Some of you know about my day job. I've written for various consumer- and enterprise-computing publications; right now, I'm with one of the latter, which focuses on enterprise software development. It's a fun job, actually, and I work with some of the finest people I've ever worked with in a professional context.
Recently word's been circulating about an effort within Google to get the company to not provide support for government projects that could make it easier to oppress people. Another piece has been circulating about how Microsoft turned down a number of potentially lucrative contracts because they were unnerved by the ethical implications of some of them. I'm not implying that either of these outfits are The Good Guys or The Bad Guys, because nothing in life is that cut-and-dried. But it did lead to a question from a friend that I thought was worthy of answering: "What if you found out that someone had created something terrible based on information in a technical article you wrote?"
I find questions like this fascinating, in big part because they conceal so many assumptions about what the answers ought to be. The one assumption that leaps out at me most in such a question is that because someone did something bad with something I gave to the world, therefore I should feel bad about it, or at least conflicted. Clearly only a sociopath would not feel bad for having been Complicit In Evil!
The only thing worse than no morality is what I've come to call "morality-play morality", which is my label for stuff like this. Morality-play morality is when talk of morality, or one-upsmanship of morality, the appearance of being "moral", becomes more important to people than the actual moral behavior. The actual moral behavior is often pretty ambiguous, and not always all that noticeable. It's hard to make a morality play out of it, but boy do people ever try.
Here's the thing about evil that is tough to swallow. From the minute you and I wake up to the minute we fall asleep, and every minute before and after, we're "complicit in evil" of some kind. This is not because we're all horrible, soulless monsters, but because the world is large and complex, and it's next to impossible to do anything at all without inflicting suffering on someone, somewhere. Some folks, like the Jainists, cottoned to extreme remedies to such problems, but at the cost of not retaining enough power for themselves to do something proactive instead of simply subreactive.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't do nothing at all, or have no consciousness about it whatsoever. It just means we need to not let it eat us alive, and to focus on whatever few things we can do within our grasp that will help. There are plenty of people who don't even bother to do that much, so that automatically puts you a leg up from most other people.
That brings me to the other way this stuff is pointlessly moralized. If we're ultimately just worried about not doing more than the next guy, then maybe we're worried less about suffering in the abstract and more about our social standing with those who mete our judgments about suffering. That's, again, a morality-play stance towards all this.
So how would I feel if someone had done something terrible with something I'd created? Mostly, I'd feel bad for the person deluded enough to try it. Imagine that, thinking they can get away with something that dumb. But I'd feel even worse for anyone he might have victimized in the process, and I'd probably try to help that person.
What I would not do is sit there in the grip of some moral paralysis, because I know full well that accomplishes nothing. I'd do what I could about it and move on with my life.
In the same way, if someone used one of my works of fiction to justify something foolish, I would mostly feel bad for the person being a fool, and for anyone they hurt in the process. I wouldn't stop writing because I would be worried that someone could misconstrue what I was doing. And I'd do what I could about it, and move on to writing the next thing that someone else could twist around into something foolish if they were so inclined. More the fool they.
People will misinterpret you for simply existing. Worry about the problem of finding something worthwhile to do before you worry about whether or not someone's going to take it the wrong way. Someone always does. That's their problem, not yours. But never use that to pre-emptively be a jerk, either. Times are tough enough. No reason you need to add to them.
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Other Lives Of The Mind