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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Morality of Rioting

The Chav Spring?
Over the six or so years I spent (but not necessarily wasted) in graduate school studying ethics in my quixotic attempt to someday become an academic, I noticed some things that, over time, led to a disintegration of my faith in academic moral philosophers and what they had to say about moral matters.

One of these is the tendency among professional ethicists in their writings to deploy what I like to call the ethicist’s “royal we”. They do this on those rare occasions when they actually dare to make an evaluative moral statement (rather than just talking about the nature of evaluative statements in the abstract). Examples usually take the form of such locutions as “We all believe that it is morally right to X” or “We all believe that Y is morally wrong”.

Deployment of the ethicist’s “royal we” tends to occur in cases where the ethicist uttering it is either (i) not entirely convinced that everyone really does believe that Y is morally wrong, and so needs to bolster his claim with bandwagon rhetoric and a little group auctoritas, to cow his audience in to assenting, or (ii) he intends the “we” to refer to other like-minded people, who are usually affluent, white, articulate academics who are rarely troubled by the problems of the mass of the world’s people, and who most likely will assent to his claim in any case. Actually, he may not even intend his “we” to refer in this way; more often than not it is simply subconscious.

The latter case of the ethicist’s “royal we” can be quickly inferred where the ethicist employs some potted situational example to illustrate his claim that Y is morally wrong. Most often these examples will be horribly contrived and underdescribed, betraying a palpable lack of engagement with lived experience. If I bring up the term “trolley problems”, ethicists will know what I’m getting at. Besides contrived situations, they will also trot out those rather genteel examples that mostly concern the fraught etiquette of the faculty meeting or the proper measure of justice to be observed in the grading of student papers. These are examples that will evoke a nod of the head from the academic reader, but will leave outsiders simply bored or puzzled at the fussing when there are real ethical problems in the world.

In truth, these are rather minor sins against good moral philosophy, for at worst ethicists who indulge in such things as trolley problems and faculty meeting ethics simply fail to engage with the lived experience of many. They make themselves irrelevant, and at least their irrelevance is a kind of harmlessness. What they write and say will typically be ignored outside of academic circles on account of its sheer lack of utility. It is much more dangerous when an academic has an ethical opinion that does engage with the real world, but which is at the same time patently absurd, at least to someone who has not yet managed to have her moral sense smothered by breeding or education. The danger is that such ideas will be adopted by the general public on the basis of the utterer’s authority and putative good intentions. Bad ideas, you see, too often display a tendency to filter down from the educated to the less educated, a point to which I shall return.

This has added poignancy for me in light of the recent riots in the UK and an article on them by essayist Theodore Dalrymple. I knew sooner or later that Dalrymple would hold forth on the riots. For those unfamiliar with his writings, Dalrymple (a.k.a. Dr. Anthony Daniels) is a retired psychiatrist who spent much of his career working in prisons with the criminal underclass in Britain. He writes much about the moral bankruptcy of Britain’s poor, sometimes with acid wit, sometimes with despair, and occasionally with great humanity. Dalrymple sees Britain’s social degeneracy (across all social classes) as the end result of a sort of trickle-down effect, through which bad ideas that become fashionable among the intellectual and social elite are adopted (with predictable bowdlerization) by the lower strata of society.

To be fair, Dalrymple writes about the moral bankruptcy of elites as well. The problem, he says, is that bad ideas are relatively harmless to the affluent folks that adopt them. The affluent can afford to make a few mistakes in life without it destroying their long-term prospects. But those same bad ideas, when they filter down, can have devastating effects on the poor when the poor adopt them, or indeed when they are applied by the rich to the poor (or when the affluent have stupid ideas about the poor, which the poor then internalize).

If verbosity reliably tracked depth of knowledge, then the affluent would doubtless be the world’s great experts on what is good for the poor, since they seemingly have so much to say about it (while actually doing very little). Conservatives and liberals alike all have some pet theory for why the poor occasionally behave badly. Conservatives tend to blame it on the poor themselves, attributing it to laziness or a lack of moral fibre. This is, of course, simplistic. Yes, many poor people are lazy and, frankly, stupid. But many are not. There are some smart and hardworking people too who are poor. Virtue and hard work won’t always make one rich. And needless to say, one can be stupid and lazy and rich.

Liberals tend to have more elaborate theories about why the poor behave badly, ones in which ultimate responsibility lies with others, or with “society”. Such liberal explanations are likewise simplistic. However, a good liberal will rarely let truth get in the way of a good narrative and a chance to pat themselves on the back for their virtuous intentions and their costless charity. It is mostly such liberal theorizing that Dalrymple’s writings set out to deflate.

Dalrymple is often excoriated by progressives for being an elitist. Many of the reader comments accompanying Dalrymple’s recent column on the riots were hostile to precisely this perceived elitism. They are right in one sense: he is an elitist. But being elitist is not the same thing as being wrong. A mere label cannot invalidate an argument. And the label is a bit unfair, since it is applied to a man who has spent so much of his professional life among poor people, something that cannot be said of most of the progressives who are so quick to give us their armchair theories about them. The “elitist” label is also ironic because Dalrymple’s writings make clear he believes elites are every bit as immoral and intellectually lazy as the underclass they’ve spawned.

But I digress. Returning to the affluent and their very bad ideas. Among these is the notion that none of us is really responsible for our actions, and that poverty or “society” or genetics or brain chemistry or [insert pet theory here] is responsible for whatever bad things we do. When such ideas spread and become pervasive among all classes, immorality (let’s call it what it is) is excused. Indeed, it may even garner the evil-doer sympathy and respect, while his victims are ignored and forgotten. And because in such an intellectual environment the evil-doer rarely experiences the ill consequences that his actions would naturally earn him in a more moral society, he has little incentive to become better. He need feel no shame, because after all, his actions are not really his. In short, misguided liberalism in moral matters has us drifting towards a shameless society, or at least a guiltless one.

(Of course, human nature being what it is, there is cognitive dissonance here too. While we are quick to disavow our bad actions as the result of poverty, discrimination, society, Mommy-issues, and the like, we are equally quick to take moral credit for our good actions, and even for those happy events that put us in a good light but that are in reality the result of mere fortune. And there is the double standard effect: we are quick to blame others for their bad acts, while we excuse our own by attributing them to exogenous factors. But again, I digress.)

If we were to take liberal morality seriously and believe that none of our actions are really ours, we can safely predict that freedom as a political concept would likewise be demoted in our value system. Or else, we’ll value freedom (license?) for ourselves, while believing others should be controlled. In either case, the resulting society runs the danger of being very illiberal. Furthermore, is there not a strange tension between the liberal aspiration of liberty, and the liberal cant of deterministic non-responsibility for our actions? Even liberal liberty becomes deterministic: a sort of freedom to indulge the brute passions and desires that would control us like puppets if we let them.

In any case, returning to the UK riots, one might have predicted the mass outbreak of liberal hand-wringing from well-intentioned (and well-educated) folks who have been quick to “explain” (or “excuse” in my opinion) the rioters as poor down-trodden youth with no jobs or futures, as if the riots were a predetermined act of righteous protest. In my mind, those who have respect and good intentions for the poor should be very careful about resorting to this kind of quasi-deterministic “explanation” of (anti)social behaviour.

For one thing, it hopelessly confounds the descriptive and the normative. One implies causality when one makes a descriptive statement like “poverty leads to rioting”, but there is also a normative implication that such rioting is excusable, since we should have seen it coming, and since, in a sense, those who riot were “driven” to do so by supposedly intolerable conditions. The descriptive and the normative should be kept distinct. Even if it were indisputably true that poverty leads to rioting (it isn’t), this fact cannot entail the claim that rioting is therefore morally excusable. An action can be causally determined and still be wrong. Aberrant sexual drives may “cause” someone to commit a rape, but we do not on those grounds excuse the rape. I would condemn the rape and the person who committed it, and without resorting to the ethicist’s “royal we”, I hope you would condemn it too, otherwise I do not much covet your acquaintance. Those whose moral praise and blame are too dependent on the issue of causality will inevitably find themselves forced to excuse things they wish to condemn — and what is just as bad, failing to praise what is praiseworthy.

Also, once you go down the road of attributing people’s actions to exogenous causes, you begin to strip them of their moral agency. They may become mere objects of scientific enquiry, and (more ominously) maybe even objects of scientific intervention. Punishment, as atavistic as the concept may sometimes seem, is at least driven by the notion of there being some proportionality between misdeed and penalty. But when immoral conduct is instead turned into a disease, we may then be licensed to apply aggressive therapy to “correct” it. Perhaps this is a weak slippery slope argument, but it is something to consider. The fact is that, somewhat paradoxically, moral blame at least treats the person blamed as a person, as a subject rather than an object, as a “thou” rather than an “it”.

The other problem with “explaining” the riots as a protestant reaction to poverty and/or oppression is that the facts simply don’t back it up. There was a conspicuous lack of protest signs. Nor did the “protesting” seem directed at anybody who had done the “protesters” any particular wrong. They seemed more interested in getting their grubby paws on luxury consumer goods than in sending a message about poverty. Even if they were trying to send some kind of a message, the message likely didn’t get through to most people, who, misguided liberal intelligentsia aside, were rightly appalled at their conduct.

They were criminal looters. That is all. Let us not valorize their acts. As a matter of fact, they looted and burned down the shops and homes of people who were equally poor or only marginally better off. “Yes, but this was an irrational reaction to their own degradation,” I imagine the liberal will argue. “They were articulating, in their own way, the frustration they are experiencing.” This is very dubious. Irrational crowd action happens when a group gathered for some purpose gives in to drives stirred by the setting of the crowd, manifesting itself in mass acts of misdirected anger. The actions of these looters were something rather less spontaneous. These are people who got dressed up for the purpose in hoodies beforehand, and who cleverly coordinated their activities through social networking. Between the poverty and the action lies the intention, and it is the intention which ought to be judged. In this case, the intention seems to have been criminal, no more and no less.

Third, when we speak of “poverty” here, we should be clear with ourselves that we are talking about relative rather than absolute poverty. I doubt very much that the absolutely poor can afford the Blackberries these people used to coordinate their rampaging. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for those who are actually concerned for the poor, to attribute the kind of criminality we saw in England to poverty is to insult those millions of poor people in England and elsewhere who work hard, live upright lives of dignity and meaning, and play by the rules.

In truth, I don’t have a theory for why these people did what they did. Many were poor; some were not. The majority of the poor took no part in the mayhem. Thus, poverty alone cannot explain it. I care less about what caused the riots than I do about making sure that it is stopped. In the social sciences, as opposed to the physical sciences, it is often the case that what will stop something has little or no relation to what caused it in the first place. Even if poverty did cause the riots, there are other ways — quicker and cheaper ways — to stop it than fixing poverty. First of all, despite billions of pounds a year the British welfare state has thrown at the problem, poverty (in its relative sense) still exists and thrives in Britain. So it is not something that can be solved right away. And the solution will probably take something more innovative than simply throwing good money after bad. And how exactly do you give jobs to people who are simply not qualified educationally or possibly even morally to do them? You could offer them an education, but would they take it? As it is, many of them are either not qualified to do the work that many Eastern Europeans have willingly accepted, and they have dropped out of the (admittedly sub-standard) publically-funded education system.

In the meantime, people who have done nothing to deserve having their homes torched and their businesses looted have every right to expect the state to protect them. If the state cannot perform this one fundamental function, then woe to civilization, for we are doomed. It is time liberals spent more time sympathizing with the real victims of the rioting rather than with the rioters who victimized them.

Three Remedial Lessons on Morality

Many intelligent and extremely well-educated moral philosophers have said some of the strangest things about morality. I submit to you, dear reader, that this is often the outcome of the kind of abstract thinking that clouds sound moral sense. Let us think back to how we learned about morals, long before any of us went to university.

I can remember three lessons I learned about morality as a child that have stood me in good stead as I consider moral problems today, as a moral philosopher. They stand me in good stead as I consider the UK riots too.

Lesson One.
When my parents taught me that something was bad or morally forbidden, they used language that was not hedged or qualified, as that would only have served to confuse me. For example, when I was about four years old, I was with my mother in the produce section of the grocery store. I took a little loose piece of the green plastic material that separated the different kinds of fruit from each other. I have no idea why I did this. It must have struck my four-year-old fancy I suppose. It was of absolutely no value to anyone, and it was really a tiny piece. I may as well have stolen pocket lint, it was that insignificant. Nevertheless, my mother saw it and tore a strip out of me, because I had stolen it. I was taught that it is wrong to steal. Full stop. I was not taught that it is wrong to steal unless it is something nice or unless you are poor and can’t afford it. There was no “unless” for me in this lesson. The Ten Commandments are couched in similar absolutist terms, as are most criminal statutes.

Children generally first learn moral propositions in the form of such absolutes. Once we get a little older and wiser, we learn that these absolutes can sometimes have exceptions. But these exceptions are relatively rare, and it is still wise policy to think of morality in absolute terms, and to encourage others to do the same. It may be permissible to steal bread if you are starving to death (although even this has been debated). However, it is not okay to smash a window and steal $200 sunglasses because you can’t otherwise afford them. And yet, this is effectively what I’ve been hearing liberals claim it is okay to do when they excuse rioters on grounds of poverty. Put in these terms, we can see it is wrong. But frame the circumstances in bowdlerized social-scientific jargon, and we suddenly become inoculated against good sense.

Lesson Two.
When I was a very young child, I would sometimes throw my candy wrappers on the ground. My parents told me it was wrong to litter (again, notice the lack of an “unless” clause here). When I told them I didn’t understand why it was wrong, my parents told me that litter makes things ugly. They also asked me to consider what would happen if everybody littered. We ought to ask ourselves the same question with regard to the rioting and looting: What if everybody smashed shop windows and stole what they wanted? Or burned down buildings when they were angry?

Lesson Three.
When I was about five years old, I punched my cousin in the face because she was being bossy. I was punished for it, which I felt was a grave injustice, since she was asking for it. My mother told me I deserved to be punished because hitting is not the way to solve problems. More importantly, she told me to think how I would feel if she had punched me in the face. In retrospect my mother was (mostly) correct. At the very least, before you go punching someone in the face, you should do a little “in the other person’s shoes” thinking.

The rioters should have done the same before they decided to torch homes and loot businesses. Equally as important, liberals should do a little “in the other person’s shoes” thinking about the terror and loss the victims of this mass violence experienced before being so quick to “understand” the motivations of the supposedly downtrodden perpetrators.


I’m aware that this post has long outrun your patience. However, I cannot stop myself from sharing a few of the appalling reader comments on Dalrymple’s column (with charming misspellings and bad grammar preserved for effect), if only to scare people back into moral common sense who would otherwise be sympathetic to the liberal sob stories. I would also encourage you, as a sort of homework exercise, to think about how the three moral lessons discussed above can be applied to what these readers had to say.

First, consider this chilling assessment by someone styling himself “Terminalcityman” who thinks that the police are just too judgmental when it comes to young people: “If were [sic.] a young, unemployed man in a place with that kind of finger wagging going on all the time, you’d through [sic.] a brick at a cop too given the chance.”

I certainly hope I wouldn’t. If I were young and unemployed (which I have been), that is absolutely the last thing that would be on my mind. I would be concerned about finding a job, at whatever pay I could find. That’s what separates morally decent people — whether rich or poor — from morally bad people.

Some of the reader comments contained a lamentable but entirely typical tincture of racism and xenophobia as well. And remember that I’m not necessarily talking about right wing neo-Nazis here. If anything, they’re misguided leftish bleeding heart types. Take the following comment by one styling himself “mg4011”: “A lot of the lower paying jobs are taken up by citizens of the European Union, many from East Europe. If the UK did not belong to the EU, businesses would have to hire locals. These young people in England have no choice, there is no work for them. So what do you do when your mind is not focus on something productive? You do RIOT [sic.]. The only to blame [sic.] is the GOVERNMENT.”

This is an example of the usual nauseating bleating about how hordes of Poles and other assorted Slavs are invading the UK and taking jobs away from decent British blokes. If the argument has any truth to it at all, it speaks volumes about the sense of entitlement among British youth. If a Pole can’t find work in Poland, he will emigrate to where he can. He might go to the UK and work at a job a British person would turn his nose up at. But according to this reader’s reasoning, when an Englishman can’t find work in the UK, rather than emigrate or accept a job at a lower wage, he’d rather burn and loot his own city. And, says this cretinous line of “argument”, he’s right to do so. Why? Well, because his “predicament” is the fault of the government, of course. As if it is the government’s duty to give everybody a job. And not just any job, but the job they want at the wage they want! (And to people who for the most part couldn’t be bothered to stay in school long enough to become even remotely qualified for such work.) This is infantile rubbish; there is simply no more charitable way to describe it.

Both the Pole and the Brit are presumably poor. And yet their respective responses to that fact are very different. One has a sense of the intrinsic dignity of work — at whatever wage — and has no expectation that someone else will provide his bread for him. The other only has a sense of entitlement. But what could ever legitimize such an entitlement except the dignity and moral worth of he who is entitled? The rioters’ very behaviour demonstrates that they are entitled to nothing. And the difference in conduct between the poor Pole and the poor Brit belies the canard that poverty simpliciter causes rioting.

The next line of argument is exemplified in the comments of those like “Ken in Paris”, who discounted the rioting as “mere” property damage. So a few houses burned down and some goods were stolen. Who cares? No real harm was done. Property is replaceable. And besides, insurance will cover most of the damages anyway.

I would advise Ken to do a little “in the other person’s shoes” thinking here, and ask himself whether he would be singing the same tune if it were his home or business that was burned to the ground by a bunch of thugs, possibly while he was still in it. Contrary to what Ken says, property matters. If I work my fingers to the bone to save up for years to buy a home, who is he or anyone else to say it doesn’t matter if a thug burns it down, and that I shouldn’t complain because at least it’s not my body or my life? It certainly does matter. A lot. Even if insurance covers it, dealing with the mess and the associated bureaucracy is no picnic, and in the long run insurance premiums will go up for those living in the neighbourhood, people who are not responsible for the rioting, but are more likely to be its victims. Contrary to Ken’s cretinous worldview, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody somewhere pays sooner or later. And there are things that insurance cannot cover, like photographs, heirlooms, perhaps an urn containing the ashes of a deceased loved one.

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