Evil achievements

Article by Gwen Bradford. This article appears in Issue 59 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

Achievements play a central role in our lives. Indeed, many people would say that a life of simple comfort wouldn’t be as good as a life with accomplishment – and those accomplishments are worth the effort even at the expense of some comfort, even a large sacrifice. Achievements, it is reasonable to say, are valuable, and enrich the lives of achievers.

But just what is an achievement? Consider the range, from the world-changing to the personal: the discovery of DNA; Banting and Best’s development of insulin; Wagner’s Ring Cycle; running a marathon; buying your first house; baking a soufflé without letting it fall; building a replica of the Titanic out of Lego.

What, we might wonder, do all these achievements have in common, and why are they worth doing?

One thought is that achievements are valuable because of what they achieve: the product. The discovery of insulin was a valuable achievement because it saved many lives; Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a great artistic achievement because it resulted in an incredible work of art that changed the genre.

But not all achievements have valuable products. Running a marathon, for example, doesn’t result in anything apart from its own completion. Indeed, all you get when you run a marathon is 26.2 miles away from where you started. Many people get health benefits from the experience, but it seems that running a marathon is valuable even apart from these effects. In fact, it is typically not the case that running a marathon has lasting health benefits, yet I think we are still inclined to say that it is an achievement, and something that is good, as a result. Similarly, climbing Everest doesn’t result in anything beyond being on top of the mountain. Sure, there might be a nice view, but the view certainly isn’t what makes the climb valuable. After all, several blind climbers have made the ascent and surely their achievements are impressive and worthwhile.

Because these paradigmatic achievements are valuable, yet have no independently valuable products, a reasonable inference is that the process of achievements generates value. Presumably there is some cluster of common features of achievements: exercise of skill, effort, competence, ingenuity, or perseverance. All achievements are difficult, in one way or another, and the features engaged in difficult activity are a plausible source of value. More could be said about exactly what these features are and why they are valuable, but for now let us suppose that there is indeed some cluster of features common to the processes of achievements. Supposing that we are correct that these features are common to all achievements, it stands to reason that achievements are all valuable in virtue of these processes. The value, it turns out, is in the journey rather than the destination, to be clichéd about it. Of course, having a valuable product contributes value to an achievement – surely holding all other features constant, an achievement that results in a highly valuable product is a more valuable achievement than one that does not. But all achievements also have value in virtue of their process.

Overall, then, achievements are characterised by a process-product structure, and while many achievements have valuable products, not all of them do. Insofar as achievements are valuable, and assuming that they are valuable for the same (or similar) elements in all (or most) cases, achievements are all valuable for the process. Presumably, there are some core characteristics of the processes of achievements, and it is because of these features that achievements are all valuable.

But there are some achievements, it seems, that have products that are not just zero value, but worse: they are evil! The creation of the atom bomb; the invention of poison gas; the perfect murder.

Now, one might be inclined to reject the idea that such horrible things could truly be achievements. Perhaps achievements must have products that are at least zero value – an evil product excludes an activity from being an achievement. But I think this judgement would be hasty. Case in point being the ingenious art heists depicted in exciting films such as the Thomas Crowne Affair or Entrapment. An art heist has an evil product – a theft – but to say that pulling off an incredibly imaginative plan with dazzling skill and panache is not an achievement would be overly restrictive and schoolmarmish. So it is certainly possible for an achievement to have an evil product.

But what are we to say of the value of such achievements? If pursuing good, non-evil achievements is indeed worthwhile, is this also true of evil achievements? After all, achievements are valuable because of their process – and these good-making features that are present in benign and good achievements are no doubt also present in evil achievements. So we might ask – can evil achievements have positive value?

I think the question to this is yes: art heists, it seems, aren’t entirely evil. Indeed, it even seems that there might be some positive intrinsic value to them. As evidence for this, look at our reactions to heist films such as The Thomas Crowne Affair. We enjoy these films and root for the “heroes” to pull off their escapades – we are impressed by these achievements, and this seems like the fitting reaction. Insofar as goodness is the sort of thing that it is fitting to be impressed by and respected, then we have some evidence that art heists have at least some value, or some valuable part.

If these lesser evil achievements can have some positive value, what about the extremely evil ones? The perfect crime could be a murder, just as well as it could be a clever art theft. Do these very evil achievements have even a good part or are they entirely evil? Since the very evil achievements share the same good-making features of their process as the lesser evil (and good) achievements, then we will need to account for what happens to that value if we are inclined to say that the very evil achievements have no value at all.

We might appeal to an additive principle so that the value of an achievement is a matter of the sum of the value of the process and the value of the product. Thus achievements with highly positive products – such as the cure for cancer, or a great work of art – are extremely valuable. Assuming the process always has some positive value, achievements that have products of negative value may turn out to have either positive value overall – if the evil product is a very small evil – or negative value overall, in a case where the product is very evil. So according to the additive principle, the positive value of the process of very evil achievements can be outweighed by the negative value of the evil products. In cases where the product isn’t quite so bad – and where the process is especially impressive – then the achievement is good overall. So an exceedingly impressive art heist might be valuable overall, in spite of its evil product.

Although the additive principle is appealing in its simplicity, it doesn’t capture some important intuitions about evil. We need to have a way to distinguish between aiming at something bad and producing something bad by accident. It seems worse to engage in a process with the aim of bringing about something bad, but if we just add the value of the process (in virtue of, for example, difficulty, competence) then it won’t capture this difference in value.

A more sophisticated approach would be to appeal to the philosophical principle that captures this very notion: that loving the good is good, and loving the bad is bad. Here we take “loving” as something very broad, which extends to pro-attitudes in general, including enjoying and desiring, and to pro-activities, such as pursuing or promoting. This principle – that having pro-attitudes toward goods is good, and towards bad is bad – has its roots in Aristotle, and has been discussed by G E Moore, Franz Brentano, and, more recently, Robert Nozick and Thomas Hurka. Let’s give the principle that loving the good is good a fancy Latin name: the amare bonum bonus principle. It accounts for the value of certain pro-attitudes when directed toward objects of certain values.

In achievements, this principle is at play. Achievements involve a process in which the product is being pursued. Pursuit is a pro-activity, and so in cases where the pursuit aims toward a product of either positive or negative value, amare bonum bonus is activated. As a result, then, the value of the pursuit is altered in response to the value of the product. This entails that achievements with positive products have positive processes, and negative products have negative processes.

Yet if what I suggested earlier is true, the processes of all achievements have positive value. If the amare bonum bonus is correct, then what are we to say about evil achievements? What happens to that value that was originally in the process? The amare bonum bonus tells us the positive value of the pursuit of an evil product is negative – it loses its positive value.

We might be inclined to accept this implication for achievements with very evil products – such as heinous murders. The amare bonum bonus would tell us that ingenious, difficult “achievements” that result in a murder, are all the more evil as a result of their elaborate ingenuity.

But what about petty evil achievements? The amare bonum bonus tells us that the same will be true of them: petty evil achievements now become overall evil. Even a practical joke! After all, a practical joke can involve a serious amount of planning, preparation and ingenuity, not to mention skill and panache. But the product of a practical joke is typically some (relatively minor) pain or humiliation, so practical jokes are also examples of such smaller-scale, petty evil achievements. But amare bonum bonus would tell us that practical jokes are evil overall. Because they involve the pursuit of a product of negative value, they are overall evil. We now have another objectionably schoolmarmish implication.

A more promising approach might appeal to aspects of both the views that we have considered so far: on the one hand, we would like the amare bonum bonus to shape the value of the pursuit of good or bad products. On the other hand, we do not want to entirely obliterate the positive value of pursuits that would have independently positive value – as is the case in achievements, particularly achievements with extremely elaborate and impressive processes.

So how about something like the following? Rather than controlling the overall value of the pursuit, we could re-construe the amare bonum bonus so that the value of the pursuit is augmented or diminished, by some amount. Now, the amare bonum bonus doesn’t determine the entire value of the process; rather, it raises or lowers it – so some of its original value remains. Presumably, this amount would be proportionate in some way to the value of the product – so pursuing something very, very bad generates a very significant diminishment of the value of the process; and pursuing something only moderately good results in a relatively slight augmentation of value of the process, and so on. Petty evil achievements, such as art heists and practical jokes, because their products are not seriously bad, the process is diminished by a proportionately small amount. So this approach would allow us to capture the intuition that petty evil achievements are not overall evil. Large-scale evil achievements, with extremely evil products, are such that amare bonum bonus entails that the value of the process is reduced by a significantly large amount – large enough (depending on the details) to obliterate entirely its original positive value. Thus amare bonum bonus tells us that very evil achievements are indeed very evil.

But the details matter quite a lot. It is possible that if a process were of enough positive value that even a significant diminishment could not obliterate it. If there were a process that was superlatively impressive and complex and ingenious and had all the good-making features of achievements to an incredibly high degree, and this staggeringly valuable process were then directed toward the pursuit of some incredibly horrendous product – the murder of hundreds of innocent people, for example – if the process were indeed valuable enough, then it seems possible that even if amare bonum bonus diminished the value of the process by some significant amount, the process might still have some positive value. It might have enough, perhaps, to make it such that this extremely evil achievement would in fact be of positive value in the end, even though it resulted in the killing of hundreds of innocent people.

One option is to accept these implications: perhaps we have learned something interesting – there really can be a sort of peculiar silver lining to heinous acts. Impressive displays of ingenuity and effort are indeed valuable, even when directed toward something evil. But I suspect that many people will be unwilling to accept this implication. We are inclined to think that the very ardent pursuit of some evil achievement is all the more evil just because they involve such an impressive display of skill and ingenuity.

Yet the earlier discussion of amare bonum bonus implies that this can’t be true unless we are willing to say that even petty evil achievements, such as art heists, are also all the more evil because they involve an impressive display of ingenuity toward an evil goal. This seems wrong.

Amare bonum bonus is an intuitively appealing principle, and it would be a pity to reject it. Should we try again to re-construe it yet again? I think a solution may indeed lie in this direction. But let’s now consider another possibility instead.

We may be mistaken about petty evil achievements. Perhaps they are not actually evil achievements in the way that I have defined them: perhaps they do not involve a product that is evil. Let’s reconsider the practical joke and the art heists. What, exactly, is the product that is achieved here?

Initially I described the product of the practical joke as someone’s (minor) pain and embarrassment. Indeed, this is an element of a typical practical joke. But is the pain and embarrassment really the product? Perhaps not – it seems that a more accurate description would be that the product is the amusement, getting a laugh. The pain and embarrassment is a mere means to this end; which is to say, it is part of the process, not the product.

So really what we have here is not an evil achievement – where we mean by this the technical sense in which the product is bad. Rather, it’s a non-evil achievement (even a good product) but it involves some evil means along the way, namely causing someone pain and embarrassment.

What about art heists? I think the case is slightly more complicated – the product is a painting, in a sense, but not simply its existence, rather a state of affairs involving its possession by someone who does not own it. Is this state of affairs of negative value? It’s hard to say. It’s not clear that all states of affairs in which someone has possession of something that does not belong to them are evil. You might be borrowing something with its owner’s permission, for example, or taking care of a stray dog that doesn’t belong to you but would otherwise perish. We might think that this case is bad because it doesn’t “rightfully” belong in the thief’s possession, but even this may be more complex than meets the eye. Again, perhaps a more promising approach is to say that art heists are not, strictly speaking, evil achievements in the technical sense. At least, they have the potential not to be evil achievements. It is the means of the art heist that involve morally questionable elements – a theft. After all, this is morally wrong.

So petty evil achievements are not in the end a threat to the accuracy of amare bonum bonus in its original form. Because they do not have an evil product, they do not involve the pursuit of a bad, so the schoolmarmish implication is no risk here. Moreover, petty evil achievements, it seems, do not involve puzzles of what’s valuable – that is to say, what is good and bad – but puzzles about what sorts of acts are morally right and morally wrong. In other words, there is a different category of normative assessment at play here, namely, actions that are morally wrong. In practical jokes, it’s causing harm (albeit relatively minor) to an innocent person; in art heists, it is stealing. These are actions that are evaluated as wrong – this is simply a different category from being “good” or “bad”. Actions, strictly speaking don’t fall into these categories. People and their characters may, states of affairs or outcomes might, but not actions. And this is what’s at play in evil achievements.

Art heists and practical jokes aren’t really evil achievements after all, and so there is no concern, then, that their evaluation poses a threat to the original version of the amare bonum bonus. Since amare bonum bonus is vindicated, we can use it to evaluate truly evil achievements, which are indeed instances of loving the bad. And we gain the implication we were hoping to capture: that the more ardent the pursuit of the bad, the worse the achievement. Of course, there is far more to be said about achievements – the good, the bad, and the extraordinary – but we will have to leave this for another time.

Gwen Bradford is assistant professor of philosophy at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

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