To borrow from the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackbury, if we were having dinner and, as I was carving the turkey, I casually mentioned that this was the very knife an assassin used to murder my parents, would you feel comfortable eating the bird I just put on your plate? In this interesting article from the digital magazine Aeon, Paul Sagar examines the cognitive-emotional disconnect some of us may feel:
"It is not uncommon to find that one’s enjoyment of something is irrevocably damaged if that thing turns out to be closely connected to somebody who has committed serious wrongs. Many people will now feel deeply uncomfortable watching films associated with Harvey Weinstein. Similarly, critically acclaimed movies starring Kevin Spacey – even if made long before any accusation of wrongdoing was levelled against him – will no longer seem the obvious choices for Saturday night viewing that they once were. And this is not simply because we want to take a moral stand against Weinstein or Spacey (though that might certainly be true). It is because we feel that the films themselves are tainted. But this is odd. A film or TV show, after all, is a thing ultimately independent of the private actions of the actors or producers who happened to help make it. And yet one seems to bleed inexorably into the other. Once you know the charges levelled against Weinstein, you can’t simply carry on watching his films as you did before. ... What is going on here? It is not simply the old, harsh truth that good things can come from bad people. By all accounts, the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a pretty unpleasant character. He fell out with everybody, let down most of those who trusted him, and thought it fit to write a book on education despite abandoning many of his own children to orphanages. On the other hand, he was the author of some of the greatest works of philosophy ever written. Similarly, according to the Pulitzer-winning biography The Years of Lyndon Johnson (1982) by Robert A Caro, the 36th president of the United States was a bullying, lying, power-crazed sociopath, who literally stole a Senate election on his way to the highest office. Then again, Johnson also passed the Civil Rights Act. ...
"[F]or many centuries, English common law recognised the category of the ‘deodand’, or an object that was implicated in a human death, such as a cart, a boat, a stone or a tree. The deodand had to be forfeited to the authorities, and its value would then equal the compensation awarded by the courts to the victims’ families. But this practice was abolished in the 1840s, when railway companies lobbied hard to stop their expensive steam trains being used to set the value of awards in the growing number of train-fatality cases. ...
"Yet this kind of scenario led to a puzzle. [Scottish moral philosopher and political economist Adam] Smith thought it undeniable that we assess the morality of actions not by their actual consequences, but by the intentions of the agent who brings them about. ... Nonetheless, in practice, we often find ourselves heavily swayed by consequences ... Smith was confident that, although he could not explain why we are like this, on balance we should nonetheless be grateful that we are indeed rigged up this way. The first reason Smith gave for why it is good that we are this way is that if, in practice, we really did go around judging everybody solely by their intentions, and not by the actual consequence of their actions, life would be unliveable. We would spend all our time prying into people’s secret motivations, fearing that others were prying into ours, and finding ourselves literally on trial for committing thought crimes. ... Second, it is quite useful that we generally tend to be bothered about actual consequences, rather than just underlying intentions. ... On account of the fact that you have to actually do the good thing to get the praise – and equally, you have to actually do the bad thing to get the punishment – people are more likely to follow through on their good, and not act upon their bad, intentions. This is a highly welcome feature of social existence, all things considered. ...
"Like Smith, I cannot explain why our psychologies tend to transfer the guilt of an agent, or the history of what an object was used for, on to the past or future status of a thing itself. They apparently just do. But following Smith, this seems to be a very desirable state of affairs, one that we should not want to do without. It is good that we feel aversion to artifacts (be they physical objects, films, records or whatever) associated with sex crimes, murders and other horrors – even if this is a matter of sheer luck or coincidence – because this fosters in us not only an aversion to those sorts of crimes, but an affirmation of the sanctity of the individuals who are the victims of them. In turn, that makes most of us less likely to engage in evil acts ourselves. ... Instead, we come to see innocent people as sacred, and to be protected from the predations and depredations of those who would harm them. In this way, our moral world is more tightly knitted together."
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