Searching for Evil

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Google lives by a simple mantra: “Don’t be evil.” This is both a simple, informal company motto and the guiding premise of a code of conduct for all company employees and board members. Unpacking its meaning a little, the preface to the code of conduct explains

“… it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”

By that definition “evil” means unlawful, dishonourable and disrespectful conduct; in concrete terms, Google’s actions would be evil if it overlooked its customer’s needs, did not provide the best products and provided biased access to information. I’m rather glad that Google is a law abiding and efficient organisation; but it is disturbing that we live in an age when an international corporation expect public applause for such a chillingly amoral definition of evil.

Google has defined “evil” down to the socially unacceptable – the dishonourable, the unlawful – and the pragmatically wasteful – providing a poor product, a poor relationship with consumers. The good, then, is what one can get away with. Or, to be a little more generous, what respectable society will tolerate. The dangers are obvious. Respectable society is a fickle creature: what it deems virtuous today might be anathema tomorrow.

Google’s commitment to “freedom of information” seems relatively uncontroversial. Indeed, democracy thrives and survives because every idea can be subjected to criticism; no custom or creed is above critique. Yet, the freedom to express and criticise ideas is too readily equated with the right to nurture and sate every desire. No image is censurable if it is viewed in the privacy of one’s home; no picture is perverted provided no-one was hurt in its production. This assumes, of course, that we do not believe that dehumanisation, objectification and corruption have the potential to hurt a person.

The problem of evil for secularists is that they cannot believe in evil. The word merely expresses an emotional reaction; a sincerely held and deeply felt “yuk”. But this reaction is non-rational; it simply tells us what the secularist feels about an act or idea. It does not purport to describe any objective state of affairs in the external world. For something to be evil it must degrade and subvert the way things ought to be. However, for the secularist there is no way that the world should be; the universe just is.

On occasion, the world might not satisfy our preferences. But then, the universe did not unfold with our preferences in mind. The universe has no design, no purpose, no good and no evil; non-conscious matter and non-purposive laws of nature cannot even rise to the moral height of pitiless indifference. Everything that is just happened to happen. Eventually, we will just happen to vanish into the void. Our consciences reflect no deeper truths; so, who is to say that corporations aren’t rational to ignore them?

After all, the corporation only values what can be measured; it lives in the real, quantifiable world of the economist. It can bring real, material benefits to its shareholders. Why should it care about evil? The bureaucratic machinery of the state, the neologisms of therapists and the measurements of science cannot describe evil. So the secular world pretends that it does not really exist; notreally. Evil has no more substance than a dream; it is just the opposite of wish-fulfilment.

And if a search engine allows consumers to trawl the globe for images of abuse and violence; well, better that than anything that smacks of censorship. Reality is measured in profit margins and profit margins are affected by regulation. By “Google’s” definition, anything that is bad for business is evil. The directors of multi-national corporations must never be evil, so they must defend meaningless abstractions like “a free and open internet”;  our families and young people must suffer the consequences indefinitely.

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