The relative seriousness of moral crime

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Could there ever be a moral crime bigger than the Holocaust? The Holocaust has been understood in academic, political and institutional life as one of the defining examples of Man’s inhumanity to Man: mechanised genocide that can never be forgotten. Six million Jews perished, but there were many more deaths than that – Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Communists, gypsies, the mentally ill, disabled people – all were victims of the Nazi’s monstrous desire to eugenically improve the lives of people perceived to be members of the Master race.

But doesn’t moral crime have to be understood relatively? If there were a moral crime committed by 500 million people against a single human being, would that be as serious a moral outrage? Certainly a crime so described would have a magnitude to it. It would involve Governments, police forces, respectable public figures and all manner of law enforcement authorities either wholeheartedly championing the particulars of the evil deed against this one man, or at least acquiescing to the popular desire to visit evil upon that being without further censure.

There is an example used in moral philosophy to discuss an interesting point. Let us say that there is a town where everybody is law abiding and nobody breaks the law. In this town’s central square there is a box, with a boy kept prisoner in there. The entire town is allowed to assault or torment the boy in the box as much as they like, without any censure, on the collective understanding that by taking out all their anger and violence on the boy they have to be good and kind to each other the rest of the time. Would this be an acceptable system of governance? Would the net effect be an overall happier society? The stock answer to this given by philosophers is that believing such a system would be acceptable involves believing in the existence of an entirely false economy. As long as the boy could be proved to be sentient, then such a system would never be allowed under any law. Only a perverse or evil society would commit such a damnable sin as locking a sentient boy in a box for a lifetime of violence, in the mistaken belief it would bring them benefit and advancement of their interests.

There are a number of terrible things happening in the media at the moment – the civil war in Syria is one, and the political violence against members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot is another. Whilst it is important for the Holocaust never to be forgotten by anybody, is it possible that moral crimes happening in these countries are of just a great a magnitude, if not in terms of people having evil visited upon them, but in terms of numbers of people visiting evil upon a tiny minority of people?

Some might argue that there was moral evil in the media in the Noughties. That the ‘feral’ media, with its phone hacking, aggressive surveillance of public figures and routine, inhumane invasions of privacy were committing moral crimes against people in public life whether through involvement in the media or politics or whether through news coverage of some unfortunate incident in their lives. It would be absurd to suggest Fleet Street had ever gassed their political opponents, and I am not trying to draw analogies between feral media tactics in sourcing flat earth news and genocide by a government.

Perhaps the best metric of a moral crime is how badly it affected the individual it was perpetrated against. This is a rule of thumb used in workplaces, where office teasing isn’t considered harmful unless someone takes offence. If there was an individual somewhere who had a moral crime institutionally committed against them by an entire society – whether that be torture, harassment by law enforcement, dehumanisation, mock execution or illegal imprisonment, could this be spoken of in the same sentence as the Holocaust without belittling it? Would it not be the case in both instances that a national moral crime was being discussed?

 

Pussy Riot

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I was very interested to read about the predicament of members of the Russian punk group Pussy Riot in the papers today. They are currently on trial in Russia for blasphemy, after pulling off a Situationist style stunt in a Russian church wearing balaclavas.

Russia strikes me as a country that has gone full circle. The Church is ascendant in Russia and it is quickly becoming what Suzanne Moore in the Guardian described as a Christian fundamentalist country. It seems that Russians have obliqued the Soviet era of their past, and are remembering and re-perceiving old Czarist power structures in their country. It is possible that quite quickly Russia will remember its old history, reshoulder that mantle, and start proclaiming that their ghosts be with the old Czars.

I feel a strange sympathy for Pussy Riot. They are political dynamite, an enemy of the Establishment and the national order. They represent a threat to the fundamental structure of the country with an ideology that could spark revolution, wipe away the foundations of old Russia and bring into existence a new socio-political structure. The ruling elite in Russia must view themselves as having no choice but utter overkill in their militating against this threat, howsoever iniquitous this looks from the outside, as they privately perceive the real danger thinkers like Pussy Riot pose.

I watched a video of Pussy Riot in their cages in a Russian court last night.  They are attractive young women and some of them have young children. They seemed chirpy and had their spirits high. I felt sorry for them but I knew I can’t help them in any way, shape or form. I felt as if I must have been in their predicament once because I knew something about what they were going through. But just because you watch someone on YouTube doesn’t mean you can help them, or talk to them at all. All I can do is wish them luck, and hope things work out OK for them. I think if in a coupe of year’s time Pussy Riot ever tour the UK we should all go and see them.

Russia is a strange country. It is a testing ground and melting pot of ideologies. It is as if, in private parts of Russia for the last decade, there has been a nocturnal hinterland where ideologies, religions, sects and corporations rose like prehistoric beasts on the horizon and battled under piercing starlight. Everything has been in Russia: contract killers for hi-tech corporations, the Illuminati, Freemasons, the defining glories of world fame. There have been guns and violence from Mafiosi and organised crime families, there have been journalists shot by political powers with black souls, and there have been the biggest corporations and governments on Earth playing games of poker with billion dollar chips. There have been underground geniuses hacking the media, and media tycoons manipulating the memetic structure of the gestalt. There are been invisible celebrities lost beyond reach in a continuum of hyperreality. The supernatural is very widely believed in in Russia, and there are plenty who see otherworldly authorities that aren’t spoken of by professional types in London and Birmingham, or properly believed in during daylight hours, debating quantum physics across spooky distances in places soaked in dreamlike reality.

Russia is a strange country sometimes. In many ways it is like everyday England, with buses and banks and coffee shops. It has its other side though.  Perhaps England has a hidden side. I see private aspects of Birmingham that are interesting to twitterati, and I would love to see more.