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The Faustian Temptation

Whereas Enlightenment thinkers had faith in the linear progress of the human mind, attaining higher states of thinking and behavior may in fact depend in part on extreme events. But this is a far cry from saying that we should deliberately will evil in order to achieve good.

LONDON – In her dystopian 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood describes a pill called BlyssPluss that will make everyone happy and eliminate disease. But widespread use of the pill would hit pharmaceutical firms’ profits, so the companies pay HelthWyzer, a drug developer, to sicken users by inserting a virus into the pills. HelthWyzer can then double its profits by selling the antidote. “The best diseases, from a business point of view,” explains the scientist Crake, “would be those that cause lingering illnesses. Ideally – that is, for maximum profit – the patient should either get well or die just before all of his or her money runs out. It’s a fine calculation.”

Crake’s “ideal” illness, therefore, is one that stimulates the production and sale of antidotes. A regrettable consequence of this shrewd business plan is that most of the world’s population dies.

The provocative thought here is deliberately willing the bad to produce the good. This is akin to the noted development economist Albert O. Hirschman’s idea of “optimal” crises – deep enough to trigger progress, but not so deep that they wipe out the means of achieving it. Hirschman himself supported projects he thought likely to fail, in order to create “pressure points” for improvement.

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