5 Jul 2012

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

Bob Diamond, having been caught out, confessed all and hoped that by going first he would mitigate the punishment that would inevitably follow. He obviously did not understand the dynamics of the mob which greeted his outing as a wrong doer. He underestimated the pent up frustration that everyone in the UK feels when they are much worse off while fat cats report record profits. Nothing about this situation is fair.

I want to take a step back and consider a moral point. Our Judeo-Christian based morality broadly works by identifying the guilty party and punishing them by inflicting some harm or loss on them. For every crime there is a perpetrator and we expect demonstrable suffering to be visited on them. It is a long time since execution was a public spectacle in the UK, but nevertheless there seems to a genuine desire to visit harm on Bob Diamond as retribution for his crimes. It almost seems as though people see scourging and crucifying Diamond as a way to redeem bankers. Sound familiar?

There is a fact that has presented itself time and again to me. The implications are profound and troubling. It is this:
If in confessing their sins they are inviting harm or loss upon themselves, then no rational being would confess. 
A rational being avoids harm, sometimes going to great lengths to do so. When we set up a system of justice that visits harm upon people, then they will do everything possible to cover up mistakes and moral failings.

None of us is perfect, and none so saintly that we don’t break our own moral from time to time. Sometimes we quite consciously and deliberately do something moderately immoral (or perhaps illegal). I think this applies to more or less everyone. Saint Paul complains that he does the thing he would not do, and does not do what he would. (Romans 7:15).

But Judeo-Christian morality leaves us with an imperative to identify wrong doers and harm them in some way, or cause them loss. And we believe that this harm done to them cancels out the harm they did. In other words our moral and legal system is based on the idea that two wrongs make a right.

As I say this conclusion is both profound and troubling. Presented with the proposition that two wrongs make a right, most people would be capable of seeing the logical flaw. In order to punish in the way that we do we must sanction certain kinds of harm in the hope that fear of harm will be a deterrent. But fear of harm can be overcome by other motivations as our prison population shows. Furthermore this sanctioned harm requires us to suspend the virtues of empathy and altruism. Suspension of empathy is all that allows us to harm another being, because if empathy is engaged then we feel the other’s suffering. In order to extract retribution we have to become a bit less human.

There is also the vexed question of who is sanctioned to harm people, and how to they cope with the dehumanising effects of this power without becoming monsters. Armies down the ages have committed atrocities. Police forces have often misused their powers. Judges have been completely out of touch. And so on.

If we hold empathy and altruism to be good, then I would argue that they are always good; and conversely that if failures of empathy and altruism are evil then they are always evil. The whole notion of necessary evil is extremely fraught. Necessary evil all too easily becomes a smoke screen for any evil.

A nation baying for the blood of Bob Diamond does not encourage bankers to come forward and admit mistakes. Any rational wrong-doer is actively covering their tracks a little more thoroughly even as I write this. The idea that punishment can undo wrong doing or redeem wrong doers is just magical thinking. Two wrongs do not make a right. We can’t call for harm to be visited on another person and claim the moral high ground. This leaves us with a dilemma over what to do with these bankers.

Harming Diamond does not fix the situation. Setting up the conditions for this not to happen again needs to be our priority. Using this as an opportunity to call for systemic change makes more sense than focusing on one individual.

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Keep is seemly & on-topic. Thanks.