We tend to believe we are doing the right thing when our intentions are good. Often enough, however, we realize in retrospect that we were wrong at the time despite our good intentions. This is especially true for those who insist that they are doing something for a Grand Cause or for the Greater Good. Those who become obsessed with these righteous visions may not hesitate to sacrifice smaller causes or lesser goods in the name of the ideology they blindly worship. Those self-righteous people may turn out to be supervillains soon, regardless of their good intentions.
Freon is a good example. Initially, people hailed Freon as a breakthrough chemical process because it enabled the era of refrigerators and air-conditioners. Later, however, they discovered that Freon had irrevocably damaged the Ozone layer that is vital for the health of our planet. Recently, while watching the final episode of the American television drama “Person of Interest,” I observed a thought-provoking dialogue between Harold Finch and the artificial intelligence he created. In the scene, Finch says that he regrets his decision to build the AI despite his initial good intentions, because the AI could be misused to surveil people if it fell into the wrong hands.
When the AI tries to console him, saying that at least his intention was good when he created it, Finch answers, “Intentions can be a fickle business.” Then he brings up the example of Freon: “In the 1930’s, refrigeration required the use of highly combustible chemicals, ammonia and propane. They were incredibly dangerous. Then a chemist named Thomas Midgley devised a replacement compound that we know as Freon.” The AI praises Midgley, “He saved lives, advanced science, and changed the world.”
Finch interrupts, “But that was not the end of the story, as you well know. 50 years after his death, the scientific community was appalled to discover that Freon had been ripping holes in our ozone layer, causing irreparable harm. Midgley turns out to be one of the most destructive figures in history.” The AI intervenes, “He was not a supervillain, Harold.” Harold agrees with the AI, saying, “Midgley was just a man, a man who wanted to improve the world around him through science.” Yet, his good intentions did not bring about a good outcome.
In addition to Freon, Midgley developed leaded gasoline, which was also revolutionary. Today, however, we no longer use leaded gasoline and Freon due to their harmful impact on the environment and human health. Now, we use unleaded gasoline and a refrigerant called Puron, instead. Midgley was a superhero in the 1940s and yet, he later became known as a scientist who was responsible for permanently damaging the environment, though inadvertently.
The case of Freon and unleaded gasoline teaches us a valuable lesson: Good intentions do not always bring about good outcomes. Indeed, you never know whether something good now will continue to be good in the future as well. Today’s truth can be tomorrow’s untruth and, therefore, there is no such thing as an absolute, perennial truth to which we should adhere. Everything is evanescent, so we should avoid rigid, unrelenting ideologies or firm convictions. There is no guarantee that we are always right and will continue to be so in the future.
Likewise, our politicians, who firmly believe that they are improving society by changing social systems or implementing new laws according to their political ideology, should pause for a moment and reconsider their course of action. They may think they are doing the right thing now. Soon, however, it may turn out to be an egregious mistake and irreparable disaster for our nation and people, just like Freon and leaded gasoline did.
The results could only be disheartening if some of our politicians who are obsessed with obsolete Marxist ideology try to practice it in our 21st Century society. The ideology must have enchanted them when they were young and fighting against the military dictatorship. Nevertheless, times have changed and the Age of Marxism is now over. Resurrecting Marxism in the world of 2020 would be like bringing back Freon and leaded gasoline in the era of Puron and unleaded gasoline, or the pen and typewriter in the age of computers and smartphones. If such a thing happens, it will not only ruin our spiritual environment, but also drag our country back to the past when we need to soar into the future. Their intentions may be good. Nevertheless, the outcome will be calamitous for the future of our nation.
For some inscrutable reason, the popularity of such a past-oriented ideology is ubiquitous in contemporary Korean society. Yet, we should wake up from the exhilaration when we first discovered Freon and leaded gasoline. In the early 20th Century, they looked like a savior and yet, they have proven to be harmful for humans in our world now. Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.