Saturday, October 25, 2014

Doubt or Contempt

Hanlon's Razor - Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

As we stumble through life figuring out each complicated situation, we have enough of a difficult time working out what motivates ourselves. Sometimes we do things that seem Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. We may regret stuff but we have to get on with it and most people somehow manage to put themselves in the category of good person. Giving the same benefit of doubt to others is perhaps where we sometimes struggle.

Allowing people the benefit of doubt has to be a key to happiness. It is simpler to categorise people and put them into a box as soon as they disagree with you on a point that 'no good person would disagree with'. We also like conspiracy theories. We like a good moan. And who doesn't like a bit of mob justice righteous indignation? Someone does something wrong and people gather together to get the torches and pitchforks. As soon as the benefit of doubt falls away, contempt sets in and this mixture of anger and disgust is hard to shed. Psychologist Paul Eckman claims signs of contempt are one of the best predictors that a marriage or relationship is doomed.

The fact that good and evil aren't neatly separated unsettles us. People like to believe for example that the Holocaust would never have happened in America. If you are in a persecuted group, you like to believe you would never do the same to anyone else. Stanley Milgram's experiments are disturbing showing 2/3rds of ordinary people able to commit what can only be described as evil when in the wrong circumstances, leading to a possible definition of evil as willingness to blindly obey authority. Morality and psychology is messy. We are still figuring things out. We are still figuring ourselves out. Philip Zimbardo's talks about Milgram and his work in the TED talk below.

I am a big believer in giving the benefit of the doubt. I also believe that having compassion rather than forgetting or excusing is necessary. Evil doesn't exist as separate category and most times something horrible happens we have to figure out how that happened. How can we try stop it happening. Many moral questions are really messy and contradictory. Saul Smilansky looks at 10 of them that will make your head spin in '10 Moral Paradoxes'.

The one making my head spin at the moment is hearing about Bill Cosby. Having lost heroes like Hansie Cronje and Lance Armstrong, I don't like the idea of losing another one. I guess the point that Zimbardo makes above is that both heroes and evil doers are ordinary people, but that is hard to process. I don't know where to place the benefit of doubt here either. The Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile scandals have shown how much has been covered up. The issue with rape allegations is that often it is incredibly difficult to prove since there are normally no witnesses so courts of law are not really a great way of stopping anything. It is something we have to stop though. What do you do when the law doesn't help?

A bit of a rambling post, but as a believer in benefit of doubt, and of avoiding anger and contempt - this news story is making that hard.

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