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?

 

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