Jimmyen. (jimmyen) wrote,
Jimmyen.
jimmyen

"You should really think about the way you treat people."

A&E is airing a new whodunnit criminal procedural titled The Glades. At essence, it is a clone of CSI: Miami except they've amputated Horatio Caine and most of the forensic voodoo, and grafted on a Gregory House-lite and a some Jessica Fletcher-style deduction. I might have given it a miss in the regular season, but it's an excellent summer entry. The series stars Matt Passmore as homicide detective Jim Longworth, forced to relocate to scenic Florida from Chicago by his penchant for colouring outside the lines, and the friction (in the form of small arms fire) this caused with his former supervisor. He solves crimes!

The third episode1 is an essay in pathetic fallacy, as a string of related murders coincides with the landfall of a category 4 hurricane. Our Heroes race to find the thread that connects the victims before the killer strikes again. The cops think they've located the final target before it's too late, but at the eleventh hour Longworth realizes there's another possibility and arrives on the scene in time for a dramatic showdown.


The intended victim turns out to be a hospital insurance administrator who denied coverage to the bi-polar killer, which prevented him from getting his meds, which resulted in his spiral into a murderous rampage. The administrator, up to this point, has played a bit part as a foil to Our Heroes in their efforts to solve murders and save lives during a hurricane, and the scene plays out much as you'd expect: Longworth confuses the killer by encouraging him to lay waste to the administrator, who is human garbage after all, buying enough time to get close and tackle him, and thus the day is saved.

Following this the denouement features the obligatory scene between Longworth and the administrator, in which she expresses thanks and attempts to extract from the detective an assurance that he was not reeeeally keen on having a known murderer shoot her in the face.

Passmore stares at her silently for a beat before deadpanning with the line I've used to title this entry.

The episode rather underplays the administrator as anything except a snobby bureaucrat who enjoys withholding, and so as I was watching I couldn't help but feel the implication that she should have been killed was a little extreme even for a misanthrope (which Longworth only pretends to be). Perhaps the only reason it has gnawed on me is because the response initially seemed so subtly unwarranted.

Or perhaps I am simply fascinated by the mechanisms through which people make victims of themselves: While it is surely not reasonably foreseeable that insurance administrators may wind up in some psychotic's cross-hairs for the cosmic crime of taking pride in their work, the situation in general is not so contrived as to defy credulity outright. Sometimes even folks who are otherwise right-thinking have been pushed so close to the edge that they can't absorb any more abuse without going over.

But issues of narrative consistency and plausibility aside, I think that perhaps my interest in discussing the matter is that Passmore delivers good advice all around.

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1To give you an idea of how long it takes me to write proper LiveJournal these days, consider that this week The Glades aired its eighth episode.

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Trite:
Adjective: (of a remark, opinion, or idea) Overused and consequently of little import; lacking originality or freshness: "this point may now seem obvious and trite".

As a former student of philosophers I learned that variations of The Golden Rule are at least as old as recorded history--there has always been someone to suggest that the best way to get by is to treat others the way we'd like others to treat us. Different ethics of reciprocity vary on who and what counts as an "other" and attempt to do away with the layers of ostensible relativism involved in determining how we would like others to treat us and how those preferences dictate action. Let's examine one from recent history.

Fans of the wacky adventures of Happy Time Co. may remember the popularity of the Relationship Bank Account. For the uninitiated: this is a world-view in which any interaction with friends or loved ones can be characterized as either a withdrawal or a deposit, with the idea being that we do favours because we want favours, and we return favours because we want our favours returned. If I do a big favour for you, we might say that you have withdrawn $5,000 from your account at my bank, which I then expect to be paid back either in small installments of good will over several months/years, or with a comparably large favour of your own. If you continue to make withdrawals without any sort of reciprocity in deposits, your credit rating will plunge and I will cut you off (with implied disastrous results!).

The problems with the Relationship Bank Account as a way of life are numerous,2 but, as an expression of The Golden Rule, it's essential failing is that there is no teller window between you and everyone you know, and thus no way to accurately attach a mutually agreed on dollar value to a given interaction on the fly. (It fails to eliminate relativism, in other words.) Consequently, the account system only works when applied to relationships between people with very similar systems of value. If you read that Wikipedia link perhaps you will have been told that differences between peoples' values and contexts are among the key criticisms of The Golden Rule as a prescription of correct behaviour. The Relationship Bank Account is not the only expression of the Rule which falls into this trap, it just happens to be a particularly poor attempt.

But, despite these problems, the basic concept of an ethic of reciprocity survives (I think:) because it exists at the elusive crossroad between what is Practicably Possible and Universally True. i.e. It is generally both possible and easy not to be a dick, and it is logically true that by not being dicks we do not personally contribute to the ambient dick-levels that permeate the universe. Some may go further and advocate that by not being dicks we may actually mitigate against localized build-ups of ambient dick-levels--and that our hospital insurance administrators can causally prevent triple-homicides (and risk to their own lives) if they'd just have a heart once in awhile.

I was never one of the great ethicists as a philosophy student. At first this was because I thought any proper ethics had to be informed by a correct metaphysics; later I learned about the difference between moralities of duty and moralities of consequence,3 but the concerns of ethicists seemed too far removed from what I (by then) thought of as the Important Job for Philosophy: providing a practical framework for understanding the things that happen around us and the ways we interact with them.4 This task requires an accommodation for an ethic of reciprocity, but The Golden Rule (although good enough for government work) is too broad: there are times when not being a dick is prohibitively difficult, and when a relatively small dick-move may defuse a situation in which dick-levels might otherwise reach critical mass. These situations reflect the practical difficulties inherent to a maxim that directs specific sorts of action in a world inhabited by a plurality of moral (and amoral) agendas.

The Longworthy ethic provides an appropriate starting point for making this accommodation because instead of prescribing an action--"treat people the way you'd have people treat you"--it prescribes critical examination of action--"think about the way you treat people"--which examination can only be meaningfully undertaken within a larger framework of values.

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2Here are some!: (1) It appears to be premised on an assumption that the ideal net result of all withdrawals and deposits is $0 (either between you and any other person or balanced across a community), which is a number most easily achieved by never interacting with anyone. (2) An economy of favours encourages predatory lending; doing unsolicited (or bigger-than-requested) favours in order to increase your leverage and coerce your debtors into doing things you want (i.e. taken seriously, the Relationship Bank Account contributes to higher ambient dick-levels). (3) It fails to capture the reasons that we traditionally do favours for friends and family, which (presumably) have something to do with wanting to have a positive impact on their lives, rather than because we owe them or want them to owe us.

3e.g. That, accepting that reality is structured anyway you like, the act of lying to a Nazi about the Jews you've got hiding in your basement could be considered either moral because of its positive consequences for the Jews or immoral because of your intent to deceive the Nazi.

4Finally, I decided to quit philosophy and become a lawyer.


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I had originally planned a "practical application" portion of this post with a rudimentary treatment of the Ground Zero mosque fiasco, followed by a more in-depth analysis of the Pan Am stadium debate (a topic about which I know considerably more, although I suppose most of the people who read this have never even heard of it). I lost momentum, however, and life intervened, and now the mosque is not the hot topic it appeared to be throughout August and the signs indicate that the stadium issue is going to be resolved in mutually agreeable fashion. Not to mention that I have been writing this off and on for weeks now and I would sort of like to post it before I return to school.

The conclusion I was attempting to draw was that failing to take the way you treat people into account in how you go about your business is a reliable way to dick-up that business, your life, the business of other people in your life, and/or other people's lives. This must be true regardless of whether your preferred morality is rooted in duty or consequences.

I wanted additionally to reject the stronger claim that we must be good to people, always, because this prescription is not reliable in hard cases, where one only has a choice between two evils, for example, or where there is good reason to believe that causing some immediate pain is the best way to avoid a more prolonged suffering. The prescription I would substitute is to engage in reflective equilibrium: Consider the consequences one desires, the obligations one is under, and the treatment one will inflict on other people, then take a path of least resistance. i.e. Think about the way you treat people within the context of what you want to project on the world and act in a way that is internally consistent.

This is not particularly helpful advice for people who face moral dilemmas, but I am not convinced that it is a good practice to attempt to make hard choices easier.

Although this treatment would suggest that I advocate not being a dick in any and all ways that are possible (and although this is true to a great degree), my larger philosophical framework provides additional latitude for being a dick more or less at random. The easiest way to explain this without several more LiveJournals weeks in the making is to compare ambient dick-levels to tidal forces--tossing a stone in the ocean produces only ripples, which diffuse and are subsumed by forces of greater magnitude. The trick is that while most of our daily interactions have no significant impact on the wider world, the nature of the wider world is such that we cannot reliably say in exactly which interactions it is "safe" to be a total douchebag.

i.e. Because it is impossible to be completely sure that the person you're dealing with is not one push away from breaking into your home and shooting you in the face, it is a good policy to treat them kindly whenever you have the resources to do so.
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