Thursday, July 14, 2011

America's Yearning for Moral Absolutes

And they arose, as one man, in one voice, to cry out for justice. Guilty, they cried. Guilty, they screamed. Guilty, they shouted from coast to coast.

A Florida jury had the temerity to declare Casey Anthony, Not Guilty, and the nation went berserk.

Dahlia Lithwick captures the mood: “When Casey Anthony was acquitted last week in the killing of her 2-year-old daughter, the nation collectively went nuts. Anyone who had watched the trial for even a moment—or who had followed the noise of the trial coverage for weeks on end—was certain that Anthony was guilty. The pundits who opined for hours, and from vast distances, about the case on cable news were similarly certain. So when a jury determined that it simply didn't have enough proof to find Anthony guilty of first-degree murder, most Americans decided that those jurors were blind morons. The alternative—that these jurors saw something the rest of us may have missed—was unthinkable.”

As I and several others have written, the American judicial system is not designed to produce justice. It is designed to foster rational deliberation according to strictly defined rules. It’s goal is to protect the innocent from being unjustly incarcerated.

It is altogether possible that Casey Anthony got away with murder. No one should be happy at this outcome. Yet, losing our rational bearings over it is not a good idea either.

And, let’s be clear, juries “deliberate.” They receive strict instructions about the law. They are told to follow the law, regardless of what their emotions tell them.

And yet, our culture has developed a tendency to value “passionate intensity” over rational deliberation. Whatever you think of the outcome of the Anthony case, this is not a good thing.

And, keep in mind that the jury came to a unanimous decision. You might want to think of them as a flash mob, a “bunch of blind morons,” but they paid very close attention to every minute of the trial. They are the most informed about the evidence. And they were not subjected to the drumbeat of emotionally overwrought media celebrities.

The emotional outcry over the verdict leads one to believe, with Lithwick, that we seem to have forgotten ourselves, forgotten who we are, forgotten what we stand for.

You may or many not be aware of it, but the field of behavioral economics, along with cognitive neuroscience, has been paying great attention to the issue of whether human beings ultimately make rational decisions, or whether they are simply pawns led around by their irrational, emotional side. .

I think the question is loaded, and I doubt that it can be solved with science.

Instead of doing yet another run through the philosophy, let’s compare for a moment a jury that swears itself to rational deliberation and a lynch mob calling for Casey Anthony’s head. Which one presents the truth of human nature. Should the behavioral economists recognize that when they present their beliefs as scientific truth they are also encouraging people to behave irrationally?

After all, the cognitive crowd has been declaring that we are all fundamentally irrational, emotion-driven creatures, who put on a veneer of rationality in order to hide the truth, from others, but also, from ourselves.

If they are right, then the mob that is consumed by passionate intensity shows the truth of our nature, while the deliberative jury is a bunch of deluded fools.

According to Kiri Blakeley the reaction to the Anthony trial provides us with a snapshot into America’s current cultural ethos. One might also call it a sociological symptom.

In a recent, excellent post Blakeley explained that we are in a moment where we, as Americans, are seeking to ground ourselves in moral absolutes. If she is right, and I believe that she is, then this is a dangerous development.

When the world is divided into absolute good and absolute evil, violent conflict becomes inevitable. Respect for the opposition feels like treasonous betrayal. Negotiated compromise feels like a sellout.

In Blakeley’s view we Americans have moved beyond shades of gray. That implies that we are finished with subtlety, complexity, and even with negotiation.

I would add that as long as we have overcome good manners and decorum, as long as we have ceased worrying about propriety, then it becomes inevitable that we will start seeing our world in otherworldly terms.

When we cannot count on our fellow citizens to behave respectfully, to follow the rules of etiquette, we look for others ways to feel part of a community. Among them must be the ability to belong to mobs that are only joined by a lust for blood.

Beginning with titles of recent movies, as good a cultural indicator as any, Blakeley notes the vulgar emphasis on primitive emotions and moral absolutes.

In place of movies called 9 to 5,  we have Horrible Bosses. We don’t have The Graduate;  we have Cougars.  And we have the markedly unsubtle: Bad Teacher.

It feels like a descent into willful mindlessness. It makes you wonder what children have been learning in school.

Blakeley sees our yearning for moral absolutes at work in the Casey Anthony trial.

In her words: “Our need for everything to be spelled out for us in screaming bold block lettering probably explains much of the popularity of the Casey Anthony trial. Here was an event with a clear villain—the occasionally eerily grinning but otherwise unemotional mother who partied while her daughter went missing—and a clear victim, an adorable chubby-cheeked toddler found buried with her Winnie the Pooh blanket. You can’t get much more right and wrong, much more black and white, than that.”

Blakeley sees it as a function of our economic times. At a time when everyone is uncertain about the economic future and when political divisions seem wider than ever, people are seeking moral certainty, something they can be absolutely sure of.

In her words: “When people aren’t sure where their next paycheck is coming from, whether or not they’ll have a job this year or next, whether or not they can or should buy a house or start a family or even invest in a new pair of jeans, no one is in the mood for moral ambiguity. We all know who destroyed the country: Big Bad Evil Bankers Who Never Went to Jail and Are Still Rich. (I’m not saying that is wrong, mind you, but it doesn’t account for any gray area.)”

A couple of weeks back Frank Rich made a similar point. As he explained, the American financial system came within a hair of collapsing a few years ago, and no one has been brought to account.

Not one of those who were in charge of our public and private financial institutions has stood up and taken responsibility. None has paid a real price.

Added to the uncertainty that most Americans feel is the simple fact that very, very few people really understand how the system works or why it failed. So, we are all trying to evaluate the crisis and determine future policy from a position of relative ignorance.

Ironically, in 2008 America had to turn to the people who had gotten us into the mess, because they were the only ones who knew how the system worked. And we had to trust their judgment.

But then, these pillars of probity did not attempt to reason with the American people. They regaled us with horror stories; they trotted out the most extreme scenarios in order to sway public opinion.

When you have to choose between the policies they recommend and the possibility that there would be no more money, no more food, and no more America... you are not being asked to engage in a process of rational deliberation, but to rubber-stamp their views. Otherwise, the coming Armageddon will be your fault.

If the nation is mired in moral absolutes, then some of the blame goes to those who defined the financial crisis in absolutist terms.

But still, if the financial system arrived at the precipice, shouldn’t someone be punished?

If we are not going to punish the bankers and bureaucrats, then we need some other scapegoat.

It reminds me of the old story, where a village has three butchers and one cobbler. The cobbler commits a crime, but the village decides that it cannot punish him because then no one will be able to make shoes. So it decides to punish one of the butchers. The village can do with one less butcher much more easily than it can do with no cobblers.

A scapegoat need not have anything to do with the crime that is going to be expiated by his or her sacrifice.

But, if we are going to sacrifice a scapegoat, we will feel better if we find someone who is unquestionably guilty of having done something heinous. Then we can hold her up as an example of what America does to those who commit grievous harm.

Americans feel that they were robbed of their future. The more the government has spent, the more of their future they will have lost.

Americans know to an absolute certainty that Caylee Anthony, as a representative American child, was robbed of her future. Ergo... someone must pay. The person who robbed Caylee Anthony of her future can stand in for those who have robbed young Americans of theirs.

One final point: when you think of the world in moral absolutes, as opposed to negotiated compromises arrived at by rational deliberation, you have not just allowed passion to take over for reason. You have also created a situation where you do not have to do any work.

All that matters is what you feel and how deeply you feel. Then you need but act on your passions.

When you become consumed with emotion you do not have to work through the mountains of evidence; you do not have to think over the different possibilities or even the probabilities. You do not have to measure the prosecution’s presentation against the law’s requirement.

You know that the little girl went missing. You know that the mother did not report her missing. You know that her mother went out partying. And you know that her dead body was tossed in the trashed. Case closed. Send her to the gas chamber.


Robert Pearson said...

You may or many not be aware of it, but the field of behavioral economics, along with cognitive neuroscience, has been paying great attention to the issue of whether human beings ultimately make rational decisions, or whether they are simply pawns led around by their irrational, emotional side.

I would argue that most people, most of the time, make moderately irrational decisions. Being on a jury focuses the mind wonderfully. I was a juror in a rape trial that found the defendant not guilty and it was a sobering, and very valuable, experience.

Because of the generally low standard, making rational decisions just a bit more often has great marginal utility.

"In the Kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is King."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point, Robert. The jury system seems to bring out the best in people, their more deliberative and rational side. Apparently, a goodly part of the rest of the country has gone bonkers over this verdict... witness the woman in Oklahoma who tried to run down another woman for looking like Casey Anthony.

JP said...

I'm going to make an argumnet that goes even further than yours.

The problem with the jury system is that it's not as good as a judge making decisions.

I recall reading a study in law school pointing out that judges tend to make better decisions overall than juries.

The point of the jury system was originally to have a "jury of your peers". Randomly selected people from the public aren't "my peers". It was a limitation on the rights of the king. Your peers had some idea of who you were as a person, of your character rather than a traveling judge who didn't know anything about you or the case.

If we want the jury system to function and we aren't going to use a jury comprised of people who know the character of the parties, what we really need are professional juries.

I think the jury made the right decision in this case. If I were on a jury, it would be extremely hard for me to find someone guilty of murder in a circumstantial case. Actual evidence, please.