Who Says Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right?

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

It’s a fallacy that gets a lot of people into trouble.

Taken at face value, it makes a certain kind of sense. If something is wrong, such as initiating violence against another, it’s wrong whether done only once, or done a multitude of times.

If lying or killing is wrong, you don’t make it right by doing it twice.

However, it’s not this obvious fact the saying attempts to illustrate. What’s more of interest is what the saying attempts to conceal.

For example, if someone responds to the violence with retaliatory force, isn’t there a clear distinction between initiating violence and self-defense? What’s the self-defending person supposed to do? Lie over and be injured, or die? That’s the only conclusion “two wrongs don’t make a right” can imply.

Take a more routine example: “Somebody screwed me over. But I can’t risk doing the same to him. It would lower me to his level. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

But that isn’t the point. If somebody harms or wrongs you, then the point is to hold them accountable. To give them what they deserve—no more, and no less.

If you shield others from accountability by telling yourself, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” then you’ve heightened the injustice. You’ve let the person get off scot-free, more likely to do the same thing not only to others, but also to you.

Why? Because when you fail to hold a person accountable for his or her actions, i.e. to give them what they deserve in response, then you’re communicating: “What you did was acceptable. That’s why there will be no response.”

It amazes me how often people do this very thing, on the premise that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or, “I shouldn’t reduce myself to his/her level.” It amazes me much more how surprised (and indignant) they are when the person guilty of the prior wrongdoing does the exact same thing again.

It’s like acting surprised or indignant when people go through green traffic lights on a highway. You’re surprised by that, seriously? Because your excusing away of another’s unacceptable behavior is nothing more than a green light of endorsement.

Holding people accountable does not mean giving them more than they deserve. If someone is late to a get-together, you don’t terminate the friendship or association on that basis alone. But you do make a comment or ask what happened, at a minimum. And if the problem persists, you possibly end the friendship, or at a minimum stop making time-dependent plans with them.

Sometimes holding people accountable doesn’t mean doing anything at all, other than withdrawing a particular level of support, warmth or good will. But that still conveys something, even if in a subtle way.

The guiding premise here is objective justice. In plain English that simply means responding to a person’s behavior with something in proportion to what they deserve, no more or no less, as I stated.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” while attempting to state a principle, actually conceals a much more important one (i.e. accountability). It’s a show-stopper when it comes to holding people accountable and creating for yourself the kind of professional and personal environment you want around you.

You’re not in control of others’ choices or actions. But you are most definitely in control of the interpersonal environment you create. If you want a better class of people around you, then stop operating on this ill-founded, pernicious idea.

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