This post is an attempt to piece together my thoughts on the role of what we might call "wrong", or "bad", human behaviour - not just things that are actually called "crime" and subject to civic penalties, but things that though not necessarily illegal, cause harm.
Someone suggested to me recently that tax avoidance should be "stamped out". He wanted such severe controls on economic behaviour by firms and individuals that avoiding tax became impossible: among other things he wanted strict capital controls so that money could not flow out of the country into tax havens, and severe penalties for tax avoidant behaviour. I have used the term "avoidance" here deliberately: the narrower term "evasion" applies to practices that are actually illegal, but my correspondent was not referring to those. He meant any activity that deprived government of what he considered its rightful income.
At the opposite extreme are a number of people who have suggested to me that taxation is theft and therefore inherently wrong. To them, money that they have earned or inherited is rightfully theirs, and government should defend their title to it rather than deprive them of it. Avoiding tax is a legitimate defensive response to a predatory government that seeks to take their property from them by force.
Both of these positions claim the moral high ground: each claims that the position of the other is "wrong" and the behaviour that the other supports is "bad". This is a logical impossibility. They can't both be right.
The sheer impossibility of reconciling such opposed positions leads society to impose laws, which may be arbitrary. I've had numerous arguments with people who argue that there is no need for government to impose laws, because the only laws needed are natural ones which can be self-policed. Natural laws, apparently, are the right to own property and the right not to suffer violence (in all its forms, including non-physical coercion). Well, we all might agree with this....but a look at nature gives the lie to the idea that these are in any respect "natural" laws. The "natural" law - the law of the jungle, if you like - is that my right to property is limited by my ability to defend that property from predators, including others of my own species. When something comes along that is bigger and stronger than I am, I must relinquish my property, either voluntarily (to avoid damage) or through violent coercion which may result in my injury or death. How I obtained that property is of no consequence: however hard I worked for it, it is not "mine". And the definition of "property" in jungle law is in direct contrast to our modern social mores. "Habeas corpus" does not apply in the jungle, at least not to females or young: in most mammalian species, males fight over the right to "own" females, and many males kill young that are not sired by them.
Much of the behaviour that we consider "wrong" among human beings actually stems from the fact that we are mammals and we naturally behave much like other species of mammal - seizing and defending territory, fighting for ownership of food and females, attacking people who get in our way or have something that we want. We could construct society on this basis, and in fact when government fails, that is how society tends to organise itself: leaders appear who are big and strong enough to defend property, and others attach themselves to those leaders in a subservient role in return for protection. Subservience may involve submitting to violent and (to our eyes) abusive practices: the "right to rape" is a common attribute of warlords.
But our modern "civilised" societies are constructed differently, and our rules of behaviour explicitly forbid behaviour that is apparently completely natural. The Ten Commandments, upon which law is based not only in Western societies but also in Islamic countries, specifically forbid murder, taking property from others (theft, adultery*) and encouraging others to kill or take property from someone ("bearing false witness"). Even the natural DESIRE to take from others is forbidden ("you shall not covet"). Property rights are indeed very important: our society hangs together through respect for the property rights of others, including their right to control their own body, and when this respect fails, the very fabric of society is damaged. But property rights are not in any way "natural", and violating them is only "wrong" because we agree, as a society, that it is wrong. And under some circumstances, we suspend our own rules. Killing in war is an acceptable form of murder: war itself is usually an attempt to take territory from others or regain territory previously lost to others. War is a fundamental violation of property rights.
Societies justify the suspension of property rights in war by demonising the opposing side. They become "less than human": myths circulate claiming that they indulge in all manner of vile behaviour that we - the "morally right" - would never dream of doing, would we? But we would, of course. In fact when we win, we do. The losers in war are often excluded from normal social rules long after the war itself is over: not only do they lose their external property, they lose their right to personal integrity. Slavery, often with associated abuse, is the traditional fate of a defeated people, but it is - like war - a fundamental violation of property rights.
But it is not just in war that people can be demonised. Distressed societies typically find minority groups to blame for their woes, and behaviour towards these groups can resemble that towards the losers in war. Hatred of particular minorities is whipped up by circulating myths about them that appear to show that they violate social rules. And that hatred can spill over to those who attempt to dispel those myths. Societies are not tolerant of people who challenge prevalent beliefs. Speaking the truth is a dangerous pastime.
In fact I am struck by how dangerous human societies are. Homo sapiens (in its social form) is the most lethal predator ever to walk the Earth. We are capable of wreaking destruction across large swathes of the planet: other species are justifiably frightened of us and we destroy ecological habitats whereever we go. We are even dangerous to ourselves. And yet.....we are capable of behaving differently. We can act in accordance with our instincts, or we can act differently. It is our choice. Our social and moral "values" are founded on the idea that we will generally choose NOT to act destructively, and our laws exist to protect society from people who choose to act destructively. At least that's the idea.
The problem is that we are blind to our own behaviour. We are quick to notice when others are acting in destructive ways, but not so quick to identify the same behaviour in ourselves. And at times we choose to ignore or override our ability to choose alternative courses of action. I recently watched the final programme in the documentary series "All watched over by machines of loving grace". I was struck by the way in which the definition of "human as machine" was used to justify acting on instinct rather than choice. The argument was that we are pre-programmed to act in a certain way and are not able to make meaningful choices about our own behaviour: the freedom to choose is an illusion because our behaviour is ALWAYS driven by instinct. This unbelievably depressing idea was reflected in the dark nature of the documentary: even choices that appeared good, and were done from the best of motives, only made matters worse. The implication was that there was no point in trying to do good, so we might as well just act out our basic instincts. Like Elphaba in "Wicked", we are justified in crying out "No good deed will I attempt to do again!"
But the "humans are machines" idea is merely the "humans are animals" argument dressed in a different fabric. And the "humans are animals" argument has long been used to justify all manner of bad behaviour: "I couldn't help it", "It's only natural", "I was acting on instinct".....All of these are excuses. "Human machine" is just as destructive a concept as "human animal". Both are a denial of humanity.
Humans are certainly capable of destructive behaviour. But as I noted above, we are also capable of choosing NOT to behave destructively. So we can "help it", it may be "only natural" but that doesn't make it right, "instinct" does not imply suspension of rational thought. All of us are tempted to do things that would deeply hurt others: all of us at times act out our desires in destructive ways. That doesn't mean that we should stop trying to make better choices: on the contrary, experiencing the consequences of our bad decisions creates an opportunity to learn what better choices would be, so that we don't make the same mistake again. At the social level, the desire of some to do good will sometimes be overwhelmed by the bad behaviour of others. But to abandon all attempts to "do good" because it's pointless is the policy of despair.
Which brings me back to the fundamental question that I posed (indirectly) at the start of this post. How do we decide what is "good"? I have no easy answers: society has struggled with this problem for all of time. Indeed it is in attempting to answer this question definitively that we make our worst errors. When we define some form of behaviour as "right" and everything else as wrong, we open the door to demonisation and dehumanisation of those who don't agree with us. The consequences can be terrible. Attempting to ensure that everyone obeys all the rules all the time is as destructive as having no rules at all. In fact a look at human history suggests that it may even be worse. The worst mass murders in history have been in totalitarian states which forcibly imposed arbitary rules and demonised those who did not, or could not, comply.
The desire to act in a way that does not harm others and is not destructive of the environment must come from within - it cannot be imposed from above. Social rules only work when the majority of people choose to obey them: if a majority choose NOT to obey a rule, it cannot be enforced without brutality. For example, the Catholic Church's ban on artificial methods of contraception is unenforceable: the majority of Catholics do not agree with it and the Church has no means of enforcing it. Even where there are severe penalties for breaking a particular rule, people still break it: murder still exists even when the penalty is death or life imprisonment. It is necessary to protect society from those who would break its rules, and society does try to persuade those who don't agree with the rules to conform, though I am wary of this - Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 both paint horrible pictures of forcible "re-education" of people who disagree with rules. But imposition of rules always involves coercion and may involve violence. Completely "stamping out" what we regard as bad behaviour is impossible without behaving even worse ourselves.
And "stamping out" bad behaviour can be bad for those doing the stamping, too. Wherever there is productive economic activity, there is also crime. When we devote too much energy to preventing the crime, we also kill the economic activity associated with it - and we are actually the poorer for it. More fundamentally, when we kill or imprison those who disagree with us, we close down all debate, depriving us of an important brake on our own behaviour and a means of learning from our mistakes. There must be room within any society for disagreement over its rules: social rules need to change over time, and it is through engagement in debate that beliefs are challenged, prevailing orthodoxies changed and rules updated.
Evil is a natural characteristic of human beings, and the propensity to do evil - even unintentionally - extends throughout society. We fight it not by "stamping it out" when we see it in others, but first and foremost by critically examining our own motives and choosing behaviour that we believe to be right. The standards suggested by the major religions are a guide, though in my view they should not be blindly followed: much wrong has been done in the name of doing right according to religious standards....But in the end, our own consciences are our best guide, and our capacity for rational thought is our best defence against the extent of evil.
Two takes on the Tyranny of Democracy - Coppola Comment
All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey - BBC (video)
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (book - free to read)
No good deed - Wicked (video)
A voyage to Arcturus - Lindsay (synopsis)
On the callousness of the American right - Coppola Comment
* In a society in which women are regarded as the property of men, adultery is a form of theft and the penalties are always severe. In Western societies we no longer regard women as the property of men, so the definition of adultery has changed - we would now regard it as a breach of contract. But adultery remains a socially harmful behaviour: the consequences for children, in particular, can be severe. Marital breakdown is the single biggest cause of child poverty in Western societies.