FOUNDATION FOR ECONOMIC EDUCATION – On February 7, 1968, after American military forces rained rockets, napalm, and bombs on the village of Ben Tre in South Vietnam, killing hundreds of civilians, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett quoted a military officer’s justification of the event.
“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” a US major was quoted as saying.
Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who’d go on to become one of the last western journalists in Saigon until its capture in 1975, never revealed the source of the quote, which some US officials doubted was authentic.
Nevertheless, the quote—which eventually morphed into the pithier “We had to destroy the village in order to save it”—became a symbol of an absurd military strategy in a failed war.
While the reasoning is absurd—destroying a town is no way to save it—the ethics that underpin the quote are surprisingly common and convey a simple and popular idea: a wrong, evil, or unjust action can be morally justifiable because it ultimately brings about a greater good.
‘You Have to Do Something Draconian’
The latest public official to employ such reasoning is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who recently offered this justification for the government’s pandemic response, which included lockdowns, widespread business closures, and other “draconian” public policies.
The National Institutes of Health director explained:
“You have to do something that’s rather draconian, and sometimes when you do draconian things, it has collateral negative consequences. Just like when you shut things down, even temporarily, it does have deleterious consequences on the economy, on the school children, you have to make a balance.”
Fauci, who in August announced his intention to retire before the end of the year, continued:
“We know the only way to stop something cold in its tracks is to try to shut things down. If you shut things down just for the sake of it, that’s bad. But if you do it for the purpose to regroup and open up in a safe way, that’s the way to do it.”
Fauci’s phrasing in this last part—that lockdowns are the only way “to stop something cold in its tracks”—is odd because it’s clear that lockdowns did no such thing. The official data plainly show the virus circulated and people died regardless of the presence of lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. Not only was the virus not stopped “cold in its tracks,” an abundance of research shows lockdowns do little to reduce virus spread and Covid mortality.
But let’s put aside the empirical results of lockdowns and analyze the ethics Fauci uses to justify them, particularly his use of the word “draconian,” which means “excessively harsh and severe.”
The word traces back to the Greek legislator Draco (or Drakon) who in about 621 B.C. laid out the very first written Athenian constitution. As you can probably guess, these laws were quite harsh. Those who fell into debt were forced into slavery to their creditors, for example (unless one was of noble birth), while those caught stealing were sentenced to death, even if it was something as simple as a head of cabbage from the marketplace.
“It is said that Drakon himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offenses, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones,” the historian Plutarch wrote.
One can see how Draco earned title to an adjective that means “excessively harsh and severe,” which is what makes Fauci’s invocation of this term so troubling. Draco’s treatment of petty criminals was harsh and excessive, but at least punishment was meted out against people convicted of crimes.
Fauci, on the other hand, is defending “draconian” public policies that harm innocent people. During the pandemic, people were arrested for leaving their homes, driving their cars, paddling a boat, or going to a park. Moreover, Fauci admits these draconian policies also had other “deleterious consequences.” These included mental health deterioration, record drug overdoses, systemic fraud of taxpayers, millions of jobs lost, increased self-harm (especially among teenage girls), and more.
Despite these consequences, Dr. Fauci has consistently defended lockdowns, insisting that the draconian policies served a greater good.
The Danger of Pursuing ‘the Greater Good’
Justifying actions not on their morality but on their potential outcomes is a dangerous philosophy for individuals, because it allows humans to rationalize their actions—even evil ones. The great Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky demonstrates this well in his classic novel Crime and Punishment, which centers on a young idealist named Raskolnikov who justifies killing an unprincipled old woman who works as a pawnbroker because it would lift him from poverty and allow him to become a great man, and perform great deeds for humanity.
While pursuing a greater good instead of acting ethically is dangerous individual philosophy, history shows it’s far more dangerous collectively.
“Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some ‘noble’ goal,” noted the great thinker and FEE founder Leonard Read.
Read was right, and the examples are ubiquitous.
When Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, which led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-American men, women, and children, virtually everyone conceded it violated the Bill of Rights, including FDR’s own Attorney General Francis Biddle. The order was carried out anyway, however, because it was seen as serving a greater good: winning World War II.
Forced sterilization policies and government experiments on prisoners and unsuspecting subjects, including the notorious MKUltra Project and the Tuskegee Study, were also clearly ethically bankrupt, but they were carried out nevertheless because each served a “greater purpose”—scientific progress and the creation of “purer” gene pools.
It’s an objective truth that many of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century—from Hitler’s Final Solution to Mao’s Great Leap Forward to the Killing Fields of Cambodia—were ushered in by governments violating the individual rights of civilians for a greater good: a better collective society.
This is precisely why Read said one of the greatest philosophical mistakes people make is to judge the ends they seek, not the means they use.
“Ends, goals, aims are but the hope for things to come…They are not a part of the reality,” Read explained in Let Freedom Reign. “Examine carefully the means employed, judging them in terms of right and wrong, and the end will take care of itself.”
This is the great and grave mistake made by Dr. Fauci. He failed to distinguish ends from means. Like the Army major who told Peter Arnett it was necessary “to destroy the town to save it,” Fauci rationalized a draconian action to pursue a greater good—and caused irreparable harm to the American people and Constitution as a result.
It’s never too late to learn from a mistake, however.
Indeed, even the people of Ancient Greece saw that Draco’s constitution was deeply flawed, and most of his laws were repealed by the Athenian statesman Solon (630–560 B.C.) the following century.
Let us hope Americans learn a similar lesson.
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.