

    Works for the Heartland Institute.

  11. #11 Wow
    March 21, 2012

    “And its amusing how you portray the other side as your verson of “evil”, deserving to lose, etc.”

    What would be different if, for the sake of a hypothetical illustration, “the other side” really WAS evil and deserving to lose?

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