The lesser evil

The Lesser Evil

Benito L. Teehankee

May 20, 2010

View From Taft, BusinessWorld

Recently, I saw Ridley Scott's Robin Hood movie, starring Russell Crowe. Although Scott exercised artistic license to make his storyline different from the usual interpretations of the English legendary figure, the movie still brought back fond childhood memories of why I've always loved the outlaw and his band of merry men. He stole from the rich to give to the poor. Now what could be more just than that? It was a small matter to me that Robin Hood always took some of the loot for himself and his men. After all, thought my simple mind, this was only fair, given the great service Robin Hood’s group provided the poor.

While the Robin Hood story still appeals to my sense of romanticism, I’ve grown to realize that the fictional outlaw and his men worked in the context of an abusive official authority whose oppressive taxes and general heavy-handedness were yokes on the people. Is there room for Robin Hood characters in today’s political landscape? It would seem so, if some Filipinos are to be asked in relation to the recent elections.

I greeted a group of my students with my standard post-election question: "Did your candidates win?" Two students believe that their candidate is a sure winner. I knew that this candidate, a mayor of a major city running for a higher office, had not been proclaimed as of this writing because the count has been too close to call, based on the latest Commission on Elections (Comelec) tally. Still, I was curious to know why my students favored this candidate. One of them volunteered the guiding principle behind their choice: he is “the lesser evil." They elaborated that while they knew the mayor to be corrupt, gaining wealth by extorting a share of business ventures within his city, he at least has delivered for his constituents. The other leading candidate has no such record.

Now, these students are educated middle-class professionals. One of them resides in the candidate’s city and swears by his knowledge of this candidate’s corruption. I’ve talked to enough people who claim to be in the know based on sheer speculation, so I took this student’s allegations of corruption with a grain of salt. But this striking argument needs close scrutiny: that a candidate who is known to be corrupt but who has a track record of delivering services is a good choice for a higher office.

On the face of it, the argument seems to invoke a Robin Hood type of situation. The romantic comparison is tempting. But wait a minute. Are the poor in this candidate’s city oppressed by the rich? There seems little basis to suppose this. Are they suffering under abusive authority? This is an illogical claim since the candidate is himself the mayor. Hence, the Robin Hood analogy breaks down.

To be sure, the “lesser evil” argument has been used in many elections. Notably, some used it in 2004 to support Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidency against Fernando Poe Jr. But the “lesser evil” argument is a well-known forced-choice fallacy in political contests. If only two candidates are running, one could, of course, choose neither. However, other alternatives, untainted by corruption charges, were available. Why not choose from those? (Others have discussed the “winnability” fallacy, so I will not tackle it anymore.)

In the case of this candidate, the pragmatic basis for the “lesser evil” argument seems to be based on two claims. The first is that officials who serve people well deserve material rewards, even if these are gained dishonestly. After all, public office is a personally costly undertaking, and politicians need to recoup their expenses – and then some. The second claim is quite fantastic: such officials deserve promotion to higher office. If the candidate can deliver for a city, why not widen his reach?

And these are the crux of the matter. If Filipinos are content to bring their standards for decency among their leaders so low, is it a wonder that socio-economic development has eluded our country? Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” People who run for public office should understand that it is a public trust. If they use power for personal gain, they do not deserve public office.

The alternative to evil is not a lesser evil. It is the good. We need to seek out the good among those who offer to serve us. To content ourselves with lesser evils is to condemn our country to more generations of backwardness and failed potential.

Ben Teehankee is an associate professor at De La Salle University. He teaches ethics, social responsibility, and strategic management. He may be emailed at