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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Who are they?

Can you see the boat behind the hedge in the right-hand side of this picture? It's been there for decades. I used to wonder about it when I rode past on my pony in the 1980s. There's no river here and this place is as far from the sea as you can get in this county. So, why is it there? What leads a person to have a boat in a field?

People are weird. Other people. I mean, you know, they just don't have the same values, do they?

Random boats aside, how we think about right and wrong varies dramatically.

My brother, sister-in-law and I have been walking in the countryside a very short drive from the house. Then comes an edict not to go to ‘beauty spots’. My sister-in-law is anxious about that; my brother says, ‘But it’s where we have always walked. And it’s just up the road, it’s not like we’re driving five or ten miles. Besides, there's no one up there apart from villagers and locals like us.’ To add another escape-clause, they are making home deliveries of food, so there’s an option to combine journeys to that place (and a walk) with deliveries, should the local residents be keen. Why not? I’d leap at a home delivery right now.

Anyway, what this situation illuminates is the way in which the spirit and the letter of the law could lead you to different conclusions. The letter is unambiguous – you can’t drive to another place to do your exercise. But the spirit, one imagines, is about prohibiting people from gathering in a given car park and marching together from that hub. It’s about limiting proximity and thus contagion. Where we have walked, there is no gathering, no groups. The risk of contagion is lower than for many city dwellers walking from their homes. And far lower than when going to a supermarket.

Now, interestingly, my brother, who adopts the ‘spirit’ in this ‘where we can be permitted to walk’ scenario adopts the ‘letter’ when it comes to ‘dogs-on-leads during lambing season’. Where there have been no sheep, and other dogs (in the distance) off lead, I have thought that I could let my dog off the lead. But my brother said, ‘No: because the signs say to keep the dog on the lead.’

It seems then, from this tiny example, that as individuals we will often adopt spirit or letter according to our volition.

Speeding, for example. I know many people who are far more ‘letter of the law’ than I am who regard the maximum speed limit on motorways as a suggestion rather than a law. They will justify their behaviour by insisting that they keep a good distance from the vehicles ahead, that they do not undertake, that they are good drivers. Of course, there is interesting research suggesting that the vast majority of people believe they are ‘better than average’ drivers, a proposition that is a mathematical impossibility. Many of those believing they are better than average are, in fact, worse than average.

Individuals and societies perform a very unscientific balancing act between personal freedoms and desires and the good of others and/or of the community at large.

Perhaps it could be illuminating to see morality as both an inner (conscience) and outer (cultural mores and laws) force pushing us to restrain egoism in order to benefit collectivism. Though Christopher Boehm suggests that the external edicts are internalised - and that is what creates the internal conscience. The internalised fear of punishments becomes a drive toward external pro-social behaviour.

How much one is inclined to obey a law or a cultural expectation depends on various factors: the cost of transgression (in punishment, fine or public shaming – and how much those matter to one); the strength of the perceived need or desire to do the prohibited act; the perceived rationality of the edict; the specifics of a given situation; the chances of being discovered; one’s ‘self-definition’ (as a rebel or as a ‘good’ person, for example) and the respect one has for the law-maker. All of which could be conceived of as one's personal sense of conscience.

I’m sure that’s far from a complete list. However, I think that the play between firm-edict and internal motivation starts to explain why even those who regard themselves as good, law-abiding, people-pleasing, socially responsible, moral and the like can still find justification in certain circumstances.

I find it interesting how self-righteous people can be in stressing the importance of following the laws that they choose to follow – inclining them to often contemptuous condemnation of those who transgress (the 'baskets of deplorables' or whatever terms Donald Trump uses to castigate those who do not agree with him) – while at the same time being quite blasé about their own transgressions, which they see as unimportant (possibly, to shine a light on my political allegiance, more relevant in the latter case). Clearly, personal values rather than external factors - which are complex and difficult to analyse in a 21st Century democracy - play a significant part in our views on what is right, on what matters.

Further, our personal values can morph rapidly and leave us unaware that we once thought otherwise. This came to mind when I was in conversation with a friend, whose warm-hearted, engaging wisdom I hope to share in an audio clip one of these days. As we spoke about the pandemic, we saw how quickly all of us can be blind-sided by the changes in our values and precepts. She told me how her father had called NHS 11 about the risks of going to Cheltenham Festival and been told it was fine. Even then she was unhappy about his decision to go, but recognised that, although instinct points this way, it would be unfair to add greater moral castigation with the benefit of hindsight.

On a personal note, just three and a half weeks ago, I would not have been especially concerned about sitting with a person who had a cold. Indeed, at work, people had been having colds and flu-like bugs throughout the winter and early spring. Nor would I have condemned those people for being in the workplace. Another of my friends had been working abroad, covering the coronavirus preparations in Japan and Hong Kong. On his return he came down with a bug and NHS 111 told him he didn’t have the Covid-19 symptoms, so to go ahead and behave as he would with any normal bug.

Looking at these incidents now, with the lockdown lens, even with last week’s social-distancing lens, such behaviour seems irresponsible. One might wish to condemn all involved for putting the community at risk. One might be roused to self-righteous fury. In fact, there’s a temptation, an inclination, rather, to feel that the lens we all have on now is the one through which we have always, or at least for months, been eyeing the world through. We time-travel back to judge, but take with us, anachronistically, the values that we have subsequently imbibed. There’s no prude like a reformed whore.Or we condemn those who were not so quick to imbibe the views we now share - though, at the time caution seemed like great caution rather than common sense.

This relates to a well-studied concept, that we are truly bad at predicting how a given future event will emotionally effect us. What's more, when the incident has actually occurred, we blank out our prediction and claim, with 100% certainty, that this was how we had indeed predicted that we would feel. This is a self-protection system for the ego, which allows us to believe that we are great at anticipating future emotional states, when in fact we are appalling at it.

On a wider scale, all this impacts our views about past cultural icons, who were racist, sexist, homophobic, slave-owning bigots. Are we so lacking in moral nuance that we cannot respect the fine qualities some of them may have exemplified, recognise that they inhabited a different culture with an entirely other world-view and distinguish between their ‘character’ and the societal values which we now, rightly, condemn?

Our minds so easily are polarised. We make the attribution error (saying that when the ‘other’ commits a bad act, they are a bad person, while when we commit a bad act, the situation ’drove’ us to it) so readily that it appears a truth of the world rather than a logical error and failure of reasoning.

Now, with the high levels of anxiety, polarising and judging, condemning and failing to see that others may be acting irresponsibly without being ‘bad people’ could make our situation worse.

It is not rocket science to recognise that condemning and punishing tend to be less effective in changing beliefs and behaviours than persuading and guiding, offering a positive example and treating others with respect and understanding. Without making connections, we cut others off rather than drawing them into a new order of being-in-the-world. Or am I a Pollyanna, expecting too much of the transgressors, who don’t care, can’t understand, can’t reason? Really? Are we willing to define a part of our community as too limited, too sociopathic, too stupid and too irrational to be moulded into more socially responsible behaviour?

If I’m wrong, then what hope is there?

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Mar 30, 2020

p.s. YES, I found the boat!

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