The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good People Do Nothing.

This is a slight modernization of the original quote: "The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing."

That phrase was quoted by John F. Kennedy, attributed to Edmund Burke, though evidently that was not an exact quote from Burke (more about that here).

Regardless, it is a well-known phrase that deserves some attention. We might imagine that one of the worst evils of history undertaken by Adolph Hitler of Nazi Germany, the massacre of millions people and the start of World War II, could have been avoided if Hitler had been stopped earlier.

In any society, there sometimes arise a few people who lack the normal compassion that people award to each other. There truly are some ruthless people, who would stab anyone in the back if it suited their purpose. Sometimes they combine in gangs, and although they could just as easily stab each other in the back as to prey on others, they find it more convenient to choose easy victims.

Perhaps such people have endured some suffering that makes them the way they are, whereby they have lost their normal sense of caring. In some cases they can be reformed, but first they must be stopped. So law enforcement plays an important role in a society, for the preservation of good.

If evil is allowed to get out of hand, it can go beyond gang conflicts to the levels of war. In such cases the whole population can be affected by pain, anger, and fear to such a level that the normal sense of compassion fails them. It is like a fire going through a forest, except that it is the people who are spreading the fire. Unlike the natural forest fire, where the trees cannot stop the fire from leaping from branch to branch, in a war the people could stop. But they don't, because it would take an incredible level of self-discipline for them to do so.

Each side may suppose they are the ones who are thwarting the "Triumph of Evil," but in real wars it is often difficult to identify who are the "good guys". Check throughout history of what happens in wars, and in many cases you will see atrocities of slaughtering civilians, raping women and then killing them, and slicing up children in front of their parents. The combatants are no longer people; they have been turned into monsters.

There are a couple of important points we can learn from this:

  1. Evil is most effectively stopped in the early stages, and for that to be accomplished, good people must not be apathetic.
  2. Before taking action to "thwart evil," take a good look at your own motives.

Fortunately, in much of the world today nations live in peace, and many of us will never be called upon to stop criminals, gangs, or wars. However, there can be injustices in any society that are the seeds of greater evil. To prevent evil, good people must not be apathetic about those things.

Even in wealthy nations, often there are sub-cultures of poorer people, who have difficulty finding jobs, and whose children tend to drop out of the educational system before graduating. Often there are historical causes for this, arising from racism, whereby their ancestors were persecuted or exploited. Worse yet, sometimes there are harms that some people continue to perpetuate legally or without effective law enforcement, such as "pimping" to recruit young people into prostitution, or trapping people into addictions from narcotic drugs.

A good person will not be satisfied to leave that situation "as-is" but will find ways to help. This is manifested by treating people fairly themselves, supporting government programs aimed at curing the deficiencies or injustices in the education and legal systems, and contributing to charity.

A good person will be well informed. So when candidates are campaigning for leadership positions in a society, the good person will evaluate the candidates carefully and exercise his (or her) right to vote. Hopefully all candidates will seek progress for the society, rather than having self-serving motives to increase only their personal wealth and that of their closest supporters. But we have seen through history that this is not always true, so good people cannot leave it to chance.

Return to Universal Ethics home page