Friday, July 26, 2013

The Medieval Wisdom of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”

Back in 2000, when the founders of Google were discussing ways to express their core philosophy, Paul Buchheit (employee No. 23) suggested “Don’t be evil.”  At the time, he was simply trying to contrast the way Google did business with the less salutary practices of some of their competitors.  Nobody dared to disagree with the principle of not being evil, so the phrase was adopted and down to today remains one of Google’s official core values.  Along the way it has acquired another phrase, so the complete statement is “Do the right thing; don’t be evil.”  In promulgating this notion, Google has (perhaps unwittingly) taken a stand on the side of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and countless other ancient sages against much of what today passes for acceptable moral principles.  It would surprise me, however, to discover that more than a few Google employees are aware of this.

Many of them, in fact, would probably subscribe to the notion that no one should impose one’s moral principles on another person.  Even Google doesn’t explicitly recommend their “do good, avoid evil” principle for everybody; the most they are saying is that Google employees will try to live up to it.  If you like doing evil, fine, just don’t go to work for Google.  But as physicist Anthony Rizzi points out in his book The Science Before Science, the advice to not impose one’s moral views on another, is itself a moral view. 

If I see an adult male in a shopping mall beating up a two-year-old, and I rush to intervene, and the man says, “Leave us alone, you’ve got no business imposing your morality on me,” I could respond with, “Sir, that itself is a moral principle which you are trying to impose on me.”  (What I would really do is call the cops, but that’s another matter.)  And in any event, as Rizzi points out, no one consistently acts as though all moral principles are simply matters of personal preference, even though they may give lip service to the idea in academic papers, for example.  If the chair of a philosophy department read a paper by one of his philosophers claiming that all morality is relative, and called the author up one day and said, “Because all morality is relative and I don’t like your looks, I’m reducing your pay by half,” I seriously doubt that the philosopher would calmly accept this as a logical consequence of his own philosophical position.  So even if some people say morality is relative, on matters that affect them personally they usually don’t act like they really believe it.

So where does that leave us?  It begins to look as though there really may be some objective moral principles “out there” so to speak, independent of whatever we say or think about them.  And behind them all, at the head of the logical chain of reasoning where first things must always be, stands the principle embraced by Google:  “Do the right thing; don’t be evil.”  You can’t derive that principle from anything else.  It is one of those self-evident statements that can’t come from another more basic notion.  As it stands, of course, it needs development before it can help you live your life.  But all other moral principles can be logically derived from what Rizzi calls “the first principle of ethics”:  do good and avoid evil.

Ah, but what is good and what is evil?  In a thousand-word column, I obviously can’t do justice to that question.  The short answer is, good is that which fulfills one’s purposes, and evil is the absence of such good.  One reason there is so much evil in the world is that, while every person does what seems good at a particular time and place, what seems good at the time may not really help one to fulfill one’s purposes.  It may seem good to an alcoholic to take one more drink, even if it’s the one that makes him so drunk he gets in his car and causes the death of another driver.  It’s not always easy to figure out what the true good is, which is one reason why ethics can get complicated—so complicated that the analytically-minded tend to throw up their hands and say it’s all hopeless. 

But it’s not hopeless.  Most people figure out what good to do, and what evil to avoid, with a good bit of success every day.  The lapses happen when our emotions or our hasty judgments lead us astray.  It requires just as much thought and attention, if not more, to be a good person as it does to be a good engineer.  But the technical and the ethical sides of engineering start from different foundations.

When Mr. Buchheit hit on “Don’t be evil” to guide what would become one of the greatest corporations of the twenty-first century, he was saying more than he knew.  Neither Google (through whose facilities this blog appears, by the way) nor any other firm can completely live up to their core principles, including that one.  But having it out there to shoot for is a start.  And in having that core principle to live up to, all the Googleites are following in the footsteps of medieval thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who clearly saw that the first logical step in being good is to admit there are such things as universal moral principles, and that the one to start with is “do good and avoid evil.” 

Sources:  Anthony Rizzi is a practicing research physicist at the Institute for Advanced Physics at Baton Rouge, Louisiana ( and author of The Science Before Science:  A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century (IAP Press, 2004).  Of all books that I’ve read about scholastic philosophy (which is the term for the type of philosophy done in the High Middle Ages by St. Thomas Aquinas), Rizzi’s does the best job of defining terms and explaining concepts in ways that the average non-philosopher can understand.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Paul Buchheit and “Don’t be evil.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment