Searching for Evil

by Graham Veale

Google lives by a simple mantra: ”Don’t be evil.” This is both a simple, informal company motto and the guiding premise of a code of conduct for all company employees and board members. Unpacking its meaning a little, the preface to the code of conduct explains

“… it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”

By that definition “evil” means unlawful, dishonourable and disrespectful conduct; in concrete terms, Google’s actions would be evil if it overlooked its customer’s needs, did not provide the best products and provided biased access to information. I’m rather glad that Google is a law abiding and efficient organisation; but it is disturbing that we live in an age when an international corporation expect public applause for such a chillingly amoral definition of evil.

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Google has defined “evil” down to the socially unacceptable – the dishonourable, the unlawful – and the pragmatically wasteful – providing a poor product, a poor relationship with consumers. The good, then, is what one can get away with. Or, to be a little more generous, what respectable society will tolerate. The dangers are obvious. Respectable society is a fickle creature: what it deems virtuous today might be anathema tomorrow.

Google’s commitment to “freedom of information” seems relatively uncontroversial. Indeed, democracy thrives and survives because every idea can be subjected to criticism; no custom or creed is above critique. Yet, the freedom to express and criticise ideas is too readily equated with the right to nurture and sate every desire. No image is censurable if it is viewed in the privacy of one’s home; no picture is perverted provided no-one was hurt in its production. This assumes, of course, that we do not believe that dehumanisation, objectification and corruption have the potential to hurt a person.

The problem of evil for secularists is that they cannot believe in evil…


Searching for Evil – Saints and Sceptics