Life is a long succession of vested interests, though we are inclined to see everyone’s but our own. The term now having mainly a negative connotation, we usually think of some interests—namely those of a pecuniary nature—as being more vested than others. A money-interest is widely thought to be more corrupting than any other. If someone does something of which we disapprove, something dishonest, and we discover that he has benefited financially from it, we say aha, now we understand!
Even the most thoroughgoing of penological liberals, I have noticed, has a category of crime – a favourite of sorts, I suppose – that he thinks ought to be severely punished. However much he may deny that punishment is justified, morally or practically, for other crimes, the crime he has selected as being of special heinousness deserves only the most condign punishment. All other crimes may in his opinion merit, and be susceptible only to, explanation and understanding, but this crime must, for moral reasons, be treated with exemplary harshness. At present in Britain the crime selected by penological liberals for…
Political correctness is an informal system of partial censorship but it is not nearly as recent as we are inclined to imagine. It has always existed. If birds of a feather flock together, so do intellectuals of like opinion; and while intellectuals think of themselves as fearless seekers after truth, in practice they are often more afraid of giving offence to their circle of ideological friends and associates than interested in the harsh realities of the world outside their magic circle.
The relation between morality and law is (or ought to be) complex and subtle: the two are neither identical nor entirely separate. Once upon a time everyone seemed to understand this, as if by instinct; but the instinct, if it ever existed, has been lost. When someone says, by way of excuse for his bad behavior, that “There’s no law against it,” he implies that what is not legally forbidden is permissible in every other sense.
No one, incidentally, ever explained his good behavior by reference to this legal/illegal boundary. The misunderstanding is a motivated one.
A misunderstanding of the morality of punishment and its justification in law will not always be grounded in self-interest, however. We can see this from a brief column recently published in the Guardian by the philosopher Nigel Warburton. Warburton considered the case of a man called John Paul Burrows, a multimillionaire who worked in the City of London as the director of a very large investment company.
Civil law in the United States, originally intended to right wrongs and discourage people from committing them in the first place, has long since become an extortion racket that makes the methods of Al Capone seem amateurish by comparison.
My favorite title of all the books that I possess is A Brief Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity. It’s by Walter B. Pitkin, and was published in 1932 in nearly 600 closely printed pages. The author promised a 40-volume encyclopedia of the subject. While he never got around to starting, let alone completing, that project, the title of the book he did finish is sufficient in my opinion to confer immortality upon Walter B. Pitkin.
My wife tells me that I have bees in my bonnet, generally in serial fashion rather than all at once, and the one at the moment is the attack on the rule of law known as parole.
The philosopher Mary Midgley tells us that myth is not just an obstacle to thought, or even merely an adjunct to thought, but an essential part of human ratiocination itself. Whether this is actually so or not in the philosophical sense, namely that human thought is completely impossible without the making and use of myth, I do not know; but what is certainly the case is that mythology is a powerful force in human affairs, not least in politics. And myth can do harm as well as good.
In Britain, the most powerful political mythology (perhaps for lack of any other) attaches to the National Health Service (NHS). This way of organising our health care was born with original virtue in 1948, since its conception, in more senses than one, it has become more and more immaculate. If the service had a slogan, it would be Noli me tangere. No British politician would dare admit that its institution was anything other than an unmixed blessing; no British politician, at any rate none who aspired to office, would dare do anything other than tinker with it at most. Against the mythology, Mrs Thatcher herself was as helpless as a day-old kitten.
When I was young, discrimination had a good name. It was the ability to distinguish between the good from the bad and to prefer the former to the latter. My teachers tried to form my taste so that I could discriminate, and I am grateful to them – more grateful than I seemed at the time – for that.
Since then, of course, the emotional charge of the word discrimination has changed. It is now entirely negative. It means to treat people not according to their individual merits, but badly because of the supposed characteristics of their group as assumed by brute prejudice. To discriminate is to be unfair, unjust and cold-hearted. Discrimination is at the root of many ills, not least of them poverty and inequality.
But is it ever rational to discriminate on the basis of group characteristics?