Friday, 18 November 2011

David Brooks on Penn State

David Brooks wrote an article this week accusing those of us who condemned Joe Paterno et al at PSU of a hypocrisy of sorts. Brooks points out that people often fail to meet their moral obligations, fail to help people who need help and ignore situations in which someone is clearly being victimized. He makes a couple of interesting claim. The first is an argument that our indignation is based on a belief that we'd do better:
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
But this is an odd claim, isn't it? Why must our indignation be based on a belief or assumption that we'd have done better? Moral indignation isn't based on the assumption that we would have behaved better, it is based on an observation that someone failed to meet a clear moral obligation and didn't when the repercussions for doing so were very high. It's possible to separate out the moral indignation from claims that we'd have done much better, those are different things. It's odd, in my mind, to suggest that we have no right to be troubled by significant moral failings unless we can establish conclusively that we'd have done better were we in the same position. Moral indignation should be a function of what we believe the moral obligations to be, not data about the extent to which those obligations are met.

Brooks makes a second claim that this reaction is because of a failure to have a sense of our own sinfulness and shortcomings:
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey.
This allegation of failure to recognize personal evil and shortcomings isn't consistent, though, with the facts that we've observed in this case. In fact, people did hold these people responsible. Rather than seeking reasons to be gracious and forgiving, people put the blame squarely on the participants and those who failed to report him. I'm not sure why those facts call for bemoaning the loss of the good old days when people knew everyone was rotten. There's been no attempt at all to deny human rottenness here, on the contrary. No need to pine for the days when we were all self-loathing Calvinists.

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