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.”