The trouble with do-gooders is that they very often wind up doing a great deal of harm.
Antismoking zealots are one example. They set out to do good, and they believe that they actually are doing a lot of good, while in reality they do a tremendous amount of harm. They think they’re doing good by ‘helping’ smokers overcome their terrible addiction to tobacco, which they tell us that 70% of smokers would like to do. But they end up helping hardly anybody kick the habit, and saving hardly any lives, and they instead destroy communities, and bankrupt pubs and cafes, and depress the entire economy, and more.
And this seems to be one of the tragedies of being human. Because all too often, with the best will in the world, us humans regularly end up doing tremendous amounts of harm.
It’s for that reason that I tend not to see people as ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’, but more often as good guys who end up behaving like bad guys, because they’ve managed to convince themselves that the bad that they’re doing is actually good.
This came to mind while I was reading an article about Tony Blair a day or two ago:
Mr Blair is still criticised for sending British troops into Iraq on March 20, 2003 in the mistaken belief that its Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion, more than one million people marched through London against the Iraq invasion.
Asked in a candid interview on BBC2’s Newsnight whether he minded if “people call you a liar, some people call you a war criminal, protesters follow you; it’s difficult to walk down the street in a country”, he replied: “It really doesn’t matter whether it’s taken its toll on me.
“The fact is yes there are people who will be very abusive, by the way I do walk down the street and by the way I won an election in 2005 after Iraq. However, yes it remains extremely divisive and very difficult.”
Mr Blair conceded that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people it was the right decision”.
Blair’s tragedy, it might be suggested, is that he ended up doing the wrong thing, but with the best intentions in the world. And in the process, he became a ‘bad guy’ in a great many people’s eyes. And it sounds as if quite a lot of people are prepared to tell him as much, even today.
But the interesting thing about Blair is that he himself clearly thinks in the same black-and-white, ‘good guy, bad guy’ terms.
“If we hadn’t removed Saddam from power just think for example what would be happening if these Arab revolutions were continuing now and Saddam who’s probably twenty times as bad as Assad in Syria, was trying to suppress an uprising in Iraq.” (my emphasis).
So here we have Tony Blair, whom a great many people regard as being a war criminal, cheerfully describing Assad as ‘bad’, and Saddam as ‘twenty times as bad’. And once you have that sort of mentality, and you’ve identified the ‘bad guys’, then it almost certainly seems like ‘the right thing to do’ to go in and overthrow the bad guy.
The other thing that’s happening here is that the ‘bad guy’ – Saddam – has been built up into a figure of satanic proportions. And this renders your own intervention – the invasion of Iraq – correspondingly more noble and good.
Antismokers do the same thing. They build up tobacco and smoking into a terrible evil, far worse than anything else. They thoroughly demonise it. And the worse this evil is perceived to be, the more necessary it becomes to intervene in the most forceful ways, and the more noble and just such forceful intervention becomes.
But I couldn’t help but think that Blair was a bit simple-minded. He was something of a moral simpleton. Things are, in my view, never quite so entirely unambiguous. ‘Bad guys’ frequently do good things. And ‘good guys’ equally regularly do bad things. I’m sure there were plenty of good things Saddam did for Iraq, just as much as there were plenty of bad things.
And if Tony Blair, one of the smartest political operators in recent British history, is a bit simple-minded, then most likely many of the people around Blair are a bit simple-minded too. And the world is being run by simple-minded people, with simple-minded, black-and-white notions of good and evil.
I also came across this in the Telegraph today, in the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election:
The Tory Right are hopping mad. What started with hugging hoodies and huskies has ended with legalising gay marriage; the party that they have committed themselves to is changing before their eyes. From their point of view the modernisation project has not returned the dividends which it was targeting…
Concluding that the modernisation project was fundamentally misguided is mistaken. Social mores are changing fast; given a couple of decades, it will seem odd that we ever argued about gay marriage at all. Cameron’s mistake was to seek to modernise too far, too fast. Had he picked his battles better, and in particular avoided raising the issue of gay marriage – so sensitive yet so relatively peripheral – at this time, his leadership would have appeared more focused on the serious economic issues facing the country. His party would have been more unified, and far fewer votes would have been haemorrhaged.
Will it really seem odd, in a couple of decades, that we ever argued about gay marriage at all? The author may be right, but how does he know for sure? He could have written “it will probably seem odd”, but no, he’s so sure that he writes “it will seem odd”. He thinks he can see the future. And he’s probably doing so by projecting some current social trends forward in time, a bit like a climate scientist with his projections of global warming.
I think this is another sort of simple-mindedness. We can’t see the future, much as we might wish to be able to. The future will bring what it will.
Returning to the antismokers, with their good intentions, it seems to me that what makes some action good or bad is found in its consequences, not in the intentions behind it. If I go out in my car to shop at Tesco (good intention), and run over somebody in the process (bad consequence), it’s the consequences that matter far more than the intentions.
So also with the antismoking zealots. Their good intentions count for nothing. The measure of what they have done is to be found in the consequences that have flowed from their demonisation of tobacco and smoking and smokers (as well as tobacco companies), and from the many and various restrictions they have placed upon smokers. I have no doubt whatsoever that the harm far outweighs the good. And I think they will be judged accordingly when the scale of that harm becomes clear, regardless of how often they will claim they were only trying to ‘help’ smokers.
And when that happens, they will no longer look quite so righteous and holy and good. They’ll stop looking like the ‘good guys’ they see themselves as being, and start looking like ‘bad guys’. Much like Blair. Or Saddam. And plenty of other people as well.