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Ethical Episodes

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Moral Pornography

by Joel Marks

A local murder trial has revealed depths of depravity that are hard to comprehend. But the more gruesome the crime, the more we salivate over the details. How else to explain the unrelenting news coverage? A novelty this time has been the tweeting of developments from inside the courtroom by reporters and other observers. Clearly this story has been milked for its entertainment value.

Lest I be accused of doing the same in this column, let me quickly relate the murder narrative (whose truth is known only to the perps, who are alleged to be the defendants) and then get on with my philosophical parsing. Two lowlifes entered the suburban home of a local physician and his family at night through an unlocked door. They beat the doctor with a baseball bat and tied him up in the basement. They proceeded to the bedrooms of his wife and two daughters, aged 17 and 11. By the time they left the house seven hours later, one or other of the intruders had raped and strangled the doctor’s wife, sexually abused the 11-year-old (and taken pictures on his cell phone), tied the girls to their beds, poured gasoline on them and throughout the house, and then set the whole place on fire. Of the victims, only the doctor survived.

These lurid episodes pass through our imaginations and our nightmares, sometimes distressing, but sometimes titillating. That’s what sells newspapers and keeps people glued to their televisions and their smartphones. Although I myself don’t even want to think about these events because the images are so painful to me (and for such reasons do not even have a television), I am not going to hold my nose about other people’s responses, having become, as my constant readers know, an amoralist. Anyway, it is a commonplace that human beings are both repelled by and attracted to ‘human interest’ stories of the criminal kind. What I do find striking from my new perspective, however, is that such stories also enable another kind of indulgence, the cultivation of another kind of distasteful taste, which I call moral pornography.

Consider that besides the horror, sympathetic grief, disbelief, and even illicit pleasure that onlookers derive from such spectacles, there is also a strong component of condemnation. After all, how often does the world present us with an example of unalloyed evil? Although life is filled with events that elicit moral responses, these events are frequently ambiguous. There often seems to be some exonerating feature (“He stole the money, but he was under threat of his life”), or some uncertainty about the relevant facts (“Was she too drunk to give her consent?”), or even an irresolvable difference about what matters, what is valued (“The human embryo is just a bunch of protoplasm!”). But in an open-and-shut atrocity, society can vent all of its pent-up frustrations about the pervasive moral inconclusiveness of existence. Here at least, at last is wrongness pure and simple: Let us despise it with all of our moral might. Further magnifying this effect is that the alleged perpetrators are under lock and key. They are completely in our power, so our feelings are able to find the most concrete and satisfying expression imaginable. Not only can we call these men whatever names we please but we can, and do (in letters to the editor and blogs) call for their death, even by torture.

Perhaps you begin to see why I call this a kind of pornography. There is vicarious pleasure to be found in the verbal and virtual stoning of these monsters. As for the ‘moral’ component: It seems to me now, looking through the eyes of one who no longer believes in right and wrong, that it is either a delusion or a pretext. Just as ‘newsworthiness’ serves as a cover for the dissemination and enjoyment of rape and murder stories, so ‘justice,’ ‘indignation,’ and ‘outrage’ nicely disguise and embellish our desire to get back at the world for all the slings and arrows we must normally endure. It is not really the criminals we will be killing: It is our boss, our neighbor, our parents, our spouse, our children … all of the people who have hurt us in one way or another, but whom we dare not ‘hurt back’ because of deep ambivalence, societal constraints or the knowledge that they did not hurt us intentionally.

In addition, by focusing on the behavior of extreme malefactors, we are able to minimize our own shortcomings. Just as patriotism is ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ righteousness diverts attention from run-of-the-mill wrongdoing. We can feel innocent by comparison to the miscreant. Dare I say that we thereby enact the salvation story: the lifting of our guilt by its imposition on another (who is, furthermore on the amoralist account, in fact without sin)? More: the catharsis of denunciation is a source of self-satisfaction that makes us feel morally superior.

But what’s the alternative? My suggestion is that we recognize that criminals are no more morally guilty than our boss, neighbor, family, or self … because there is no such thing as morality to begin with. Everyone does what they do because of a chain of cause-and-effect that began at the Big Bang. If we truly took that worldview to heart, we would have, not anger, but perhaps profound sadness – profound because on behalf of both victim and perpetrator, neither of whom is to be envied if both are robots who end up in pain. And we might also then resolve to find ways to cause the world to be the way we want it to be. This might still lead us to lock up people who do things we deeply dislike, and for some of the usual reasons, such as protection from the danger they may pose, and deterrence to others who might otherwise be motivated to behave similarly. But it would preclude the manufacture of both moral vilification and moral egotism, which by their effects only add to the sum total of misery.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2011

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He would like to cause you to look at his website: TheEasyVegan.com.

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