Saturday, 2 June 2012

You'd feel differently if...

     Yesterday I wrote about the idea of using convicted criminals for medical experiments, prompted by a Facebook status/share/chainletter thingy. Reading through the comments in support of this barbaric idea, I saw a few people who spoke out against it on basically humanitarian grounds, and the responses to these typically took the form of this argument: "You wouldn't say that if you or someone you loved were a victim of these monsters!"

    This is a very common argument, although I rarely see it in any context outside of crime and punishment. I happen to be opposed to the death penalty (for reasons I'll get to in another post), and nearly every time I get into a debate with someone who's in favour, they bring it up. It's easy to understand why: it's a very emotionally powerful argument, and what's more, it appears to be very effective at bringing out a contradiction in the position of the one arguing against capital punishment. How hypocritical, you might say, that I would oppose the death penalty in general but favour it for someone who had killed one of my loved ones. How hypocritical that I might oppose torture for molesters of other people's children while calling for the torture of anyone who molested my own.

     But there's a reason why we don't see this form of argument in other contexts: it's because it's actually a pretty stupid argument, when you stop to think about it carefully. Yes, it's true that I'd probably strongly desire the death of someone who murdered someone I loved. So what? Since when does powerful emotional trauma make someone a better judge of what is to be done? Is it not widely accepted in most other contexts that a strong emotional investment in an issue usually disqualifies one from making rational, objective decisions? We require judges to recuse themselves from hearing cases where they have close connections to one or both parties, and it's generally better if your surgeon isn't also your lover. Likewise, decisions concerning penal policy probably ought not to be made by those with an overwhelming personal agenda.

     It goes farther than that, though. Let's suppose we accepted the idea that overwhelming emotional desires made people better qualified to make policy decisions. It'd be hard to argue against a policy whereby the government provided free heroin to everyone on demand; after all, you'd feel differently if you were addicted to heroin and going through withdrawals!
     Indeed, this is where the argument finally becomes self-defeating. After all, it relies in large part on our shared sense of moral outrage against pedophiles and violent criminals; we want to say that we are entitled to judge these people's actions as wrong. Yet much of the time, probably most of the time, what they do is driven by overwhelming emotional desires. "Don't tell me not to molest children," one might tell us, "You'd feel differently if you were subject to powerful pedophiliac urges!" Well, yeah, I would feel differently. But I'm entitled to say I'd still be wrong to act on those urges, even if I had them.

     And so, by the same reasoning, I can say that while I might desperately want the state to execute someone who'd murdered someone I loved, it'd still be bad policy and bad for society at large to indulge that desire. It's natural, and perhaps even healthy, to want things that are ultimately bad for us. It's also right and proper to refuse to satisfy those wants.


  1. Thank you Tom, for a concise essay that should be required reading in every school in the democratic world. You have summed up a subtle and complex argument with a single pithy question, "Since when does powerful emotional trauma make someone a better judge of what is to be done?" Combined with your previous essay on "Paying for Crime," this essay would make a good lesson on the duties of citizenship.

    My only regret is that the religious zealots who are so anxious to engage with you when you write about evolution are so conspicuously silent when you write about the difference between "gut feelings" and sound moral reasoning.


  2. I pretty much agree with Nikolai on your capturing the essence of the argument in this case, Tom.

    I want to also add a bit more specificity to what you have said, here, about the I believe you used the word "stupidity," if you didn't excuse me for not finding a better one, of the 'you'd feel differently if you were the victim of these monsters' argument.

    You're absolutely right that it depends on appeal to shared moral values. The underlying problem THERE is the underlying assumption that we DO share moral values.

    We may, and we may not. In the case of that particular argument, it's easy to prove that it is not universally true that everyone who is a victim of a crime by 'one of these monsters' necessarily DOES feel the same way as the person making the argument that 'everyone else who is a victim of these crimes would want the same outcome I want for the perpetrator.'

    Three cases came instantly to mind as I read, and I know there are more that I could come up with with time and thought and-or some research.

    Cases in point, here: the family of Jeffrey Curley, the family of Kai Leigh Herriot [not sure the spelling is right on the first name] including Kai Leigh herself, and the entire Amish community at Nickel Mines.

    The issue of punishment is moot in the last case, since the gunman killed himself, but some made the argument the gunman's family should be ostracized: something the community refused to do.

    Jeffrey Curley's father remains adamantly anti-death penalty; and Kai Leigh refuses to hold a grudge against the man who crippled her at a very young age.

    If I correctly recall news reports, I think similar ways of "feeling" about criminal actions are unfolding even now in Nancy Kerrigan's family. Of course, that is a tad different in that the criminal is a family member. The family has, though, as I recall been vocal in not agreeing with findings under law of criminal intent in the event that led to the death of the Kerrigan Dad, but that's somewhat moot in this case, also, since the brother has a long criminal history and the family does not contest that fact.

    While all of these examples accept that society has a right to take some sort of action against those who perpetrated crimes, these examples make clear that it is not a fact, but rather an opinion, that EVERYONE victimized would feel the same way 'if you were a victim of one of these monsters.'

    These are four examples of actual victims who do NOT feel the same way as people who want extreme paybacks or frontier justice. I seem to recall Todd Beamer's wife and family AND John Oganowski's family having been reported as expressing similar attitudes of remaining entrenched in valuing forgiveness towards "the monsters" whose crimes they are victims of.

    It simply is provably true that not ALL victims of monstrous crimes DO feel the same way as the people asserting that everyone WOULD feel the way they do were they such a victim. In fact, offhand, I can't think of any premise more easily proven than that fact: "but not all existing victims of monstrous crimes DO feel the same way you do."