Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Maybe We Shouldn't Make Omelettes At All

The claim that

all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing

gets bandied about on the interwebs a fair amount, and you can see both its logic and its appeal: there are costs to inaction, and a succinct and stirring statement of that is a useful piece of political rhetoric. It is often attributed to Burke, although apparently, he never did and it is most likely a poor paraphrase of something else Burke said.

Likewise, the claim that

you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs

despite apparently having been said by Lenin is often used for a similar purpose: it pithily expresses regret about the costs of action, but points to the end that the action aims at, which justifies the imposition of those costs.

Now, as a retort to the omelette analogy, Hannah Arendt allegedly (something like) said

you can break an awful lot of eggs without making an omelette.

This strikes me as not being strong enough. It points to the gap between means and ends, to the possibility of the failure of the means to reach the desired end, when, often, what we really want to get at is precisely the connection between the means and the end. After all, it strikes me as fairly likely that one of the reasons that the political system that Lenin was trying to justify is generally thought to be unjustifiable is that achievement of its ends would have been impossible without, putting it mildly, breaking a hell of a lot of eggs, and that wasn't a price worth paying for any of its hypothesed achievements, even though they would have been, if they had been achieved, desirable, genuine achievements. Put another way, we all realise that, in some situations, the cost of achieving an otherwise praiseworthy end is too high to make the pursuit of that end acceptable. What's needed is some kind of reversal of the non-Burke quote: something like

sometimes, to be good, it is necessary to do nothing.


dearieme said...

Masterly inactivity.
Benign neglect.

Rob Jubb said...

I want to get the sense of obligation though... It's fairly easy to see that you've got an obligation to prevent evil triumphing, after all.

dearieme said...

The occasional duty of masterly inactivity. The purposeful prudence that is benign neglect.

Rob Jubb said...

Maybe, yeah... It's not as snappy though, although, of course, maybe I shouldn't expect it to be.

Rochenko said...

Seen this?

Rob Jubb said...

I have now. It is good, isn't it. I particularly like the Buffy reference (I think I remember the episode, in fact).