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The problem with the phrase ‘necessary evil’

An Arkansas senator recently said the Founding Fathers considered slavery a “necessary evil.” Scholars like C.S. Lewis would have a problem with that.

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Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton came under fire recently for saying that the Founding Fathers viewed slavery as a “necessary evil.”

The remark, some historians say, wasn’t true, because it implies a uniformity of opinion that the nation’s founders did not share.

But there are also differences of opinion on whether the underlying assumption is true: Can an act so morally reprehensible that it is deemed “evil” ever be necessary?

It’s a question that philosophers, theologians and historians have grappled with for thousands of years, even though both the apostle Paul and the late Christian apologist C.S. Lewis emphatically answered, “No.”

“For Lewis, necessary means noncontingent, and evil is utterly contingent,” said the Rev. Jerry Root, a Lewis scholar and professor of evangelism at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

Even as society has become more secular and some neuroscientists claim that evil, in the theological sense, does not exist, the term persists. It is used to describe anything from the mildly unpleasant, such as horseshoeing, to decisions in wartime, such as the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Historians say a Greek playwright first used the term humorously in conjunction with marriage.

But when we call something a “necessary evil,” is that a justification, or an excuse?

‘Violation of sacred values’

Cotton, a Republican, is an opponent of a school curriculum based on The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which reframes the teaching of American history to focus on the desire of some colonists to preserve slavery.

In an interview with with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cotton said, “As the Founding Fathers said, (slavery) was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

Matthew Mason, a historian at Brigham Young University and co-director of Historians Against Slavery, said some of the founders might have characterized slavery that way, including Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner who once likened it to holding a wolf by the ear: “We can neither safely hold it nor safely let it go.” Patrick Henry actually used the term “lamentable evil” to describe slavery while saying he was reluctant to experience “the general inconvenience of living without them.”

But this view was not unanimous, Mason said. “Other than that the U.S. should be an independent country, the founders disagreed about just about everything” — including whether or not government itself was a necessary evil, as Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” said.

The Rev. Chris Momany, a United Methodist pastor and theologian who specializes in ethics and history, has studied pre-Civil War ethics in America and said that seminaries and universities of the time frequently taught in their “capstone” classes that there was a gray area between right and wrong.

These classes taught ethical theory on how to be good citizens, and many, but not all, taught that there were necessary evils that did not rise to the level of sin. “Others wouldn’t accept the violation of sacred values on the way to achieving a supposed public good,” Momany said. “There has been severe caution not to go down that road.”

That was the position of the apostle Paul who, in the Bible’s third chapter of Romans, was vehemently opposed to doing evil “that good may come.”

One bad banana

Some philosophers have argued that right needs wrong, light needs darkness and good needs evil, to perceive that they exist.

But Root, the author of “C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil,” says that Lewis did not believe that. “He would never say that evil could ever be described as necessary.”

“The Christian view of evil is that evil is utterly derivative. It doesn’t have an independent existence. For example, you can’t think of a bad banana without thinking of a good banana that goes bad. You can’t think of anything essentially evil that somehow morphs into good. In fact, Lewis calls evil spoiled goodness.”

“Good, on the other hand, is necessary. So evil, in Lewis’s understanding, is to good like bread mold compares to bread.”

Few schooled in Christian theology see evil as necessary; Root said that’s more the province of the ethical system called dualism, and the monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism, which is thought to date to about 1,200 years before Christ.

Marriage and government

Debate over what could be construed as a necessary evil runs the gamut from social media (sometimes necessary for work, quantifiably bad for well-being) to marriage, which Greek playwright Menander wrote in the third century before Christ, “Marriage, if one will face the truth, is an evil but a necessary evil.” (To be fair, Menander wrote mostly comedies.)

In the 20th century, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills channeled Paine in his 1999 book “A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.” Taxes have also been called a necessary evil, as they are a forfeiture of assets for the common good.

But in its most serious context, “necessary evil” is most often invoked when referring to something that causes suffering and/or loss of life, such as war.

Mason, at BYU, said he can’t see any of the great crimes of history as being necessary, except maybe for the suffering imposed on workers during the Industrial Revolution since it ultimately resulted in better lives for masses of people.

“In every country that is industrialized, in the short term, it is a savage process initially, all the stuff that Charles Dickens wrote about, incredible gaps of living standards and child labor. ... But it’s hard to look at the overall trajectory of human life on this planet and not see enormous benefits, like increased lifespan and prosperity, not equally distributed, but overall. Maybe that might be an exception.”

In this way, “necessary evil” is almost shorthand for utilitarianism, the ethical system that holds that the correct action is one that results in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.

One reason the term retains power in the 21st century is the prevalence of consequentialism, which holds that the value of an action should be judged by its consequence, said Momany, the author of “For Each and All, The Moral Witness of Asa Mahan.”

“We have reduced so much to the results we want,” he said.

“You could use the word outcome (instead of consequence). What are you willing to tolerate to create certain outcomes?” he asked, adding that the pandemic is a good example of this, with some people saying that a certain loss of life is an acceptable risk in order to repair the economy.

While people with power and privilege may deem suffering or death necessary, “the people on the business end of that” likely wouldn’t, nor would many observers.

An example is in the 1998 Dreamworks film “The Prince of Egypt,” when Pharoah tells a young Moses, horrified by the slaughter of children, “Sometimes, for the greater good, sacrifices must be made.”

“Looking at acceptable losses is very much a necessary-evil line of thinking,” Momany said. “But it seems pretty easy for people in power to have that conversation and not to share the risk.”