What we like to think is that a bad act will have bad consequences for the perpetrator. We know that in reality this isn’t necessarily the case, the concept of heaven or hell, or karma or some consequence in the afterlife or next life makes us feel better. The same as if we do good things and don’t get reward for it.
This all depends on what is wrong. Religions, or belief systems dictate what an immoral act is, what is a punishable act. Not only do they decide on the consequence (going to hell) they also decide how you can get there (murder). Vicious circle or self-fulfilling prophecy? Most religions do preach some positive actions and condemn things which most of us would agree upon, murder, and rape and so on. But the idea that someone who rapes will be punished in the afterlife is quite abhorrent for many believers, plenty of believers have certainly wished death upon a perpetrator based on what they have done. The flipside of this is also that many abhorrent acts have been committed in the name of one god or another. Not only do our belief systems dictate our behaviour, they also condemn us and allow us to do exactly what we despise towards others who do not believe what we do…
Good and bad is not black and white. And what goes around, does not necessarily come around.
If indeed the definition of what is bad, or what makes a bad person is not clear then the consequences also cannot be clear. Even on a legal sense it’s not straightforward. Let’s disregard the religious aspect, which is generally judgmental. Let’s look at the act of murder, something the majority of people do feel is bad, certainly wouldn’t want it to happen to themselves or a loved one. In all places murder is a punishable offence. In some places life in prison, in some by execution, but in some people may receive a 10 or 20 year sentence in prison… even murder is up for interpretation. Manslaughter is the concept that due to an act or an act of omission you cause a person to die (drunk driving for example, or poor health and safety practice at work) But as you did not intend to kill anyone, it’s less of an offence and will likely gain you a lesser punishment than if you intended to kill a person.
Thou Shalt Not Kill…unless…
You may feel that killing is killing whatever the context, or you may agree that there are variables and someone needs to make a judgment as to the consequence.
What if that person, the perpetrator never gets caught and never gets punished? Will Karma take care of them? Most religions would believe that that person would go to some kind of hell, but what if that person doesn’t believe that? What if they have no religious belief, or even worse what if they believe they were acting in god’s wishes? The idea is that they will be punished regardless, but this doesn’t stop people, it certainly doesn’t give us licence to do anything, or we wouldn’t need laws at all, we could function as a society on a purely ethical and moral understanding without any need for belief systems or rules.
What if the hypothetical perpetrator doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with what they did? What if they feel it was completely justified? What if they don’t feel any empathy at all (a common trait in psychopaths) what does Karma mean when even that has no consequence?
If you’ve ever watched a horror film or a super hero film or read a comic you’ll be familiar with characters who set out to cause pain, to do evil. These are essentially cartoonish renditions of psychopaths, people whose sole aim is to inflict pain. Sometimes there’s a back story of being abused as a child, or having their home world destroyed and are taking revenge for it or any number of trauma, real life psychopaths have also experienced some kind of trauma to get them to where they are. But in real life do the bad guys know they are bad guys? Right now in the world everyone knows about Daesh, the organisation known as Isis or Isil or Islamic state. They have committed acts which most people will agree are… evil, but they think they are doing what is necessary, what is right, being “evil” isn’t in their manifesto. In his book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Simon Baron-Cohen explores this concept in depth, so I won’t go into that but the question again is what the consequences are? In their minds they are doing the right thing for their god, in the minds of Christians they are doing the opposite, who’s right?
An Act of Omission is not doing something that will cause harm. Many children who have been neglected by their parents have been harmed as much as a child who is physically abused. There’s nothing in the bible about it.
Thou Shalt not ignore you kids…
In my work in social care I’ve seen the effects of neglect on people many times. Is not doing something that causes a bad thing, doing a bad thing? Will Karma get you for that? Morally we’d all agree on that, legally it is so, but there have been acts of omission by people who are vulnerable themselves and aren’t necessarily able to recognise they have done something wrong.
I had an interesting experience on a forensic psychiatric unit for offenders with disabilities. A young man with Autism who had killed another person was there, his psychiatrist said they were working to help him understand that he had done something wrong but for him it was a foreign concept, is he guilty? He may be dangerous but Karma doesn’t necessarily take mental capacity into account.
I believe most people are inherently decent, not necessarily good as in will do things for others, but don’t mean harm, get on with their lives and at most look after those closest to them. I think there are relatively few people who intentionally seek to harm others, those that do probably have mental health conditions.
But what I often see is people showing complete lack of consideration, what makes someone inconsiderate? Well, I’ve spoken and written many times about valuing the small simple things in life and how they can have a massive impact, but going about your business doing your best not to get in anyone’s way, sometimes feels like everyone else is out to get in your way. Standing in the middle of the footpath, or an exit to a train, riding their bike on the footpath, spitting, and on and on. Are they callous, uncaring? Or, are they oblivious? And why should it matter to me so much.
Simply it does, it bothers me, but I decided to approach the idea with some different perspective, I think the way to deal with this is a shift in expectation, what I expect from people should be reduced. We’re not talking about your nearest and dearest, but the general public, the many we all encounter day to day. In a city like London you have a mash up of culture which often conflicts, for example, many African men don’t think twice about spitting on the footpath, which disgusts many, are they doing it to disgust or simply because for them it is normal? If I was to expect the same behaviour from every person then I am setting myself up for disappointment, we expect differently of a child and an adult. If a child spits, it’s Ok to educate them that it is wrong, but if an adult does it they have chosen to do so.
So, we should shift our expectations in regards to what we think people should and shouldn’t do, I don’t think anyone should alter their values but don’t even consider imposing those values on others, unless this becomes an ethical or moral question.
Once again, with many things this comes back to empathy versus sympathy. I hear many people speaking of disappointment in the response of others, but do you want sympathy? Sympathy leads to pity, and I don’t believe any one actually wants pity, they want to be understood, but expecting understanding from random strangers is impossible for the most part. I do think empathy is a natural human feeling, not something that has to be taught (though it can be untaught, another subject) but some people do find it easier to empathise than others. Why should those two men having a conversation in the middle of a busy footpath outside a train station care if I have to step on the road to go around them? Or that a disabled person or an elderly person should? Is it a lack of empathy or lack of awareness? My argument is that if we were all so entirely self-centred, we wouldn’t be even remotely civilised, we would all kill each other. We’ve probably all experienced frustration at a noisy neighbour, why should our peace interrupt their fun? Who is more important? And humans are a funny old mix of ego versus community, we have an instinct to survive, to have family and be around others, but it’s others that often stop us doing what we truly want. But it is also often others who help us do what we want.
All animals, all living things come with survival instinct, it’s really only humans who put themselves behind the wellbeing of other humans. The recent Syrian crisis has highlighted this incredibly well, many people jumped to help or say things in favour of the asylum seekers, others questioned the impact on themselves (maybe it’s just a complex fight or flight response). This is not about a local gang that has moved into your neighbourhood to sell drugs, this is about ordinary people suffering a true hardship that was none of their own making. Surely this should elicit an empathic response, surely you would flee your home under the same circumstances and hope someone will take you in, usually with empathy we need some experience to base it on, but it doesn’t take much flexibility of thought to imagine what losing your home and having your family killed would feel like, surely people can understand how horrific that would be. But many people appear not to. Or do they understand it and don’t care? Oblivious or callous?
Is it more dangerous to not care, like the young Autistic man who killed, or is it worse to have a purpose behind your killings like Daesh? Is apathy and lack of empathy more problematic than someone driven by a belief system? To me, it’s all the same. Next time you’re walking down the street and someone is walking too slow and it frustrates you, imagine this.
The day before that person pulled a child out of oncoming traffic and twisted their ankle doing so.
What’s important isn’t about justice, isn’t about what comeuppance someone will receive for their good or bad acts, it’s about trying our best to get along on this planet, because none of us really know what’s waiting. A little compromise, a little patience and empathy and we can improve life. It is the small considerations that make a difference on day to day life. There are atrocities happening around the world all the time, but do think about the person beside you, in front of you, next door. Lightning may not strike the same place twice but birds will shit in the same spot over and over again, and let’s face it, we think more about being shit on by a bird than we do about getting struck by lightning.