I Wonder

Sir Thomas More published his book Utopia in 1516. Early in the book he describes having a conversation with an English lawyer. The lawyer was “speaking with great enthusiasm about the stern measures that were then being taken against thieves.”

‘We’re hanging them all over the place’, he said. ‘I’ve seen as many as twenty on a single gallows. And that’s what I find so odd. Considering how few of them get away with it, how come we are still plagued with so many robbers?’

‘What’s odd about it?’, I asked. ‘This method of dealing with thieves is both unjust and undesirable. As a punishment, it’s too severe, and as a deterrent, it’s quite ineffective. Petty larceny isn’t bad enough to deserve the death penalty. And no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food. In this respect, you English, like most other nations, remind me of these incompetent schoolmasters, who prefer caning their pupils to teaching them. Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse.’

‘There’s adequate provision for that already,’ replied the lawyer. ‘There are plenty of trades open to them. There’s always work on the land. The could easily earn an honest living if they wanted to, but they deliberately choose to be criminals.’

Of course we don’t hang thieves these days. But isn’t it interesting that we’re still having that same basic conversation 400 years later?

A contemporary version would go something like this:

Person A: “Theft is a serious problem. If we want to stop it, we need to punish thieves swiftly and severely. What we’re doing now isn’t working.”

Person B: “That’s no surprise. People steal because they’re living in poverty and in an unjust economic system. If you want to stop theft, quit locking thieves in prison and start investing in creating economic opportunity in their communities instead.”

Person A: “That’s baloney. These people are not stealing out of necessity. There are plenty of jobs out there for people who aren’t too lazy to work. They’re choosing to be thieves because they’d rather be criminals than to earn an honest living.”

My guess is that most folks who read this will have a visceral reaction, aligning themselves with either my Person A or my Person B. I know I did.

It seems to me we’re probably somehow wired to feel intuitively either that thieves are essentially bad people and that the best response to theft is to severely punish them, or alternatively that thieves are essentially driven to theft by poverty and unjust social conditions, and that the best way to eliminate theft is to eliminate the underlying poverty and injustice. And if we hold one of those points of view, we’re likely to think that those in the other camp are either heartless or naive.

But how does Person B feel about wealthy “white collar” criminals who defraud and embezzle? It’s not likely that Person B would attribute those crimes to poverty and injustice. More likely Person B would say that those people are just evil and greedy, and that they should be prosecuted and severely punished (precisely what Person A says of all thieves). This point of view could easily be held by Person B without any sense of contradiction.

And what about Person A, who thinks the best response to crime is to “hang ’em high” (metaphorically speaking)? Would Person A change his opinion if presented with data showing that crime rates are not affected by the severity of the punishment? Probably not. Despite what Person A says (and even thinks), his point of view is ultimately based on emotion, not data.

Here’s what I find most interesting about my imaginary Persons. If asked why they believe what they do, I think they’d both give essentially the same answer: each would likely say that their point of view is based on a desire for fairness and justice. In other words, while they have completely opposite opinions on the specifics of what should be done with thieves, their opinions derive from the same underlying values–that the response to thievery should be one that is fair and just.

My imaginary Person A would probably say that my imaginary Person B wants to let thieves “get away with it,” which is unfair and unjust. Meanwhile Person B would probably say that Person A wants to punish thieves for behavior that their social condition forced upon them, which is unfair and unjust. I can easily imagine these two people becoming angry with each other. I can easily imagine that each would come to believe that the other is immoral, stupid and a prime example of what’s wrong with our society. Each would come to believe that the other, and those all who think like him, are trying to take control of society, so that their stupid immoral point of view can be enforced. So they become enemies.

Both Person A and Person B, if asked why the other holds his opposing point of view, might well respond, “Because he’s an idiot.”

Yet the best answer might be, “Because he wants our society to be fair and just.”

I’ve been pondering this kind of thing a lot lately and I’ve come to suspect that when presented with an ethical issue, the vast majority of us will recognize it and agree that it exists. I suspect we’re wired to see it. And I also suspect that the vast majority of us have a moral intuition that causes us to want to eliminate unfairness and injustice when we see it. We differ, not because some of us have a moral compass and others don’t, but rather because the worldviews from which our basic moral intuitions derive (worldviews which generally we don’t get to choose) lead us to prefer different solutions to the same underlying problem–despite essentially having the exact same motive.

I wonder if thinking critically about their underlying motives would make us less harsh when judging the character of those with whom we disagree. I wonder if doing so might make it easier for us to discover common ground.

Ok, that’s enough wondering for now…