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Monday, August 18, 2008

Seeking Balance in the Gray

I tend to judge people riding bicycles. And by that I mean I tend to judge people who look like they can't afford the bicycles they are riding, and I tend to judge people who look like they can't afford any bicycle at all. And by "judge", I mean I mentally accuse them of having stolen their bicycles.

Like any stereotype, I'm probably right at least some of the time.

So today, I was walking out of the library carrying my coffee and books, and I saw a beater bicycle with lots of garbage filling the rear wheel rack. It was the type of garbage you see in shopping carts stuffed in bushes and back alleys. In other words, the type of garbage that makes up bum possessions. And so I immediately thought that the bicycle must have been stolen, because someone who's fishing aluminum cans out of garbage bins probably can't afford even a beater bicycle.

So I thought maybe it would be cosmic justice if that bum got his bike stolen from him. But then I thought that if someone stole that bike from him, they'd be robbing the bum of his sole possession (presumably), which is perhaps a graver offense than taking from someone who has plenty. When the bum pinched the bike from somebody else, he probably took it from someone who had plenty of other things, and who had the means of buying a replacement bike (and a better locking system so as to prevent future pinchings).

And that's when I started thinking about whether things that are bad are always bad, or if there are circumstances that make bad things justifiable.

Assuming that I'm right that this bike belonged to a bum who had pinched it from someone else, is it ok that he stole the bicycle? He is needy, after all. Does that need justify the normally wrongful action?

You can ask this question about many other things as well; the death penalty, for instance. It's wrong to kill others, most sane people agree. But is it ok to kill someone because they themselves have killed others? Or is that a hypocritical approach? Are there times when murder is justified?

What about the issue of Life? There are people who say it is wrong to abort a fetus, that a fetus has human rights at the moment of conception. But the same people who subscribe to this position often feel no inhibitions about the issue of war. Is it wrong to kill an innocent fetus, but fine to kill innocent civilians caught up in the throes of war? Is one version of life worth more than another -- the unborn fetus versus the already born human?

I recognize that in life there is a large gray area. In fact, maybe the whole thing is a gray area. And so maybe circumstances need to be taken into account when judging the morality of a situation. (Yes, even atheists can believe in morality. Contrary to popular belief, morality is not dependent upon a belief in god.) But a huge part of me wants to just say that wrong is wrong, regardless of circumstance.

For instance, I am just as against the death penalty as I am against the act of murder. And I think it's just as wrong to steal out of need as to steal out of greed.

But then again, I think that war and the killing associated with war is wrong, but I believe in the right to choose whether to bring a child into the world, or more importantly, whether to prevent bringing an unwanted child into the world.

And my feeling that the bum with the bicycle would be cosmically served if he got his bike stolen from him was a very eye-for-an-eye thing, as is the death penalty.

Nothing is black and white, it seems, and these are all difficult questions.

I think life is a box of difficult questions. And too few of those questions have the creamy filling of an answer.



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24 comments:

sovknight said...

It's interesting that you're against the death penalty. I for one, am for it. I think Texas has the right idea as far as executions go, namely; do them often. If you're a convicted murderer with a proved record, and you have no possibility of ever reintegrating with society, then I think it's our duty to strap you down and fry you. If you can't be a productive and reasonably well-behaved member of the public, and your intent is to cause harm or destruction to others, I see no reason for your continued existence. I guess some people have a moral problem with this, but I do not. If you like, I will throw the switch myself. You can even photograph me and put the picture in the paper with my hand on the switch and a big smile on my face with the caption: "Cooked another one!" Problem not.

There's a guy in Ohio on death row who is seeking a stay of execution on the grounds that he's too fat. Apparently, his excess weight will cause the chemicals in the execution to work more slowly, and thus prolong his "suffering" during the lethal injection. I say "GOOD!" This is a man that raped and killed several young women. Did his victims get a quick end to their suffering? Did they get any sort of pity or consideration to their pain? No, not at all. If it were up to me, Fat Fuck would be strapped to the table and injected with all manner of painful and horrible chemicals. He deserves to die the same way his victims did; in agonizing pain.

I know I sound harsh, but I have no pity for fools. I have no moral ambiguity when it comes to justice either. That's just me though.

Sra said...

I can't argue with you about what people who do those awful things deserve. If they do something so terrible, they deserve to have the same thing happen to them, in my opinion. My problem comes in when you allow someone to give them that punishment. In doling out the same treatment, the punisher becomes no better than the punishee.

I can look at someone who has brutally raped and murder several women and think that they deserve to be killed painfully themselves, but I couldn't in good conscience be the one to do that to them, because then I would have become what I hate. And I see the same thing for anyone else who would willingly do it. I'm not saying that because you would be happy to pull the switch that I think you're bad. We just have a different view, I guess.

P.S. It's not really weird that I am against the death penalty. I'm generally liberal, and it's generally the liberal position to be against the death penalty.

Zac said...

It's easier to be all "justice demands death" in ideal cases where you absolutely know their guilt and the crime is especially severe. But in many cases guilt is not so well-established, and people will inevitably disagree on how severe is severe enough to merit death.

There's also a serious problem if you really consider whether the state ought to have power of life and death over the people, even over the worst of us.

I remain pro gun, so one could say that, paradoxically, I'm more comfortable with death for attempted murder than with death for actual murder. Of course, self-defense killings avoid the problem of state-sanctioned killing, though establishing whether it is actually justified remains a problem.

And even self-defense killings run into another problem I have. Because I don't believe there is cosmic justice, or an afterlife, on some level I think if the bad guy dies, he got away with it. This applies almost more to self-defense killings and cases where a criminal is killed while confronting police officers. The dead criminal avoids facing up to a world where people know who and what he is and what he's done.

Ben Sloan said...

Zac has already said most of what I was going to in regards to the death penalty, but I do not share his compunction with self defense killing.

Killing someone in self defense does the one thing we need: stops the threat from being a threat. End of story. The dude is dead. He no longer exists. I think the notion of some kind of separate "justice" that the murderer tips in one direction and we must tip the other doesn't really make much sense. If a guy is trying to murder people, the goal is stop him from murdering, which killing him does quite well, if you as the victim know he is trying to kill you. The only problem arises when we give the state a license to kill, and have to deal with evidence after the fact, jurors, etc.

tauns said...

Personally, I think stealing a bike is never a need. Now if time was desparate and I didn't have food for my children and no one would give it to me, you better believe that I would steal it and not think another thing of it. I would try to repay later in life.

As for the death penalty, I feel differently. I feel that it is justified for them to loose their life if they planned out and took someone else's life.

Sra said...

I agree with Zac and Ben that there is a huge problem with assigning rights over life and death to the state.

I am anti-gun, myself. People can be very hot-headed, and I don't feel comfortable putting a gun into the hands of someone who may do something terrible in a moment of heat. We can't judge from the get-go who would go overboard with a gun in a bad moment and who would stay under control and exercise good judgment. Bottom line to me is that the more guns you have in the hands of people, the more incidents of gun injuries and deaths you have.

As for killing in self defense, I support the right to defend yourself as much as necessary if your life is threatened, and if that means killing the bad guy, then I don't have a problem with it. But I'm not sure if I could live with myself knowing I killed someone, even a bad guy, or even accidentally.

sovknight said...

I still think it comes down to morals. Sometimes morals are learned, but I believe that a majority of the time they're implanted at an early age and then reinforced through society and religion. I have no qualms whatsoever with killing another human being if it's necessary to protect myself or a loved one. I feel the same way about dispensing justice to someone who requires it.

I guess I also disagree with Zac on the self-defense thing. A man's most precious commodity is his own life, and taking it away from him is justice in my opinion. Sitting in a jail cell being fed by the state and watching TV for the rest of your life is not a suitable punishment for raping and killing.

Trovan said...

#$%@!#$%!!!

I typed up this nice long reply, then my computer had an aneurysm.

So I'll sum it up.

I agree with the death penalty for certain crimes. Rape and murder pretty much sums it up. I understand how you feel about the government assuming the power to dole out death, but they will take it whether we give it to them or not, and someone has to do it.

I agree with Sov about self-defense killing. Your life and that of your loved ones takes priority, always. If someone dies from trying to kill me or my family, that is their fault (however, it is tragic). I do carry a gun about 95% of the time.

I don't agree with abortion. It is murder. But, I do think there are certain times when it is justified, such as in cases of rape or the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

I don't agree with war except for in defense of home, family, nation, and freedom. We should never go out looking for war. We should only fight when war comes to us.

heidikins said...

This is such a beautiful post, I love the way it forces me to think without bashing me over the head. Brilliant, Sra.

xox

Sra said...

Sov: This then brings up the question of whether there is universal morality or only relative morality. To that, I have no answer. But I suspect some aspects of morality must be universal. It's when you get to the specifics that things become complicated. That's sort of the point of this post, really, to explore that.

Trovan: I'm going to focus on the abortion issue from your comment. I'm taking it that you believe an unborn fetus has some kind of human rights, and that aborting it is murder for this reason. I'm wondering then why it would be ok to abort a rape fetus but not a non-rape fetus. The rape fetus is as innocent as the non-rape fetus, after all. I'm not drawing any conclusions, here, just asking more questions.

Heidi: Thanks very much :) I'm always glad when you like my posts, since yours are always so brilliant themselves.

Claire said...

This one, I had to ponder for a while.

When it comes for to the relativity of morality, I am a person who hopes for the best but expects the worst...the "worst" in this case being abject moral relativism. Now, I say "worst," but I suppose what I mean is "the more likely outcome."

Just as with all of humanity's higher moral conundrums, the killing of human beings is very Monet-ish in its construction; for most people, what is easy to espouse from a distance, in the abstract, is suddenly extremely difficult to support in the concrete and close-up, e.g. "Let's nuke the bastards" vs. actually piloting the Enola Gay, or "If you try to hurt my family, I'll kill you" vs. actually braining your assailant with a rock.

I guess it boils down the age-old conflict between the way in which we establish the rules by which we (as individuals and as a society) operate, which is to say cerebrally and via what we hope is objective rhetoric, and the way in which, AS INDIVIDUALS, we must often act, which is (depending on the severity of the situation) based on Fight or Flight bubbling up from the reptile part of our brains. This, I think, is the crux of the dilemma when one considers Universal Morality vs. Relative Morality...we think universally, but we act situationally.

The rules of our society are black and white, but we're messy, imperfect creatures, and spend our lives in the grey, as you say, Sra. Within our brief time on this planet, we've managed to test-drive any number of ethical and moral methodologies, some civil (The Code of Hammurabi), some religious (The Ten Commandments), some ineffable (the membership rules when joining Colombia House).

Ultimately, however, morality in the abstract and morality in concrete execution are going to be in occasional conflict for as long as we, as a species, maintain simultaneous (but not necessarily congruent) personal and general morality. (Here I'm thinking of the "stealing is wrong, but the greater crime is letting my family starve by not stealing food when it is available). Society is a construct sitting on the very shaky ground of human "civilization," and while I definitely believe in the triumph of one's angel over one's ape more often than not, I also know that moral rectitude is often the first thing to go when things get hinky.

Just my $0.02.

Oh, and speaking personally, life is hard. People need choices, and I think that, in a world plagued by overpopulation and excessive ass-hattery, abortion needs to be one of those choices (but I still endorse adoption if it's an option). I'm a big supporter of personal choice (and responsibility)..."take what you want, and then you pay for it," as it were.

As for the death penalty, well, I'm in favor of sending death row inmates to work at Meijer...eternal punishment, without the sweet release of death (although I suppose that's a little too cruel and unusual).

Seriously, though, I've always been of the opinion that killing someone because they've murdered and raped and pillaged is an effective deterrent a) to any future crimes they might commit, barring zombification/reanimation and b) any future crimes committed by those who might seek to emulate them. That said, the efficacy of that deterrent is minimal when thoughts of higher moral imperatives are cast aside in favor of reptile-brain situational actions (and reactions), so perhaps it's only deterring considerate and rational murderers.

These are murky, fog-bound waters, without a lighthouse in sight for most of the trip. I guess all any of us can do is make sure the things and people we care about are wearing their life jackets and watch out for the big rocks.

Sra said...

Well said, Claire. I appreciate your discussion of morality in theory (universal) versus morality in the moment (relative). I think there may always be dissonance between the two. That's why it makes for such good discussion.

Trovan said...

Sra, I do not mean to imply rape is a blanket excuse for abortion. All human life is special and deserves our protection. I was just saying the there may be certain cases where an abortion is justified. Certainly not in all cases of rape, but possibly in some.

Claire...wow. I agree that our universal morals and our situational morals often differ greatly. We are definitely good at rationalization and justification as a species.

Anonymous said...

I am a little concerned about the judging someone as a bicycle thief based on their appearance.

Sra said...

Indeed, I am human, and I have my prejudices. Did you see the line where I said, "Like any stereotype, I'm probably right at least some of the time."?

Miranda said...

So I also did the thing where I wrote a long, like, totally heartfelt comment and then my laptop went into some sort of sleep mode and I lost it all.

So rather than summing it up again, I'll say something different in response to the anonymous comment. I really do hate to say it, but I think, based on multiple recent experiences relating to stolen bikes, that it's hard for me not to draw that admittedly prejudiced conclusion now too. I live on a street at the end of which is a pawn shop, and I see bums / crackheads a lot riding down on their way to cash in. One day I was outside on my porch and one of the bums even had the balls to ask me if I wanted to buy the clearly stolen, very expensive looking bike, because it was Sunday and the pawn shop was closed. Hmmm...a legitimate sale would probably involve a posting on craigslist or some other way to get the most money for what the bike is worth, but I could be wrong. I also had a good friend recently get her bike stolen, and it turns out the pawn shop was in on the game - it was discovered they had purposely entered the serial number in the SL county system one digit off! Some shady stuff happening in the city of salt, please people, get a good lock for those bikes and use it always.

Anyway, I'm sure that not all bums and/ or crackheads riding around on expensive or even moderately priced bikes have stolen them - but I think Sra is correct about being right at least some of the time with that prejudice.

Anonymous said...

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

Sra said...

Thanks for weighing in, Miranda. I'm sorry your awesome heartfelt comment got swallowed up.

So here's the thing: We can pretend that we are above judging people based on their appearance (or their age or sex, for that matter) all we want, but the truth is that we all judge on these outward things to one extent or another. This is called "first impression", and if you think you don't form first impressions about people, then I think you are wrong.

I'm not trying to defend my prejudices, I am just owning them. I have prejudices and I recognize that, and furthermore, I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing.

Stereotypes don't just come out of nowhere. They exist because they have some amount of truth at least some of the time. They are trends. Life is never as simple as pigeon-holing would make it seem (and that's kind of the purpose of this post in the first place), but pigeon-holes do have their uses.

If I want to be completely naive and give everyone the benefit of the doubt, that would be very gracious an nonjudgmental of me, but then I would also be opening myself up to having the wool pulled over my eyes.

Want an example of me having the wool pulled over my eyes? Check out this post. I learned a lesson about not being so open to trusting people the hard way. That doesn't mean door to door salespeople are all scam artists, but it means I'm going to be wary of them by default, and that, my friends, is a judgment.

Judgment is not bad. It is necessary, and it is human.

sovknight said...

http://webecoist.com/2008/08/22/toronto-thief-found-with-record-2396-stolen-bikes/

Sra said...

Yeah, I saw that story. The first thing I thought? Guy looks just like a bike thief.

Anonymous said...

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

Miranda said...

So I also did the thing where I wrote a long, like, totally heartfelt comment and then my laptop went into some sort of sleep mode and I lost it all.

So rather than summing it up again, I'll say something different in response to the anonymous comment. I really do hate to say it, but I think, based on multiple recent experiences relating to stolen bikes, that it's hard for me not to draw that admittedly prejudiced conclusion now too. I live on a street at the end of which is a pawn shop, and I see bums / crackheads a lot riding down on their way to cash in. One day I was outside on my porch and one of the bums even had the balls to ask me if I wanted to buy the clearly stolen, very expensive looking bike, because it was Sunday and the pawn shop was closed. Hmmm...a legitimate sale would probably involve a posting on craigslist or some other way to get the most money for what the bike is worth, but I could be wrong. I also had a good friend recently get her bike stolen, and it turns out the pawn shop was in on the game - it was discovered they had purposely entered the serial number in the SL county system one digit off! Some shady stuff happening in the city of salt, please people, get a good lock for those bikes and use it always.

Anyway, I'm sure that not all bums and/ or crackheads riding around on expensive or even moderately priced bikes have stolen them - but I think Sra is correct about being right at least some of the time with that prejudice.

Ben Sloan said...

Zac has already said most of what I was going to in regards to the death penalty, but I do not share his compunction with self defense killing.

Killing someone in self defense does the one thing we need: stops the threat from being a threat. End of story. The dude is dead. He no longer exists. I think the notion of some kind of separate "justice" that the murderer tips in one direction and we must tip the other doesn't really make much sense. If a guy is trying to murder people, the goal is stop him from murdering, which killing him does quite well, if you as the victim know he is trying to kill you. The only problem arises when we give the state a license to kill, and have to deal with evidence after the fact, jurors, etc.

Sra said...

Well said, Claire. I appreciate your discussion of morality in theory (universal) versus morality in the moment (relative). I think there may always be dissonance between the two. That's why it makes for such good discussion.

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