Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Bigger Picture

Marsha had joined the police force with the objective to protect the public and make sure justice was meted out. She often told herself that such an objective was more important than the set of rules that come with upholding it. She often had to remind herself about this, for she had a tough time making up her mind to break rules to eventually uphold her ideals. And now there was this nagging case - a good man had made a terrible mistake, resulting in the death of an innocent woman. However, Marsha had enough evidence with her to frame the story differently and convict a different man of the crime. This man, according to her (and the entire police department), was responsible for a number of cold-blooded murders, but had escaped every time due to insufficient evidence. Marsha strongly felt that this criminal ought to be in prison, instead of that other harmless man who, due to a very unfortunate slip of an accident had killed the innocent woman. To her, she was upholding the spirit of justice. (Original Source: Insomnia, directed by Christopher Nolan)

Will I never tire of writing about this theme and asking the same questions with slightly different flavors? Not yet. The more I think about the core of morality, and the more I write and rearrange my thoughts, I hope that one day I will be satisfied with my answers. Completely assured. I know that such a day is nearing, but it may not be today.

The one thing I can now state with certainty is that, Morality can only address one of two things in most extreme scenarios - the practicality of a situation, or the satisfaction that the underlying  theoretical principles of morality are upheld. Having finally reconciled to that, it seems like a no-brainer to be practical than sit and argue about the philosophical implications. The world functions on pragmatism. That's the reason why we (the public) are perhaps relatively safe today. If rules are followed to the t all the time, ironically, everything comes to a stop. There have been numerous examples of labor protests, wherein laborers decided to follow all the rules stringently (rather than abstain from working), and work still came to a grinding halt. There are even incidents of the traffic police deciding to protest by sticking to their rule books and ensuring no traffic law was violated. And as one can guess, traffic came to a halt. If the police department had always been intent on following rules, I'm sure several hardened criminals would have been missed, only to trap those who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, thus jeopardizing society's safety. We can all argue that jeopardizing society's welfare is antithetical to the spirit of morality.

I have also realized that when a dire situation stares us in the face, and the clock keeps ticking, people act on their gut feeling - call it intuition or a reflex, but the answer comes surging to them. The rest of the dilemma is in trying to understand how to rationalize the answer to fit to the rules and framework of morality and legality, because we are never content till we try to mellow the pangs of guilt and the nagging voice of conscience. This is what Marsha is trying to do. And I'm sure most of us can understand her rationalization. It's different to read about a hypothetical scenario with the people and the lives of others being imaginary, and then leisurely chew on the situation to come up with the politically correct answer. But I'm sure our attitudes would be different if we were part of the scenario, if the men were known to us directly or indirectly, if we had directly suffered under the hands of the criminal, if we were related to the harmless man, or if we had witnessed the atrocities of the criminal.

Utilitarianism, is thus the principle that best mirrors the practicality of most of our decisions. The consequences matter, for we live to experience them. Besides, the principle is not applied with the intention to be malevolent in any way. The intention is to safeguard the public; trickling down to the intention to survive, and to survive as peacefully as possible. Eventually, it stems from our self-interest to protect ourselves (do I hear a sigh of relief? ;)). If we hadn't acted on that instinct, we would have ceased to exist. And so, the epiphany is - morality is intricately twined with self-interest, although it is masqueraded as only being responsible for the interest of the community. Individuals make up community... but many times, benefit of the community takes a higher precedence than individual benefits. Collective survival of the species is important for individual survival.

Therefore, with the assumption (or the clause) that Marsha's intent is not to abuse her powers, and that the criminal does not have any signs of reformation to stop being a threat to the community, the spirit of morality/justice is upheld by framing the criminal instead of the harmless man. Doesn't it set a wrong precedent? Well, in reality, we have suffered through eons, having already set multiple "precedents" of hurting millions of innocent people. With the spirit of justice having already been grossly annihilated, we are well past setting precedents. Why miss the forest in search of the trees?


Anonymous said...

I really liked your post- here are some of my thoughts. Being pragmatic and going with one's gut helps, but it only helps a person be ethereal. Acting on one's gut without being able to come up with a logical reasoning would only be a matter of OPINION rather than a fact. That spring allergies are caused by Pollen would have been nothing but a matter of opinion until a scientific proof was offered to bolster this claim in a recognized journal. Eventually, it is not the person with the gut feeling who came up with the opinion that pollen causes allergies that gets recognized in the long run (he/she may have very well been a hero amongst his/her small circle). The logical conclusion or scientific proof is what survives for the centuries to come.

Neeraja said...

Thanks A, nice of you to patiently read and share your thoughts :). Some of my thoughts in this post are inspired from our numerous discussions.
I agree with your comment, but humans can't always verbalize their gut-feelings. Many things are tacit, and it requires a whole new level of insight to be able to logically/scientifically express them. Those like Einstein and Feynman could do both, while people like me struggle to get at least one thing right :)