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…

28 comments on “I Wonder

  1. shoreacres says:

    Of course, one complication is that discussions like this usually assume that we are the righteous and “they” are the thieves. You can substitute any behavior, of course.

    Have you read Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”? Your posts read as though you have. If you haven’t, you’ll certainly find his work congenial. He’s worth following on Twitter, too, as he’ll link to his scholarly articles. One of the latest about “microaggressions” in colleges and universities is on target: particularly where he links it to the body politic and future corporate life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      It’s all your fault Linda. You introduced me to Matt and Jojang’s blog. Their blog introduced me to Krista Tippett’s radio program On Being. Krista Tippett introduced me to Jonathan Haidt. Jonathan Haidt has caused me, an aspiring ethicist no less, to question a lot of my moral reasoning. And that has in turned caused me to start putting up annoying blog posts about it.

      But seriously, I find those kind of ripple effects fascinating. 🙂

      I have not read the book, but I’ve just added it to my ever-growing list.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. valbjerke says:

    Ah yes – back to the black and white or right and wrong of things…..
    I’m one of those people that freely gives money to ‘bums/drunks/addicts’ if they ask. I don’t feel I have a right to judge the reason they are in the predicament they’re in – rather I figure most of us are probably a couple of pay checks and one serious illness away from heading in that same direction. Not so long ago I got into a ‘conversation’ with the husband of a woman I work with….. he plainly states that those people are not worth his time – and related a story where a guy had asked him for two dollars so he could buy something to eat. Husband offered to take him across the street to a cafe to buy him dinner – the man became angry and refused the offer. So his point was ‘see – he didn’t want food – he was probably going to buy booze’.
    I won’t repeat what I said to him, but it wasn’t pleasant.
    Still, he thinks he’s right, I think I’m right – and neither of us were inclined to see each other’s point of view. I think it boils down to whether or not any of us have the right to judge others – or hold them to our own standards. Mind you, we were discussing those who are less fortunate – not hard core criminals.


    • Bill says:

      That’s another great example Val.

      I have a friend who spent a lot of his adult life as a homeless alcoholic. He slept under abandoned buildings and begged for money during the day. He has straightened out his life now and is one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met.

      I’ve known many social workers and anti-poverty activists who say that you should never give money to beggars. They say to give instead to organizations that help them. According to them, giving to beggars enables them and supports their addiction.

      So I asked my friend about it. Should I give to the beggars or not? He said, “9 times out of 10 they want the money just so they can get their high.” “So don’t give to them?” I replied. His answer surprised me. “I do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me what they do with the money. I remember how good it felt when someone cared.”

      That really struck me. I’ll admit to still being torn, but I don’t worry so much about the practicalities of it any more.

      Liked by 5 people

      • valbjerke says:

        I like his answer 🙂 I give because I do care, I give because I think it might keep them from having to make a choice to commit a crime to get money (or something to sell for money) and I also know that though there are many organizations that do incredible work to help these people, there are many that fall through the cracks regardless, or do not feel comfortable accessing these organizations.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. avwalters says:

    As an unrepentant Person B, and a student of the science behind decision making, I do not question the sincerity of the Persons A. I do question their critical thinking. The concepts of harsh punishments go long before the brutal British model. It is the tension between “Spare the rod, spoil the child” and “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest.”
    Long before the confirming studies of social science as a discipline, enlightened viewpoints have undermined the harsher Biblical and ancient punitive models. I see it as an unfolding evolution of the species–the abandonment of the animal model in favor of a truly humane world. I also see it’s fingerprints in the different world view between the Old and New Testaments. What shocks me is how quickly the body politic can regress when confronted with hardship or charismatic manipulation–how quickly we descend into tribalism.
    Science has confirmed that carrots work better than sticks. While there may be an inherently criminal mind–it is in the extreme minority. The run-of-the-mill criminals are people caught in a world without opportunity or education. Something as simple as ensuring a wide (10,000 word) vocabulary in children, before they start school, regardless of background, is an reliable predictor of success–of control of impulsive behaviors, as enabling and releasing pent up communications for smooth social interaction and as a solid foundation for educational and business successes later in life. Science shows this. And yet we live in a world where a privileged and unenlightened few seek to enforce petrified educational principles on the masses, sacrificing the unlimited potential of the human mind on the altar of preserving the status quo.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bill says:

      Well said AV. I think you are absolutely right about evolution and our changing views regarding violence. Are you familiar with Steven Pinker’s work? I’ve found it fascinating and it has changed my perspective of human nature and contributed to a much more optimistic long-term worldview. Our changing attitude toward violence is not limited to how we treat crime (although that change is dramatic) but is across the board–how we treat animals, children, women, minorities, other tribes/ethnicities, etc. Of course we have a long ways to go and we have lots of work remaining to be done, but it is helpful to step back and consider the historical arc sometimes, and especially the pace of change/improvement. Even as we look back and wonder how our ancestors could have been so cruel and violent, I expect our descendants will look at us and ask the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        I fear that you’re right, should we be so lucky as to have descendants.

        Interesting that your original post–reflecting the outrageous punishments in England–reflected the view that property was paramount over life. I wonder how they’d have responded to “victimless” crimes, particularly alcohol or substance abuse (outside of the then well-recognized penalties for smuggling to avoid alcohol tariffs.) Our prisons are full of low-level drug offenders–a shame and a waste of human potential.


      • Bill says:

        Tragically, you’re absolutely right about that I think. It is unconscionable. Thankfully the tide is turning on that too now, but that’s small consolation for those who have spent lives in prison for victimless crimes, i.e. the exercise of their personal liberty.

        Stepping back from my usual optimism, I read an interesting blog post recently (I can’t remember where) with a different take on where our cultural evolution is headed. He (or she, I can’t remember) noted the irony in the consequences of the transitions from pre-modernity to modernity to post-modernity. I won’t do it justice but it went something like this–pre-modernity appealed to the authority of a transcendent god to justify divisiveness and claims of particularity (e.g. Catholics and protestants claiming the authority of God to slaughter each other). Modernity was a reaction to the carnage of the wars of religion and purported to replace this denominationalism/particularism with a universal reason/ethics. Then (ironically) the modernists set out to impose their universal reason/ethics on the world through capitalism and colonialism, whether the rest of the world wanted it or not. Then postmodernity rose in opposition to modernity’s irony (using force to impose a supposed universal ethics) denying the validity of any universal meta-narratives and emphasizing relativism and the subjective over the objective. The author identified “Trumpism” as the ironic consequence of post-modernism. Now by appealing to those particular biases (race, class, localized interests, etc), as opposed to some universal meta-narrative, we get authoritarianism rather than what the post-moderns wanted–which was the opposite of authoritarianism.

        Obviously it’s easy to critique the argument, but it’s fascinating nevertheless.


      • avwalters says:

        And a dangerous, slippery slope, at that.


      • BeeHappee says:

        I can see that, and truthfully it is not very surprising, and on different levels that teeter tottering has been going on always, and I suspect it will continue, just like the day replaces the night.


  4. That’s some deep thoughts!
    I always see both sides of things………and that’s a problem in and of itself.
    I don’t know what the answer is.
    But I know I’m going to have a hell of a time falling asleep tonight…………………

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I can always count on you to write about “things that make you go hmmm…” (are you humming along with me yet?)

    I’d really love to read your take on the scenario where Person A and Person B HAVE thought critically about each others underlying motives and how they might discuss their newly discovered common ground in a way that moves their shared concerns forward to a proposed solution to dealing with thieves. (sorry about the long, run-on sentence)

    and when you have that figured out – I’m going to start a campaign to convince you to run for Congress ; D

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I wish there was. But I’m sick of seeing my friends insult each other and poison good relationships because their different worldviews and social locations cause them to have differing opinions on social issues. I’m not expecting them to suddenly come to the same conclusion. I’d just like to see folks stop assuming the worst about each other’s motives and character, and instead give their friends and neighbors the benefit of the doubt on that. How about “I know your motives are the same as mine and that we both want what is best for our society, but I disagree with you because…” instead of “Immoral ignorant wingnuts/libtards like you are ruining our society.” That would be a good start. 🙂

      We make progress when the tension between opposing points of view is resolved in a new moral consensus (thesis/antithesis/synthesis), not when one side just tries to outshout the other.

      But I don’t think I’d ever have a chance of getting elected on a platform of “Can’t we all just get along?”

      Liked by 4 people

  6. BeeHappee says:

    Looks like it is time for “How to Find Common Ground but not get Trapped in a Moral Matrix” by Bill. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      I think maybe I ought to stick to posting pictures of baby goats instead.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BeeHappee says:

        As I get older, goats are making more sense than just about anything else. 🙂 Somewhat on the topic, I was recently listening to this, on the frames of reference: http://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/484359511/frame-of-reference
        Listening to someone with Asperger’s made me think that we are all on some level of the spectrum as to how much we process and how much we do not, whether we acknowledge or even know our physical limitations or not. In the same way, the huge spectrum of our Openness or Closedness that Jonathan Haidt talks about may determine our frame of reference. What I always had found interesting in human nature is that need to bond, often with the exclusion of other, the common enemy of some kind.


      • Bill says:

        Thanks for sharing this Bee. I wasn’t aware of this podcast. There is so much great stuff out there now for philomaths. 🙂

        I actually considered discussing goats in this post. In More’s Utopia there is no theft because there is no private property. That sounds nice, but then I thought of how our goats behave, despite not having private property. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. And I, simplist that I am; refer back to the golden rule… That which is present, in one version or another, in holy writings around the world. We all know it, but to actually adhere or believe it applies to us, well that’s another story, isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Joanna says:

    Some interesting thoughts to ponder indeed, thanks for those links


  9. freethnkr1965 says:

    Just some random thoughts brought on by your observations.

    You are correct about us being predisposed to a view. There are not just philosophical and psychological differences between person A and person B. There are actual physiological differences that affect and predict the way that each will respond to a given situation.

    Read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money with this in mind and you will realize how a small cadre of very rich, very conservative people managed to exploit this difference to bring us as a country to this point.

    At some point Person B has to stop questioning their own motivation and bias and decide that Person A is wrong and reduce Person A’s ability to do damage. This is the tough thing.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks for sharing the link. I find that research fascinating. I recall reading about another study that looked at identical twins raised separately and found that they tended to have the same political leanings, despite having been raised in different situations. To a large extent it seems pretty clear that we’re hardwired to have our political dispositions.

      The negativity bias fascinates me too and I’ve shared thoughts on that in the past. While it is stronger among conservatives, a significant percentage of liberals have it too. It seems to be one of our most powerful cognitive biases.

      Liked by 1 person

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