Thursday, March 10, 2011

Conrad Black and the visceral trump card

When it comes to moral systems, hypocrisy, inconsistency and exceptions are different things. Hypocisy, as  La Rochefoucauld put it, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Hypocrisy reflects an inability or unwillingness to live up to one's own standard or a standard one inauthentically espouses. Sometimes I think hypocrisy gets a bad rap. Implicit in hypocrisy is an acknowledgement of the worthwhileness of that standard. I think we're better off if our cads are Dr Johnsons rather than Hugh Hefners.

But let's talk about the related phenomena: inconsistency and exception. Exceptions are an acknowlegement that a system can't apply to all cases. Inconsistencies, I suppose, are exceptions you can't or don't justify.

The tightest systems allow for no exceptions: I love the fact that exceptions aren't needed for the Roman Catholic divorce prohibition. If what appears to be a Catholic marriage breaks down, it was never truly a Catholic marriage, therefore no Catholic marriage has ever broken down. Many ideologies have the same escape valve.

However, most systems need exceptions, and they need the right kind.  In the public square, an allowable elision or aberration has to be articulated in a way that doesn't undermine the principles behind the rule/system itself. Understandably, a lot of effort goes into this process. Just look at the hundreds of years of writing on Just War Theory. Among one's ideological fellow travellers, however, quite often all one needs for a socially acceptable exception is a shared visceral reaction. 

This brings us to Conrad Black, the recently incarcerated historian, commentator and businessman I recently favourably quoted on this blog.  A lot of political progressives downplay the punitive, retributive and deterrent sides of criminal justice. Criminal sanction is, apparently, for a) rehabilitation/restoration, b) public safety, and c) punishing Conrad Black.

There are reasons for the antipathy towards Black. He is, or at least was, rich. He's vocally conservative. He carries himself in a way that some see as snobbish, the effect of which is exacerbated by his conspicuous propensity to marshall the veritable cornucopia of ostentatious words he has at his disposal. He can come across as a bit patronizing.

In 2006, Black was changed with just about every white collar crime imaginable. Over time, all the charges save one were either dropped, resulted in a 'not guilty' verdict, or were overturned on appeal. He's served 28 months and has lost much of his wealth and esteem. Yet, mention his name in some circles and you'll hear rants about how he should spend the rest of his life in jail, and not the comfortable kind of jail either. This is how exceptions work. When theorizing, they're hard to rationalize; in the real world, we reach for the visceral reaction trump card immediately.

There is no chance Conrad Black will 'reoffend'; no accountant or CFO will let him anywhere near an even slightly grey business deal. I'm pretty sure he's not looking to go back to prison, despite his affinity for those with whom he shared accommodations for more than two years. But Black is the exception. People who lament that barbarism of longer jail sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, or uncomfortable prisons, want him to rot in jail. That says more about humans and less about Black.

This sort of viscerality trumping the system isn't particular to this case of course.  I can't remember who it was that observed that, for the most part, Americans actually believe abortion is allowable a) when the health of the mother is at risk, b) when the pregancy is the result of rape, and c) in whatever my own situation is. This is a bit cynical, but it rings true.

I'm not pointing this out to say that viscerality (visceralness?) has no place in moral thinking, or to approve of a Platonic priority for reason over passions.  But if we're going to have systems, and we need to have systems, we shouldn't toss them out the window when someone or something ellicits visceral hatred or wet-eyed sympathy.

1 comment:

  1. And then there's the problem of when a visceral reaction might be called for, but is not present. Witness, as a case in point, the fact that the Tories keep increasing in the polls despite repeated instances of disrespect for Parliament (or outright contempt, if the Speaker's "prima facie" judgment is reliable). But this doesn't upset Canadians, allowing the Tories to suggest that this is nothing but obscure and tedious administrative nonsense that is beneath their contempt (no pun intended) and Canadian's real concerns. And they're right, at least in the latter case.

    I don't intend this as a partisan or even "political" rant. I want it to raise the question that is, in some ways, the mirror image of yours. The Black case, on your analysis, shows where visceral reaction confounds clear political judgment; is the current case of the Tories and parliament a case where anything other than a visceral reaction suggests a want of clear political judgment. Perhaps that visceral reaction just is good political judgment in a case like this?

    Aristotle saw passions as implicitly rational judgments in favoured cases; no Platonist he; do we need more Aristotelianism in our citizens?