Friday, March 12, 2021



Could I have done this? Under the right circumstances, could it have been me? Can anyone with the right combination of parenting, experience, heart breaking disappointment, and, yes, maybe genetic composition behave reprehensibly and yet rationalize irrational and indefensible behavior.

I’m in a meeting now. I’m on a committee.  We are here as a jury of some sort, listening to a tenured faculty member explain behavior so reprehensible that it is head shaking stunning to each of us sitting around the table--except for the person who has behaved so reprehensibly. He is sitting there, alternatively calm and incredulous.  I look above this guy’s eyes and wonder how his brain is wired.  How can he think this behavior is justifiable?  But he does, occasionally smiling at the rest of us as if he is baffled as to why we are making such a fuss.  Smart guy. Advanced degrees. But his logic in this instance that justified and is now justifying unconscionable behavior is so skewed that the rest of us would be staring frozen in a collective, drooling, jaw dropping gaze had we not been listening to his explanation for an hour already.  

But do we all do this? Do we all rationalize indefensible behavior the same way- our otherwise logical wiring, ramming into a dead end before, during, and after we commit offenses.  

I knew this would or at least could have happened. I was not so much surprised by the article in the Las Vegas newspaper as I was reminded of my culpability. Could I have done it? Did I, in essence, commit the crime as much as the bemused professor looking now at his watch as if to say, “Isn’t it time for this silliness to be over?”

When I was a junior in college I took a course called Ethics. It was, for the most part, a very dry class. The instructor was well meaning but his classes consisted mostly of him posing a question to the class that was uninspiring. Then the number (dwindling weekly) who attended a particular session would squirm musing more about why we had decided to attend that day than about the specific inquiry.

However, despite this there was something about the class for which I will forever be grateful. To satisfy the requirements we had to write three opinion papers. One asked us to compare the wisdom of two philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. If these thinkers had been discussed during a class session I must have been dwelling about something else at the time. So, as the deadline approached for the paper, I hauled out the textbook and read about Mill's Utilitarianism and Kant's Categorical Imperative.

I was aghast. I could not believe that Utilitarianism was a philosophy of ethics that had earned any traction. Utilitarianism is often called the Greatest Happiness Principle. It means essentially that things are ethical or right in proportion to the extent they tend to promote happiness, and wrong if they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. The Categorical Imperative appears to be antithetical. It argues that behaviors are right because they inherently are right, and wrong because they inherently are wrong, and it does not matter if something that is right does not cause pleasure.

I saw no merit to Utilitarianism. My 20-year-old self was outraged by the idea. The only good news was that my revulsion made the writing of the paper relatively easy and made the course more interesting than it had been previously.

Since that time I find myself attracted to lectures and debates and some articles that discuss Utilitarianism. Proponents (still around despite my Sophomore five page rant) attempt to quantify pleasure and pain by counting hedons and dolors. A hedon is a unit of pleasure. A dolor a unit of pain. So to determine if something is right, count up the hedons, count up the dolors, if the hedons outweigh the dolors an action is right.

At one debate I attended I was fascinated listening to two philosophers contentiously argue that there were more dolors than hedons in a particular case therefore rendering a decision unethical. One fellow in particular was really piling up the dolors because he became more arrogant and condescending when he couldn't seem to convince anyone that he was correct. What struck me as odd about this debate and any other attempt at quantifying, was the subjectivity in determining what constitutes a hedon or a dolor, and the ease with which one could claim how an act, clearly dolorous when you considered all stakeholders, could be seen as not inappropriate by someone who had a powerful urge to do the deed. 

I knew that someone had had a powerful urge to do a deed.  And I knew, as best as one could know about the future, that there was a good chance that it would be done.

No comments:

Post a Comment