Posts Tagged politics

Resolving Standards of Decency


Words are powerful and elusive things.  We are given words as a method of conveying experience to other humans.  They are not perfect tools.  They give some insight to the human experience, but they often fail to capture the vivid, richness of emotion and feeling that encapsulates one’s humanity.  TS Eliot perfectly captures this idea in Sweeney Agonistes when his protagonist exclaims in frustration “I’ve got to use words when I talk to you!”  We tend to believe that we have shared definitions of words so that when we make a statement the listener can have some idea as to what we are experiencing.  However, there are words in our language that I believe have such a different definition from person to person that it is nearly impossible to discern what on earth they mean.

One word that would fall into this category would be the word cruelty.  I can honestly say that after years of trying to understand it, I still have no clue what this word means.  This is troubling because the word cruelty has a remarkable power in our culture.  It is a word that can define whether another human or animal is worthy of the ability to continue to live.  The word can save one creature from inhuman punishment while sentencing another to horrific torment.  But what does it really mean?

When trying to understand the moral dimensions of a word the law can be a good guide.  The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution includes this word when it says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The Supreme Court has interpreted the part about “cruel and unusual punishment” in countless ways.  For our purposes, we are not going to discuss the “unusual” part of the phrase because that simply means it is uncommon or rare.  If any cruel punishment happens often, it is no longer unusual.  If every murderer were punished by being covered in honey and attacked by bees it could still be outlawed by the court as being a cruel punishment even though it was happening all the time.  The key to understanding the Amendment is the word cruel.  The Court seems to be trying to distinguish cruelty from non-cruelty in its rulings in this matter.

The Court dispensed with several “cruel” punishments back in 1878 in Wilkerson vs. Utah when Justice Nathan Clifford wrote in his majority opinion that beheading, disemboweling, dissection, burning someone to death and other barbaric methods of torture were not acceptable.  It would be hard to find many people who would make the case that those things were not cruel.  However, Clifford’s holding was that being executed by firing squad for a crime was not cruel and unusual and, therefore, was Constitutionally permitted.  This holding is extremely confusing.  Being ripped apart by bullets is not cruel, but being beheaded is cruel.  It is quite possible to be shot and to not die immediately, but to linger in pain for hours before perishing.  What is the distinction?

In 1951, the Court has begun to move away from other types of punishments.  In the Trop vs. Dulles case, a non-death penalty case focusing on the government’s ability to take away a person’s citizenship for deserting while in the army, the ruled that taking someone’s citizenship away was, in fact, cruel and unusual punishment.  This is a monumentally significant ruling that called into question many punishments that were being used throughout the country.  Justice Earl Warren wrote in his majority opinion that the Eighth Amendment “must draw it’s meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

This phrase is particularly important because Warren seems to be making the point that as our society evolves it is becoming less cruel and the Court should reflect that.  These words have pushed the law away from certain punishments that were once accepted.  Death by firing squad, once a relatively common punishment, has been eliminated.  The Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia (1977) that the death penalty was not acceptable for rape.  The Court has stated that executing someone with an extremely low IQ is not permissible (Atkins v. Virginia 2002).  The Court has also mandated that those under the age of 18 cannot be murdered for committing a capital crime (Roper v. Simmons, 2005).  All of these punishments are considered cruel.

The fascinating part about Trop v. Dulles is that while it holds that taking away someone’s citizenship is cruel and unusual, executing someone is not.  This is inconsistency is nothing short of bizarre.  Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed out the absurdity of this idea in his dissent when he asked whether the words of the Constitution were “so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that the loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”

Unfortunately, this absurd inconsistency does not only reside in the halls of the Supreme Court.  It is everywhere you look.  In the early days of the War on Terror, we were regularly subjected to surreal debates over why beating someone was cruel while water boarding someone was not.  Is it cruel only if the punishment leaves lasting physical scars?  Do our standards of cruelty change based on where someone was born?

The American news media brought horrific pictures of the tortures taking place at the Abu Ghraib Prison but has paid scant attention to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who have been killed during the war.  Being threatened by dogs and placed in stress positions is cruel but being killed by an advancing army trying to take control of a city is not?

During the trial of Michael Vick, many stunned Americans stood aghast that a man would injure and punish animals in such a cruel way.

Yet our culture is so committed to the idea of murdering animals for food that we have holidays based around consumption of animals.  According to a USDA study from 2000, the average American consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat per year.  Killing animals for food is so widely excepted in our culture that one is not astonished to see pictures or statues of smiling, dancing pigs on the wall of a barbeque restaurant.  Americans often seem completely blind to the pain and suffering inflicted on animals, until a football player decides to torment dogs for fun. Is it cruelty because the intent was solely to harm animals?  Had he eaten his dogs after killing them would it have not been cruel?

Watching news reports about the horrendous cruelty of dog fighting followed by a Wendy’s commercial for a hamburger that features enough bacon on it to clog the arteries of the Mississippi River is enough to confuse anyone who is paying attention. How could one person’s massacre become another person’s feast?

I don’t propose to know how to make the world any less cruel.  Human behavior has always mystified me and I certainly have no clue how to change it.  However, the poorly defined nature of the word cruel allows people to stand on a moral high ground that is not deserved.  We are a society that has laws against forms of cruelty while tacitly accepting other forms as normal behavior.

How can we distinguish what is and isn’t cruelty?  I believe that the first step is coming up with a definition for the word that is clear so we can honestly distinguish it.  Granted, definitions are never perfect, but when one is defined in a way that is so completely unclear it can warp the sensibilities of a culture to the point of absurdity.

A simple but effective definition of cruelty would be any act that causes harm or suffering to any living creature.  This removes the artificial boundaries that have been created and allow us to call things what they are.  When the word is defined this way we are not able to make abstract distinctions between who is worthy of cruelty and how much pain they should be allowed to endure.  It simply is what it is and we must then cope with it for what it is.

This definition no longer allows us to display cruelty while hiding from behind a moral facade.  If we choose to claim we don’t know any better we are not exonerated because in the eyes of the person or animal that is suffering that distinction is meaningless.  Cruelty need not be a willful act, it must only be something that causes suffering or harms another.  I am not naive enough to believe a revised definition of a word can end human cruelty, but there should be a price for the pain that we inflict or allow on other living things and that cost should be the truth of what we have participated in.

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The Locke-Hobbes Complex: Free the Goose, Locke up the Gander

The American Leviathan rises up to clobber all of the “bad” people who dare threaten to take our stuff and use our hospitals

The ideas of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes lay at the root of the American governmental experience at many levels.  Locke was a social-contract theorist who believed that all humans were born with rights and surrendered them in order to procure the advantages of civilized society.  He thought that if there was no government things might not run as smoothly, but people could get by.  Locke had a notion that people are rational creatures that are capable of making decisions that are in the best interests not just of themselves, but of the group.  Thomas Hobbes also bought into the idea of the social contract, but that is one of the few things the two agreed on.  Hobbes thought that human beings were essentially machines that functioned to protect themselves from injury and death and to get what gave them pleasure. Government was meant to act as a check on the base and violent desires of the masses.  He thought that without government life (like Napoleon) would be “nasty, brutish and short”.  Hobbes thought that you had one basic right, to be protected from the other maniacal machines around you.  Any other right could be taken away freely by the government in order to keep the people safe from themselves.

The progenators of the American governmental system were highly influenced by Locke and Hobbes.  Thomas Jefferson spent most of his political career doing a fair John Locke impression.  He turned Locke’s “life, liberty and property” into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and parroted Locke’s controversial belief in the right of people to revolt against an unjust government.  James Madison (writing as Publius in The Federalist Papers) was clearly channeling Hobbes when he wrote in Federalist #51 that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary” and “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”.  Our constitution is a marvel of balancing Locke’s democratic intentions (the House of Representatives, the Bill of Rights) with Hobbes’ fear of the great unwashed hordes (the Senate prior to the 17th Amendment, the Electoral College).

Locke and Hobbes are still very much with us today, but in another more bizarre, irrational form.  The Locke-Hobbes complex can most clearly be seen in the Tea Party Movement, although it is certainly not exclusive to them.  Here’s how it looks:  The inward view of many Americans seems to be that Locke was correct.  The individual should be controlled by the government as little as possible.  Americans should be freed from many of the burdens of taxation or regulation.  What’s mine is mine and should not be taken, the government should not restrict the development of business, I should be able to say what I want to say and not be bound by political correctness, and the government should stay out of my private affairs.  At first glance, it seems as if Locke would be entirely comfortable at Rand Paul campaign headquarters dressed up like Patrick Henry with a NoBama tattoo on his or her forehead.

However, Locke’s ideas seem to appear in the rhetoric of both major American political parties (and quite a few smaller ones).  Some candidates rail against the idea of “big government” that doesn’t seem to get that “the government that governs best governs least”.  Others loudly protest a government that restricts reproductive rights or the rights of individuals to choose to live life the way they want to.  Whether it be keeping the government’s hands off my money or their laws off my body, the cries of individual liberty seem to echo from every corner of the American political landscape.

It would seem that a people so committed to the idea of the freedom and thriving of the individual would have no place for Hobbes’ principles…and yet they are very much alive in our culture.  A person can’t go five minutes without baring witness to a political diatribe on the importance of freedom and yet thanks to ever more strict sentencing laws the Washington Post reported in 2008 that 1 in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or prison.  The United States is the world’s leader in incarcerated adults both in percentage and in number.  In order to really understand the perversity of this statistic one must realize that China, a nation that our leaders have regularly excoriated for their unconscionable human rights record, has an estimated population of over 1.3 billion people, while the United States, the world’s beacon for freedom and liberty, has around 303 million people.  In spite of nearly a billion more people, China has less prisoners than the United States.  According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study, non-violent crimes made up nearly half of the state prison populations in 2006.  On the federal level, non-violent crimes take up an even higher percentage of reasons for incarcerations.  Large numbers of Americans are in prison for non-violent crimes that run the gamut from drug abuse to public intoxication.  Clearly, much of the imprisonment in the United States does not even serve the purpose of public safety.

It would seem that a nation with such a highly advanced, Lockean conception of liberty would be able to come up with a solution that involved a bit more creativity than building more prisons, but that seems to be the solution we continue to come up with.  At the root of our problem lies an incredibly Hobbesean conception of the role of the state.  But, maybe we are just talking about the “bad” people here.  A common refrain is that criminals (often defined as the amorphous mass of people out to harm us and take our stuff) are not deserving of the same rights as the rest of us.  Even though the Bill of Rights spends nearly half of it’s time dealing with the issue of criminal justice, many believe that the rights of individuals should be obliterated upon the commission of a crime.  One would think that this current wave of liberty based hysteria would have brought more politicians into power who opposed the federal government tearing rights away from citizens and yet, Russ Feingold, the one Senator who opposed the 2001 passing of the Patriot Act, the largest broadening of federal investigatory power in the last 50 years, was voted out of office.  Is the message more liberty for the “good people”, less protection for “the bad”?  How are we able to tell them apart?

There are some things to be feared and some things to be appreciated about each philosophy. Locke’s social contract was so loose that some would get away with crimes that could severely harm their neighbors, but he believed strongly enough in people’s judgements to believe that this problem could be overcome.  Hobbes argued for a system that strangled human growth and potential on the altar of safety, but he also realized that there are characteristics that needed to be monitored in human beings in order to allow them to be protected from the loss of their most important right, the right to continue to stay alive.  It’s as if our culture has picked out the most base, selfish characteristics of both philosophies and melded them into a giant Leviathan that attacks the liberties of the “bad” with one hand while cherishing the rights of the “good” with the other.  What we fail to recognize is that we can easily be mistaken for either.  Hell may be other people, but after a while it becomes us.

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