Trading Up: Moral Equivalence – Bigger Crimes for Smaller Ones

First of all, I admit, I was a late adopter of the expression, “moral equivalence.” I find it counterintuitive, it really means ‘false moral equivalence,’ right, ‘contrived moral equivalence,’ something like that? Or does it refer to people who really do think these disparate situations are actually equivalent? Whatever, let’s live with those questions, like they used to say in the “est” seminars. I’m a great believer that we need to juggle all these thoughts, all these balls need to be in the air at once, that we shouldn’t commit to any conclusions that could be wrong and then base our arguments from them. Everything should always be available for review in our minds, pending new information.

I think we all place the concept in the category of fallacious argument. Moral equivalencies are offered as justifications for behaviours that we all naturally intuit to be wrong, such as violence that is out of proportion to the behaviour that prompts it. Examples of moral equivalence may include:

  • A nation like Israel literally killing something like a thousand Palestinians for every murdered Israeli because the Palestinian Arabs WANT to kill all the Israelis.
  • A police officer literally killing a citizen in a fight that begins with an attempted arrest for a minor crime – of course, like jaywalking or operating a very small commercial enterprise without a license or without filing the taxes.
  • A law introduced that curtails the rights of large numbers of people based on statistically insignificant levels of a crime – like the voter ID laws.

Now, I know everyone is making the race arguments about these things, and of course there is racism, and classism, the poor always get the short end, and through long term, cultural racism, ‘the poor’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘blacks,’ at least in America. Fair enough. I just want to point out what seems to be slipping under the radar: the simple moral fallacy underlying all policing, and authority in general, and that is the magnitude of the crimes in these situations.

I think we can all see the cost and benefits of imprisoning murderers. Sure, forcible confinement is bad, an infringement of the prisoner’s human rights, but his infringement on the human rights of his victims is worse, so we feel justice is served. Perhaps not optimally, at least I don’t really think so, but close enough for this conversation. And so, if this killer resists arrest and dies in the ensuing fight, that’s still close enough to proper – of course, provided he really is a murderer, provided he’s guilty.

Morally, that is not so bad. Pretty good in a horrible situation. But that example should not be used to cover all arrests. That is some bad science, in fact it is probably one of these arguments of ‘moral equivalence’ to say that anyone who resists arrest for anything can be righteously killed. Race and racism aside, that is reprehensible, and defending that behaviour very correctly puts the defender on the wrong side of morality. This is a net increase in crime: murder for jaywalking, murder for black market cigarette sales.

That is the opposite of what we are paying police for.

Talk about ‘do as I say, not as I do!’ Here’s what you can’t do, and here’s what we can do – this is the very essence of inequality, inequity and anathema to ‘all men being created equal.’

So here’s what I think should happen: I don’t think that we should enforce these laws if it means creating a bigger crime than the one we’re trying to stop. So no corporal punishment for non-violent crimes, for jaywalking for illegal small businesses – verbal admonishments only. Counselling and reason, let them know that they aren’t holding up their end of the deal in our attempts to have a fair society. Perhaps for the subsistence criminal, we can find them some legal money to live on. This may involve reorganizing our social structure in such a way that doesn’t leave so many people out of the right side of life and the law, such as decriminalizing drugs and stopping the erosion of the government’s revenues for education and healthcare.

Maybe we could document these minor crimes, and use the information in court if the person does anything that really does require police and courts, so we could show a pattern of anti-social behaviour, make a case that some sort of intervention is overdue for the stubbornly anti-social and criminal people that abuse the system.

Pie in the sky, right? Madness?

So, the status quo seems reasonable, then? That minor crimes should be punished corporally, with a forced trip to jail and possibly prison, something that would motivate the offender to fight for his life and turn our attempt to correct small crimes into deadly street battles instead? Please don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t blame everyone. It’s been complicated and confusing for so long, but that’s . . . crazy. All infractions of the law do not need to be enforced.

In fact, of course, all cases of breaking the law are not enforced now. How many crimes of the rich, the bankers, and the leaders are not punished? Of course, the crimes that are detected, solved, prosecuted and punished are far fewer than the actual instances of crime and always have been. In this way, criminal punishment has always been unfair and random. That perhaps bears repeating.

Criminal punishment has always been unfair and random. That being the obvious truth to any thinking person, and being that improving the consistency in catching and prosecuting is unlikely and possibly not even desirable – most of us think we’re close enough to the dystopic police state of our nightmares now – maybe we need to think about going the other direction. Simply not arresting and prosecuting the poorest people for minor crimes (again, drug laws come to mind) – not going after the lowest hanging fruit with the intent of violence and forcible confinement – could well be our best way to increase the consistency of our law enforcement, and therefore the general fairness of our society.

This could be one way that the police could gain some real respect and trust in the poorest communities – I mean, this wouldn’t be huge, much crime is violent crime, and I’m not advising we ignore those who would victimize others with violence – but this is exactly the point. Victimizing others with violence is exactly what the police are doing when they come to arrest and imprison people for minor crimes. If this is what cannot be changed, then talk of community trust and respect is empty blather. And deeply cynical too.

To say to people –

“We want to work with you, to establish a partnership, based on trust and mutual respect, based in understanding. We acknowledge that we are here to serve the community, to work for a greater peace and a better life for all – “

– while still maintaining that we intend nonetheless to come to your house, overpower you and throw you in prison for not paying your parking and court fines? That is deeply schizoid for some of us and downright cruel and cynical for some others. Either way, it’s . . . crazy. Again, violence, kidnapping and forcible confinement for minor crimes – that is a net increase in the level of crime, and it’s the very opposite of what the general population is paying the police to do.

Morally, arrests and the associated force and violence are worse than jaywalking, street level black market dealing, avoidance of legal and traffic fines, and drug possession. That is what I’m saying. This isn’t moral equivalence. It’s a total inversion.

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  18. Benjamin David Steele January 5, 2016 / 6:51 pm

    “I just want to point out what seems to be slipping under the radar: the simple moral fallacy underlying all policing, and authority in general, and that is the magnitude of the crimes in these situations.”

    A good point. I’d add something to this. Moral equivalency leads to moral hazard. Bad thinking leads to bad results.

    Liked by 1 person

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