Gina Smith: Why Google Should Dump Its Do No Evil Credo Now

Pictured above is a Tasmanian Devil. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What is evil? What does Google know that thousands of years of philosophical and theological inquiry does not. Good should get rid of its Do No Evil credo, as outlined in its company prospectus? The term means nothing — it is relative — and the motto even hurts Google and its stockholders and customers. Here’s why.

Pictured above, a Tasmanian Devil. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Just yesterday, while pondering the patent wars, I was thinking about Google’s now-legendary Do No Evil credo.

Over the years, many journalists have written that the motto is just urban legend. But I looked. It is in fact, in the company prospectus.

So it occurs to me. What does Google define as evil?

“Evil,” Google Chairman CEO Eric Schmidt once quipped to journalists, “is what (Google founder) Sergey (Brin) says is evil.” 

As any student of philosophy, religion, history and war will agree, “evil” is a relative term. That makes it an empty term — and so Google’s Do No Evil term means basically nothing if Google does not also define what evil is.

Google’s ultimate responsibility, of course, is to return value to its stockholders. It isn’t to “do no evil.” Note that other Google official docs, such as the ones it filed for its Initial Public Offering, have no mention of it I could find.

What does Google know that thousands of years of philosophical and theological thinking missed?

Does Google mean it won’t support governments who kill innocent citizens or do business with companies who rip off their customers? Or that it won’t steal ideas from inventors? Does it mean, really, that it tries “not to harm,” which is perhaps a better term for what Google is getting at? Does it mean it won’t back war-mongering presidential candidates in the U.S.? Does it mean that a Google exec will never, ever, steal your lunch when you’re not looking?

Do no evil. Right. This phrase makes Google a target of persistent criticism. To wit: Google, as Reuters just this morning pointed out in a story called “Google’s Evil Stock Split“, takes the company to task for it. And that’s just one of several articles I found criticizing Google for “evil” in this or that. It’s ridiculous.

The bottom line is, Google has a fiduciary responsibility to do what is right and profitable for Google’s stockholders. It is a public company.

Now. If you doubt the relativity of the term “evil,” let’s go back to the great Greek philosopher Aristotle who was quoted as saying, “evil is a necessary aspect of the constant changes of matter, and has in itself no real existence.”

This is true today. What is viewed as evil by one culture, certainly, wasn’t considered evil at the time. Even something as obviously “evil” as mass murder in ancient cultures was once condoned as “good” in so far as it concerns killing people for the good of the group — that applies to everything from ancient human sacrifice for the good of a culture to the wars of today.

The Holocaust, in which tens of millions of Jews, Gypsies and others were murdered at the hands of Hitler-led Nazi Germany during World War II, is something almost everyone would call evil. Yet the war, which ended with the wholesale and catastrophic killing of countless innocents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is rarely if ever called “evil.” At least by the United States, which declared the two nuclear attacks a victory. So mass killing is okay if it is justified?

Even the Catholic Church, in its Catholic Encyclopedia, a source you’d think would be definitive about such things, writes in its treatise on evil:

It is evident again that all evil is essentially negative and not positive; i.e. it consists not in the acquisition of anything, but in the loss or deprivation of something necessary for perfection. Pain, which is the test or criterion of physical evil, has indeed a positive, though purely subjective existence as a sensation or emotion; but its evil quality lies in its disturbing effect on the sufferer. In like manner, the perverse action of the will, upon which moral evil depends, is more than a mere negation of right action, implying as it does the positive element of choice; but the morally evil character of wrong action is constituted not by the element of choice, but by its rejection of what right reason requires. Thus Origen (In Joh., ii, 7) defines evil as stéresis; the Pseudo-Dionysius (De Div. Nom. iv) as the non-existent; Maimonides (Dux perplex. iii, 10) as “privato boni alicujus”; Albertus Magnus (adopting St. Augustine’s phrase) attributes evil to “aliqua causa deficiens” (Summa Theol., I, xi, 4); Schopenhauer, who held pain to be the positive and normal condition of life (pleasure being its partial and temporary absence), nevertheless made it depend upon the failure of human desire to obtain fulfillment–“the wish is in itself pain”. Thus it will be seen that evil is not a real entity; it is relative.

Back to Google. According to the firm in numerous reports over the years, the term “Do No Evil” came from two Google employees at an early meeting at the company.

One of them, Paul Buchheit, who went on to help create Gmail, told reporters at the time that he “wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out.” He noted that the slogan was “a jab” at competing companies, who Google execs felt the company was taking advantage of.

Jabbing at other companies isn’t what anyone would call “evil” — but is that good? It is at best, for a company that prides itself on doing no evil, wishy-washy.

As we await comment from Google on this, it’s interesting to note that the term does appear in a “manifesto” reportedly written by top Google execs. In it, they write:

Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains … you can make money without doing evil.

Can you? That’s an unanswerable question because Google never defines what evil is.

Without knowing what Google means by “evil,” the whole motto is moot. And it needs an object. Do no evil to customers? Do no evil to stockholders? Samsung?

My recommendation: Get rid of the motto and make a big deal about getting rid of it, Google. It is misleading and it means nothing unless you define what you mean by evil — we trust that Google won’t ignite or back a genocide or another Holocaust. And for Google’s stockholders, the saying is even harmful. By pinning a message like this on the firm, Google is giving journalists, competitors, angry stockholders, lawyers and even customers a target for others to hit Google hard with.

And they’ll do it any time someone notices Google doing something in business that someone subjectively perceives as evil.

Today in the Reuters story today, the writer poetically discusses a Google stock split today in terms of evil. Reuter’s Felix Salmon writes, “Count me in with Robert Cyran: there’s something a little evil about the way that Google is splitting its stock, and in so doing creating a whole new class of non-voting shares. Here’s a long history of such things: they were outlawed in the 1920s, when they were commonly used by unscrupulous managers. The New York World even wrote a poem on the subject:

Then you who drive the fractious nail,
And you who lay the heavy rail,
And all who bear the dinner pail
And daily punch the clock—
Shall it be said your hearts are stone?
They are your brethren and they groan!
Oh, drop a tear for those who own Nonvoting corporate stock.”


  • The lack of any specific meaning of “evil” in Google’s slogan could actually be seen as a strength. It allows them to be against whatever is culturally unpopular at any given time. Thus “evil” will change with the culture. If they defined evil in a specific way, then they would at some time have to be against the majority of people (think the Catholic church on non-natural birth control). With their current stance, they can always side with the majority and thus remain a “moral” company no matter what direction the winds blow.

    In some ways this seems genius.

  • Agreed, seth. really, google would be better off to say ‘do no harm’ — AHIMSA — so everyone, like reuters today, wouldn’t be attacking google every time google does something remotely questionable to someone, anyone — (sues, splits, whatever) — everyone screams Evil.

    it’s a strawman that hurts this company.
    It’s mantra should be do no harm and them, gasp, it should strive do no none (like a jainist : ) so far as that is possible as a US pubic company.

    Some of the comments online are amazing. If they would put them in here Seth, in the comments, I’d add them to the story or create new stories for them.

    By the way, you study t. Do you have insight into good vs. evil?

  • The slogan is not “do no evil,” It’s “don’t be evil.” That’s pretty basic research – it’s even on the page you linked.

    There’s a difference. The latter ties more into public perception (similar to what Seth said). In order to satisfy their credo, Google simply needs to monitor public perception and respond to it. It isn’t some lofty attempt at defining evil.

    From the site you linked:
    “Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company”

    You might argue that “good” is still undefined in that statement, but that isn’t really the point. People use the word “good” all the time in a perfectly functional way, and Google is doing the same. We are generally okay with individuals saying “I want to be a good person,” so what is wrong with a company having a similar statement of focus?

  • Google should abandon “Do no evil” because it can’t define the word and because it has no fiduciary responsibility to anyone who might be harmed if it elected to wholeheartedly-embrace evil?

    Come on Gina, you can’t seriously expect anyone to buy either part of that argument.

    Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s uncommonly sensible 1964 statement regarding pornography — …Perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly [defining pornography]. But I know it when I see it — applies here and trumps the formal logician’s complaint every time. Google’s employees, and customers, and admirers throughout the IT profession have always known the meaning of its credo. Moreover, they could recognize its effect on the the company’s behavior in everything from lack of bias in search results to its encouragement and support for the open source movement and its refusal to rat out Chinese dissidents.

    I believe that your article also takes too narrow a view concerning Google’s fiduciary responsibilities. While much of the company’s success rests on technical excellence and marketing prowess, it has also received enormous benefit from the esteem and goodwill of potential customers, employees, partners, etc., — much of that based those behaviors which appear to be inspired by “do no evil.”

    Without “do no evil”, Google would have grown up to be Oracle — a company whose customers view it with the all love and affection that a downtown business owner feels for the mobster who sells him fire protection insurance. The goodwill that Google has traditionally enjoyed made it easier for them to hire and retain the best employees, easier to find technical partners, and easier to win the trust of open source advocates and commercial partners alike on projects from Android to LibreOffice — all of which have delivered long-term benefits for the company’s shareholders.

    Google and its shareholders have clearly benefited hugely from the goodwill and esteem derived from ‘do no evil’ and its history of complying with that credo. So clearly “do no evil” has not interfered with the company living up to its fiduciary duties.

    For all that, however, I do believe that a case can be made that Google it’s time for Google to renounce its credo. Not because “do no evil” offends petulant logicians or robs value from Google’s shareholders — but rather because, given its behavior over the last year, it would be hard for anyone to argue with a straight face that the company still lives by that code. But that let’s save that argument for another day.

  • @Gina – As for a definition of evil, it’s impossible to come to any sort of agreement when people are coming form different foundations/perspectives. I suppose the most basic form of agreement one could hope for it that evil is anything that hinders human flourishing. Those of Judeo-Christian backgrounds would probably rather define evil in terms of opposition to God’s character, or the lack of being, but those ideas are far beyond what we could hope for in a public societal conversation.

  • My point is only this. Google’s credo — Do no evil — is inherently meaningless because the word google cannot be defined.

    And the real point is simply that – by putting this as its credo — it is inviting all detractors to attack it every time it does anything anyone subjectively construes as evil.

    Even the origins of the idea, as quoted in story, started as a “jab” against competitors, according to a google employee quoted in story.

    It’s silly. Funny when Google was young. Dumb now that it is old. Just IMHO. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    As for me — Google should change to DO NO HARM. That says something. That’s real. It’s not so wishy-washy.

    Challenge me, please! It’s good for the brain cells, I hear LOL