Saturday, September 13, 2008

Compensating Evil

The Practice is not only the greatest television series ever made, it raises so many interesting ethical questions that it would make great fodder for one of those popular 'X and Philosophy' books. For example, in Season 2 Ep.5, one of the lawyers represents an ex-cop seeking disability compensation on the grounds that police work turned him into a racist.

Some background: he once mistakenly shot and killed a black man who was "armed" only with a cigarette lighter. (Cf. Michael Moore.) The police department gave him a slap on the wrist and some sessions of psychiatric counseling, during which time he came to realize that the shooting was due to deeply internalized racist beliefs/fears. Realizing he was unfit to remain on the beat, he informed his superiors of his condition, and they promptly fired him. He doesn't qualify for the pension for a few more years, and so decides to sue for disability pay in the meantime. By the letter of the law, he is owed compensation for any affliction he acquires on the job which subsequently renders him incapable of completing his duties. He wasn't a racist before he became a cop, all those years ago. Now he is unfit for duty because of it. Seems an open-and-shut case, no?

One objection is that the cop must have been 'predisposed' (in some sense) towards racism. It wasn't some purely external affliction forced on him by the job; rather, the job merely drew out his latent racism. I think this draws on an incoherent conceptual scheme. There are various modal facts about how we will end up if exposed to various environments, and no deep distinction to make between the stimuli that 'change' us and those that 'bring out an existing (latent) disposition'. All is change. At most, we might say that some changes are apt to be elicited by a wider range of possible stimuli than others. Thus the only real question here is whether the guy would likely have become a racist anyway if he had chosen a different career -- and we may stipulate that the answer in this case is 'no'.

The main objection, though, seemed a brute insistence that it's abhorrent to reward bigotry in such a way. But I don't see how this is any response to the argument for compensation. (Nobody thinks we should reward acts of bigotry, of course -- if a cop wrongly kills an innocent black man, he should be held accountable, and pay for his mistake. But if our institutions re-shape a cop's character and dispositions in undesirable ways, if we made him a bigot, then we've harmed him and arguably owe recompense. Note the distinction between compensation for adversely affecting one's character or constitution vs. rewarding one for their consequent behaviour.)

On a practical note, it might be worried that this policy creates a moral hazard, creating an incentive for cops to pass themselves off as racist. But there are already other, less stigmatized, afflications one could fake, e.g. PTSD. So I'm not sure this would really create such a problem. Moreover, note that at present there is a significant incentive for racist cops to hide their afflication, so that they can keep their job and paycheck. Having racist cops on the street is a real danger, so if we could reduce the costs for them to recuse themselves like this guy did, that would seem to be a good thing.

Finally, there's a world of difference between malicious, self-identified racists (e.g. Klansmen), and well-meaning folks like the cop in this story who just can't help finding their thoughts distorted due to the excessive salience of race in their perceptions. The latter is still bad, but it's pretty clearly an unwelcome affliction they're suffering from, unlike the Klansman who embraces his racism and thereby qualifies as genuinely evil.

This raises an even tougher question: if our institutions predictably caused people in certain positions to become willing agents of evil in this sense, would they still deserve compensation? I would suggest not, on the grounds that it is instead their earlier (pre-evil) self who is harmed by - and deserves compensation for - the transformation. (I guess I also feel some pull to the idea that nothing good is owed to those who are evil.) In the previous case, though, there is no radical change in personal identity; it is the same person throughout, so the ex-cop may collect the compensation that is due to his earlier self; and he's not so much 'evil' as 'morally unfortunate'.

What do you think?


  1. The Practice is a great show but has to compete for third best ever after Seinfeld and House. Seinfeld also features deep ethical dilemmas such as how to behave around a couple who believe their baby is cute when it is in fact hideous.

    In the actual example, the central issue is whether the job caused him to become racist. If and only if it did, then legally and morally he is entitled to compensation.

    Philosophers can simply stipulate that the job made him racist but his lawyer would have to prove it in court which is somewhat more challenging.

    The 'predisposition' argument is an argument that the job did not cause him to become racist, so of course it seems empty if you assume the opposite.

    The 'abhorrent to reward bigotry' argument is question-begging though.

    Also, is it racist for a police officer to shoot a black person who pulls a metallic object out of their pocket when the officer wouldn't shoot a white person under the same circumstances? The officer has limited information such as age, race, gender, dress etc. If he knows from experience that all of those factors affect the relative probability of shooting an innocent person vs being shot himself, which ones is he entitled to take into account without being guilty of bigotry?

  2. On your last point, it's possible to engage in rational statistical discrimination, but I take it that's not what's going in this case. I'm assuming that he had internalized an excessive or irrational fear of black people, which made him overall a less effective (rather than more effective) police officer.

    "The 'predisposition' argument is an argument that the job did not cause him to become racist, so of course it seems empty if you assume the opposite."

    I think you've misunderstood. It is granted by all involved that the guy was not racist prior to becoming a cop, and that he probably would never have become racist if he'd chosen a different career (say, dentistry). That's all I'm assuming. Now, despite not disputing any of these base facts, the police board seemed to suggest that he was nonetheless responsible for his own racism, because the police work merely brought out the seeds of racism that were already 'latent' within him, even though the trait would not otherwise have actualized. I argue that this is incoherent. (I do not just assume it from the start. Again, all I assume is an uncontroverted counterfactual claim.)

  3. How about this:

    A man is accused of beating his wife. It is granted by all involved that he was not violent prior to getting married, and that he probably would never have become violent if he'd married someone different.

    Would you say that he is responsible for the acts of violence because his wife's unkind remarks merely brought out the seeds of violence that were already 'latent' within him, even though the trait would not otherwise have actualized?

    The law is generally concerned with 'proximate' causes rather than 'but for' causes. The proximate causes of racism and violence are internal to the individuals who possess those traits, though they may be triggered by outside events.

  4. "Would you say that he is responsible for the acts of violence because his wife's unkind remarks merely brought out the seeds of violence that were already 'latent' within him, even though the trait would not otherwise have actualized?"

    No, people are responsible for their acts in any case; there's no need to appeal to an incoherent distinction between pre-existing 'latent' dispositions versus newly created dispositions.

    It is possible both that someone else is (causally) responsible for Bob having the dispositions that he does, and that Bob himself is (morally) responsible for acting on those dispositions. I'm addressing the former issue, whereas you appear to be addressing the latter. So I'm afraid we're talking past each other.

  5. It seems obvious a real harm has been done to them. Whether they deserve legal compensation is a separate issue, depending on many details of the situation. We don't compensate for all harms, after all.


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