Over the past year, there are many posts left unwritten here. To my mind, there was usually a reason. Maybe it was something I had already written about over the 15 years of SJ’s existence. Maybe it was something that seemed premature to write about, a possibility of a post with too many unknowns to be ripe for discussion. Maybe it was something that many had already written about, such that it was just beating a dead horse. Maybe it was something to which I had no value to add. Maybe it just didn’t interest me.
For some, my failure to join in the chorus of people praising or condemning something meant I took a side, and it was the “other” side if it wasn’t the side they wanted, expected or demanded of me. The simplistic woke platitude if “silence is complicity.”
Silence is complicity. https://t.co/8YS4XhLyka
— Scott Greenfield (@ScottGreenfield) December 30, 2022
A philosophy prof at Dickinson College, Crispin Sartwell, argues that we should be judged at the “gates of pearl” not only by the good or bad things we do, but by the bad things we didn’t do.
Allow me to start with this claim: We humans, as moral beings, can be as culpable for what we fail to do as for what we do. While some wrongdoers commit wrongs proactively (traditionally known as sins of commission), others do so through inaction or sheer negligence (sins of omission). A coldblooded killer, for example, is an active wrongdoer, while the sleazy real estate developer who fails to maintain a building that subsequently collapses, injuring and killing his tenants, is a passive one. Clearly, both have done wrong. But while the killer displays an obvious moral truth (that it is bad to do what one shouldn’t do), the developer offers a more subtle one (it is bad to not do what one should do).
It’s the sort of claim that would appeal to many, providing cover for their misdeed by the false equivalence of the bad things they didn’t do, as if that is a stand-alone virtue.
Surely, oh Eternal Bouncer, you will agree that if it is bad to not do what one should do, then it is good to not do what one should not. In other words, if omissions can be blameworthy, they can be praiseworthy, too.
“Surely,” one would hope a philosophy prof would recognize the obvious and fatal flaw of this claim, as his metaphorical sleazy real estate developer (is there any other kind?) has a duty to maintain his property. He assumed a duty when he purchased a building and leased it to others, took their money and then failed to fulfill his responsibility.
This fundamental moral insight has stunning implications. If embezzling money is wrong, for instance, then not embezzling money is right. However much money I may have embezzled over the years, there is so much more that I have commendably not embezzled, if you follow me. Think of all those banks, all those charities, all those law firms I didn’t steal from. The amount of money I stole, if I stole any money, is infinitesimal compared to all the money I could conceivably have stolen. Surely, my restraint should earn me a few points in the plus column.
That most of us chose not to embezzle, whether at all or more than we did, gives us no points in the plus column. Not embezzling is the norm, much like not doing a litany of wrongs we could have done but didn’t. I didn’t kick a puppy today. Yay, me?
Having written many times, perhaps too many, about cops doing bad things, a legal system that produces wrong results, fails to prevent harm, falls short of its duty to provide a means of fairly resolving disputes so as to end the need for trial by combat, I let many cases go by the wayside as being another example of the same thing, the same failures that I’ve parsed in excruciating detail years ago.
Some of my friends from those days (some of whom are no longer very friendly toward me) persist in writing and rewriting the same posts and same stories. Some do it for money, getting a gig as the “criminal law guy” for a newspaper or website whose duty is to rile up the groundlings and feed them red outrage meat. Some of them have amassed huge followings of shallow people who constantly hunger for yet another story of an evil cop, as if to refute some claim that police never lie, cheat, steal, rape, beat and murder.
Years ago, it was valuable to make this point clear when the circumstances were right. Most people had no idea that cops sometimes beat a perp and then lied about it. Someone needed to be the guy who told them that this was happening because so few were doing it and so many were saying that these things never happened.
Today, the pendulum has swung so far that too many are consumed by the belief that all cops are bastards, that police murder tens of thousands of black guys in the streets like dogs every year, that everyone and everything is racist. Where it was once valuable to tell people that bad things were happening, it’s now valuable to tell people that while the bad things still happen, they are relatively rare, there are often cause and effect reasons for why and how they happen and that sometimes, the cops are the good guys. There are bad dudes out there. Not everyone who loots, mugs or shoots does so to vindicate their societal oppression. Some just want new Nike Air Jordans or a big screen TV.
Have I fallen short of my aspiration to provide useful, thoughtful, valuable thoughts to the gates of pearl? Probably. But I tried not to be dishonest in my discussions. I tried not to make anyone stupider for having read SJ. If I’ve committed sins of omission in 2022, I apologize. But at least I didn’t embezzle, so there’s that.
Happy New Year.