Sunday, March 19, 2006


I love to read.

I especially love to read whodunits: murder mysteries, spy novels, psychological thrillers, etc. I love the intricate plot twists, the decoy suspects and the final denouements, as long as they are not predictable clich├ęs. There are several authors, however, whose work I rarely read any more because they tend to repeat particular formulas. Having figured out the formulas, I can resolve most of the storylines by the end of the third chapter or so (or whenever all the characters have been introduced). Once that's been accomplished there's little point in reading any further.

Yesterday I read a book by an author whose work I’d never read before: The Sunday Philosophy Club, by Alexander McCall Smith. I'm still debating whether I will read any of his other works. In the meantime, I will discuss why this book is provocative.

The star of this book (which is the first in a newly emerging series) is an ethical philosopher who, after uncovering the killer’s identity and confronting him, decided that the killer should not be punished for his actions. Her reasoning was that the death had been accidental, absolutely unintentional. A truly just morality would mete out punishment according to intention only, without any consideration of the consequences of the killer’s behavior. Moreover, the killer was remorseful and truly wished the terrible event had never happened. In this case, punishment would not be justice; it would merely be the destruction of another life. Having made that decision, the sleuth walked home, hand-in-hand, with the killer. The End.

I read this conclusion in utter disbelief! This character is more Kantian than Kant! Intentions matter, but surely consequences – regardless of whether they were intended – matter too. Mill and Dewey, among others, would likely shudder at such a lame conclusion to a case of manslaughter or second-degree murder. Thank heavens this is only a novel!

In accepting the idea that the killer’s life should not be disrupted because of one careless (albeit tragic) act, the lead character also implicitly accepts that the abruptly terminated life of the unfortunate decedent no longer matters. Since he is now dead he has no interest in seeing justice served – he’ll still be just as dead at the end of the day. The lead character also completely avoids contemplating the interests of the decedent’s parents and loved ones, and of society, in requiring restitution for their loss. The killer has only been called to account, privately at that, for his motives; he will never account publicly for his acts. In other words, the lead character views this tragedy as a purely private matter that is of interest only to the killer. Clearly, this is not a sound basis for a social (or legal) system.

Justice should, as far as possible, balance accountability for actions with accountability for intentions. This is a tall order, for one can never really know, without any doubt, another’s intentions. There are cases, however, in which damages or injuries clearly are accidental. Those cases should be tempered with more mercy than cases in which damages and injuries are deliberate. So consideration of intention should enter into all deliberations of justice.

Nevertheless, in matters of justice the consequences of one’s actions must also be given due deliberation. This is why we teach children to think before they act or speak. Actions undertaken and words uttered cannot be undone. They will have consequences. Sometimes we foresee and desire those consequences. Sometimes we get the consequences we desired but didn’t realize the unintended consequences that would also accrue. None of those consequences can be undone once they are set in motion. We must accept responsibility for our intentions and for the consequences of our behavior. A just society must require such accountability if its interests and those of all its members are to be served adequately.

Morality is not always a private issue; sometimes it is a public one. Issues of justice typically arise in two sorts of situations: 1) conflicts between public and private interests, or 2) conflicts between two or more private interests. Vast arrays of social and legal structures exist to discover or devise appropriate, fair means of mediating all of those interests. The heroine in this novel ignored those structures and unilaterally cast her own judgment as the final word on the matter. Thank heavens this is only a character in a novel and not a seriously proffered role model.

I know this book is a novel, not a philosophical treatise. Nevertheless, it is being marketed and critiqued as a "thinking person's" mystery. Moreover, the author is a law professor at a prestigious university. One cannot help believing that the philosophical references and speculations littered throughout the book are meant to be taken with some seriousness. That being the case, the heroine's refusal to acknowledge the frequently public nature of morality and her corresponding refusal to acknowledge the importance of accountability for the consequences (not just the intentions) of behavior make this book a tremendous disappointment. On the other hand, if the book's outrageous conclusion is intended merely to stimulate thoughtful response, then it is a resounding success.

No comments: