The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Social Construction of Popular Wisdom

January 15, 2008

A friend recently forwarded me this online essay by Martin Porter, compelling me to reconsider one of the quotes I had blithely posted on my website.

My quote, attributed to Edmund Burke, read “the only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for good people to do nothing.” It is commonly quoted by human rights scholars and activists to caution against the bystander effect.

Porter’s essay, replete with exhaustive sources from multiple websites, is a genealogy of the use of this supposed Burkeism, but Porter concludes form his analysis that Burke never actually wrote anything like this:

“There is no original. The quote is bogus, and Burke never said it. It is a pseudo-quote, and corresponds to real quotes in the same way that urban legends about the ghost hitch-hiker vanishing in the back of the car and alligators in the sewers correspond to true news stories.”

Well, at least I’m in good company at having been duped about the source of this quote.

I found Porter’s analysis mildly convincing and wholly entertaining, and so I’ve replaced Burke’s name with “commonly attributed to” Burke on my site, and I’ve replaced the word “persistence” with “triumph,” which seems to be the more common usage, and I’ve included a footnote on my website which qualifies the use of term “person” since the oft-cited quote actually refers to men, not people.

But Porter would seem to prefer I get rid of the epigram entirely, and here I draw the line:

Porter: “The pseudo-quote is therefore without authenticity or meaning, and is just another of those political slogans which are used not as an assistance to, but as a substitute for real thought. It is not a deep truth, although it is constantly treated as one. Burke incidentally hated such things. He thought that cheap political slogans, or ‘maxims’ as he called them, enabled politicians to invoke principles of expediency, so they could pursue their own selfish interests instead of fulfilling their obligations to country, party and people.”

My question is, what is so wrong with “cheap political slogans” that favor the cause of human rights? Few people outside the sheltered world of academia have the time or inclination for the kind of “real thought” Porter is talking about, and all are surrounded by a regular diet of “cheap political slogans” inclining them to acquiesce to the horrors of war. I’ll take a pseudo-maxim that reminds me how to contribute to the collective good over a lot of pedantry any day.

+ posts

Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.