Last week I read about a Japanese politician who argued that the use of “comfort women” by Japanese soldiers in the Second World War was “necessary” to help them relax after fearsome battles.

“In the circumstances in which bullets are flying like rain and wind, the soldiers are running around at the risk of losing their lives, […] If you want them to have a rest in such a situation, a comfort women system is necessary. Anyone can understand that.”

It may have been brutal, vicious, dehumanising and cruel, but by the power of “necessity” it is magically justified.

It may be equally galling to think that the entire Japanese invasion of their region was likewise “necessary”, and it may infuriate readers to consider that the attack on Pearl Harbour was deemed “necessary” too, from a Japanese perspective. But for the sake of fairness, Japan has had to accept for many years that the firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “necessary” from the Allies’ point of view, just as the complete annihilation of every remaining Japanese city would have proved “necessary”, if the Allies had chosen to do it.

The word “necessary” comes from ne “not” + cedere “withdraw, yield, go away”. It’s the same root reflected in words like cede, secede, and concede. “Necessary” therefore implies something we cannot withdraw or turn away from. Yet the “necessary” only makes sense in the context of an underlying path or goal: we cannot withdraw from this… if we are to achieve our goal. The problem is that anything difficult, distasteful or morally unconscionable can be presented as “necessary” so long as it promises to bring us closer to our desired outcome. This is an implicitly consequentialist position: the questionable act is made “good” by the desirable consequences it brings.

The appeal of necessity is twofold. On the one hand, it purports to free us of moral responsibility. Describing an act as “necessary” lends it a kind of metaphysical inevitability as though fate or destiny or forces of nature compelled the act to occur. “Necessary” implies we have no real choice in the matter: if we have no choice, we can’t be blamed. It had to be done!

On the other hand, necessity closely resembles a legitimate feature of human moral psychology: the irascible appetite. In brief, human beings are drawn towards two kinds of good things – those that are easy to achieve, and those that are difficult to achieve. I have one kind of appetite (inclination) for the cup of coffee sitting before me, and a different kind of appetite for the pizzas I plan to cook later. One is easy to achieve, the other is difficult – I have to buy ingredients, prepare the dough, wait for the pizza to cook.

Corresponding to these distinct appetites are two distinct virtues necessary for a good life. Temperance allows me to restrain my appetite for all the easily obtained goods before me. It’s the restraint many of us fail to show in the face of cake, beer, and other such delicacies. Fortitude allows me to strengthen my inclination toward all the difficult goods that require work, time, effort or sacrifice to obtain. Fortitude toughens us in the face of adversity, lending us resolve and determination to accomplish difficult tasks.

“Necessity” flatters and confuses us by its resemblance to fortitude and the irascible appetite. “Necessity” presents morally wrong actions as though they were merely the difficult work required to obtain a good end. Normally I would say that dropping an atomic bomb on a city is an act of grave moral wrong. But if it’s “necessary” to obtain some other good – ending a war, saving the lives of our own troops – then I must find the “fortitude” to put aside my moral qualms, steel myself to do “whatever it takes”. As one influential wartime leader put it:

“I believe, gentlemen, that you know me well enough to know that I am not a bloodthirsty person; I am not a man who takes pleasure or joy when something rough must be done. However on the other hand, I have such good nerves and such a developed sense of duty – I can say that much for myself – that when I recognise something as necessary I can implement it without compromise.”

We are, sadly, very familiar with this pseudo-virtue, the fake fortitude that lets us do “whatever necessary”. I’ve lost count of how many times the hero of a TV procedural has hardened him or herself to torture a suspect under dire circumstances, doing “whatever it takes” to save a friend or colleague, with the subtext that justice and normal interrogation are OK when it’s a stranger’s life at stake, but a good beating will get results when you really need them.

When “doing whatever it takes” masquerades as the virtue of fortitude, morality itself can be inverted to make the most disgusting evils seem like duties; to make mercy and compassion look like weakness and cowardice:

“Thus I have basically given the order to also kill the wives and children of these partisans, and commissars. I would be a weakling and a criminal to our descendants if I allowed the hate-filled sons of the sub-humans we have liquidated in this struggle of humanity against subhumanity to grow up.”

Describing something as “necessary” also shifts attention away from the nature of the goal itself. It is so much easier to quell your conscience by saying that something “had to be done”, than to start questioning the broader context of goals, purpose, motives. “Necessity” implies a goal, but without necessarily bringing that goal into scrutiny. Invoking necessity can therefore reinforce the sense that we all share the same purpose. As the head of the Nazi SS, Heinrich Himmler, put it:

“Just as we did not hesitate to do our duty as we were ordered to on 30 June 1934, and stand comrades who had lapsed against the wall and shoot them, so we have never spoken about it, and we shall never speak of it. It was a matter of tact, for all us, thank God, never to speak of it, never to talk of it. It appalled everyone, and yet everyone was absolute in his mind that he would do it again if ordered to do so, and if it should be necessary.”

A statement of necessity can be challenged: when someone asserts that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary to win the war, one can attempt to argue that it was not necessary. But it is much harder, though more pertinent, to question the goal of “winning the war”. What exactly is meant by “winning the war”? Are there degrees of “winning” that don’t render unconscionable actions “necessary”? What if there is more than one acceptable goal, more than one definition of “winning”? The incineration of hundreds of thousands of civilians may be necessary to achieve unconditional surrender in the short term without additional military casualties, but what if unconditional surrender in the short term is not necessary?

These kinds of questions reveal the weakness of consequentialism – the weakness of “necessity” – as a form of ethical guidance. Ethics is not, after all, merely an assessment of means; it is also a way of determining ends. If we start to question the goals, then the magic of “necessity” is lost.

It’s easy to dismiss the Japanese politician as a right-wing crank, but there are plenty of examples in our own nations’ histories where we are likewise seduced by “necessities” that must look to outsiders like the most thin and self-serving of excuses.

Zac Alstin is a free lance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia.

Zac Alstin is a writer, editor and stay-at-home dad to three marvellous children, in Adelaide, South Australia. His hobbies include martial arts, making things at home, and contemplating the underlying...