13 February 2010

A Bad (?) Man...

Consider the lobbyist, the bail bondsman, the compromised scientist. I would like to be the devil's avocado here and put myself in the shoes of these people (who I may otherwise be more than ready to pounce upon).

Surely these types of people don't think of themselves as "bad people," but it's hard to say what else they might be. Openly advocating for the interests of an entire--and pretty much reprehensible--industry (e.g. strip mining) in exchange for money must sound like a filthy proposition to nearly all ethical human beings, yet people do it. Working in a CIA black prison sounds like an improper thing to do to most of us, but others feel completely justified in doing so.

It seems that there is either some sort of radical division in morality between certain sub-populations of the American populous or that, through some sort of mental/logical/ethical gymnastics, some people are able to justify and come to terms with what they do (when what they do is, by many commonly accepted standards, wrong).

Traditionally, we talk about ethics and people in two ways, each quite unlike the other. When we know someone, when we like him or her, we say, "Billy did a bad thing." When that other person is a stranger, we usually say, "He/she is a bad person." These are two completely different things.

Yet what/who is a person other than the sum of their actions?

What do we say of the head of a bail bondsmen group who, on the one hand, (legally) bribes elected representatives to legislate against the interests of the vast majority of American citizens but, on the other hand, (hypothetically) may donate to charity or volunteer for local organizations? Is this person good or bad?

Neither way of talking about the ethical quality of a person is entirely accurate or useful. I have no answers.


Casey said...

If you haven't already you should pick up Zimbardo's book the Lucifer Effect. Actually if I haven't lent it to someone else you can borrow it.

The short response would be that it's more about mental gymnastics than anything else. But I agree that people are the sum of their actions.. and therefore even if moral reasoning is vulnerable to certain identifiable external pressures (this is what the Zimbardo book is about), it doesn't necessarily diminish moral culpability. Would you agree?

dws said...

Yes I would. I think you can be a bad person without being aware that you are.