If I don’t do it somebody else will

"If we want to stop the defence industry operating in this country,
we can do so. The result incidentally would be that someone else supplies
the arms that we supply."
Tony Blair, 25 July 2002 (Source: The Mirror)

How many times have we heard people justifying ethically dubious actions using
this kind of argumentative move? The logic is clear enough. My action has consequence
X, which you find objectionable. But if I don’t undertake that action, someone
else will, and so consequence X will still come about. So there’s no point in
criticising me for undertaking this action, because that won’t prevent the consequence
you object to from coming to pass.

There is a respectable form of moral theory which does say that consequences
are what determine the rightness and wrongness of actions. But even these theories
cannot justify this form of argument. Consequentialist theories say that an
action is wrong if it has bad consequences and right if it has good ones. But
that means if a person does something with a bad consequence then that action
is wrong, period. It is not made okay because if they don’t do it someone else

If this mistake is clear enough, why then does the argument have a curious
kind of appeal? One reason is plain wishful thinking combined with self-interest.
We most often use or hear this kind of argument when someone has something to
lose by not doing the dubious action, or something to gain by doing it. Therefore
pure self-interest can make us cling to any justification that seems to make
our action justifiable. We have a strong desire for our action to be morally
sound and this makes us accept justifications which, if we were thinking about
them clearly, wouldn’t pass muster.

A second explanation is more charitable to those who invoke such arguments.
It is natural and probably right to think that the morality of actions is in
some way tied to how they contribute or do not contribute to making the world
a better place. So in some sense the question, "Will the world be any better
if I do or do not do X?" is a perfectly good one to ask. But in answering
it we need to think not only about the net result of our actions when combined
with those of others but also about our contribution to that result. It may
well be that the world will not be any better if I refrain from doing something
bad. But if it is I who does that bad thing rather than someone else then I
am the one who is responsible for what happens. I am not less responsible because
someone else would have done it. The fact is that I did do it and so must carry
the blame.

And this is in fact how we usually do judge people morally. For instance, a
group of young men comes across a solitary old person and one decides that one
of them should rob him and this young man cannot be dissuaded. Does that then
mean that if one of the other two goes ahead and mugs the old man that he would
be blameless for the crime? The idea is surely absurd.

Similarly, in countless repressive regimes people have been tortured, raped
and even exterminated in death camps. For any given individual involved in those
atrocities, it is almost always the case that if they hadn’t done it someone
else would have. But that does not make their actions permissable. (We may feel
some sympathy for people who were forced to choose between undertaking horrible
acts and being punished or even killed themselves, but these are factors which
mitigate our judgement of the wrongdoing. They do not render the wrongdoing

So when it comes to arms dealing, the fact that if Britain doesn’t do it other
countries will is not enough to justify it. What we need to know is whether
the arms dealing is morally justifiable in itself. Like magicians’ tricks, the
argument fools us into looking away from where the real sleight of hand is taking

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