Well, he did make the trains run on time


Well, they say of Mussolini, at least he made the trains run on time.

Actually, that’s disputed, but that’s by-the-by.  While watching the telly, I was struck by a remark of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, on the resignation of the leader of Scotland’s Roman Catholic community, Cardinal Keith O’Brien following allegation of sexual misconduct.  “It would be a great pity if a lifetime of positive work was lost from comment in the circumstances of his resignation”, said Salmond.

This was a few days ago, before O’Brien admitted to ‘misbehaviour’.  Even so, it seemed to me to be a premature and injudicious remark.  (And Salmond praised him in other comments too).  We still don’t know much about the allegations against O’Brien, not do we know whether others will come forward with additional accusations.  The scale of O’Brien’s ‘misbehaviour’ is, at the time of writing, unclear…he may well be guilty of not very much.

However, I would have thought we need such information before we can weigh it in the balance against his good deeds.  No life is unrelentingly bad.  Just as no life is incessantly good.  All lives have at least some good and some bad.  In some lives, the bad massively overshadows the good.  In such circumstances, we tend – quite rightly in my view – to ignore the good.  We do this on grounds of taste.  We would object – again quite rightly, in my view – to a person who said “well yes, but putting aside the Jews and the gays, and the torture and the invasions and the war, Adolf did build some marvellous autobahns”.  And similar comments would be misplaced even for criminals on a much smaller scale…“it would be a shame if in all the allegations of rape and assault we forgot Jimmy Savile’s tremendous contribution to popular television”.

As I say, we don’t know very much about the O’Brien case.  But, sometimes it is not ‘a pity’ to disregard ‘positive work’.  It’s the right thing to do.


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11 Responses to Well, he did make the trains run on time

  • I like David’s analogies, that show the limits of trying to emphasize The Good over The Bad when certain accusations come to light. Cautionary statements like those of Salmond in regard to Cardinal O’Brien are pretty much a first attempt at writing history, it seems to me, to redirect the story. People who make these kinds of statements are trying to ensure that obituaries don’t end up written like indictments. Instead, the authors of these kinds of comments want the obituary — as the final story — to read: ‘Good Priest, Though Troubled As Are All Human Beings in an Ultimately Forgivable Way.’

    There is always something deeply self-forgiving about the apologies that typically come from the prelates of the Catholic Church when they do admit their transgressions. Almost invariably, they say something like this: “I am sorry for what I’ve done. Please forgive me.” It’s as if the inherent point of the apology is to secure forgiveness. Why not just simply, “I admit. I’m sorry. I will try to make amends as possible.” There is nothing about an apology in and of itself that requires forgiveness by those transgressed against. An apology can be no less sincere simply because forgiveness is not forthcoming. And there is no less justification for an apology if no forgiveness is ever forthcoming. I’m always skeptical therefore of ‘apologies’ that run expressions of responsibility seamlessly into requests for absolution.

  • Dave Frame says:

    David Edmonds wrote: “In some lives, the bad massively overshadows the good. In such circumstances, we tend – quite rightly in my view – to ignore the good.”

    Hmmm… imagine Gary Glitter discovered a cure for cancer. Should we ignore the cure because we disapprove of Gary’s sexuality/behaviour? Or should we pretend that the cure just invented itself, so as to lie about Gary’s involvement? Just what level of erasing folks from history are we talking about here? [I can’t help but think of Stalin’s doctoring of photographs to remove inconveniences.]

    I’m kind of uncomfortable with the idea that we ignore the good in people. Sometimes the good is trumped by many orders of magnitude by the bad (Pol Pot, Stalin, etc). But sometimes this move is just a way of doing two things that strike me as ethically uncool: (1) framing our intellectual enemies in such a way that they are (even) less attractive; (2) enjoying a sort of ethical Schadenfreude.
    It may be the case that, in a two minute conversation on Stalin/Pol Pot/etc it’s unbalanced to mention any good, since the bad is so overwhelming, but that’s not the same as being instructed systematically to ignore any good things.

    • David Edmonds says:

      HI Dave

      You quote me, but then ignore my proposition . Indeed, I said that ‘in some lives, the bad massively overshadows the good’. Clearly this wouldn’t be the case if a criminal had also discovered a cure for cancer.

      • Dave Frame says:

        David wrote: “You quote me, but then ignore my proposition.”

        Quite right. Sorry – I think I was trying to get at the circumstances that might allow people to make the judgement you describe. Two aspects: (1) is such an assessment the result of information compression – ie if you have two sentences on Dr Evil then mentioning his good behaviour towards cats seems unbalanced – or is it basically rounding: Dr Evil was so bad that it’s kind of dodgy to give the guy any credit whatsoever? (2) How do you decide when the criteria for ignoring the good are met?

        David wrote: “In some lives, the bad massively overshadows the good. In such circumstances, we tend – quite rightly in my view – to ignore the good. We do this on grounds of taste.”

        Cool. But whose taste counts here? Agree that Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin are in the bin. But this cardinal guy? He hasn’t killed or tortured anyone. He hasn’t induced a famine in the Ukraine to break resistance to forced collectivisation. As far as I can tell, his crimes are really just two: (a) he has opposed you guys on a minor* issue of public policy (one that was not on the political radar in any country for most of his life); (b) he is a poignant sort of hypocrite**, whose soul and mind pull him a direction opposite to that demanded by other organs further up the chain of command. I find it peremptory to start talking about refusing to allow any sort of mitigation plea in this case.

        I also find the move potentially self-serving in that, in a majority of cases (since most cases are murky), I can just add up the pros as I see fit and then use the cons to prevent any correspondence being entered into. It’s a way of legitimating the wholesale damning of one’s political (and ethical) opponents, and the refusal to even countenance any mitigation. Imagine Colin is a Conservative Prime Minister and Lionel is a Labour one. Both talk a big game about disapproving of behaviour X; yet both get busted doing X (X isn’t criminal but it carries social stigma***). Being academics we like Lionel, so we add up his contribution as significant and worthy, so any fair portrayal of Lionel will be balanced and rounded. But, being academics, we disapprove of Colin. He did terrible things like cut public debt and bring some small semblance of market-pressure to inefficient systems like the NHS. Therefore, because of the way we add up his actions, we consider that he did net bad. Then his hypocrisy/misbehaviour over X is a beautiful thing, since we can use it as the final nail in his coffin. He doesn’t deserve balance, you see. His hypocrisy over X cannot be redeemed by his other works, since you think they’re a net negative anyway. This makes me uncomfortable, since I don’t trust evaluations based on “taste” (even mine).****

        *Minor in the sense that governments don’t stand or fall on this sort of thing. [Which puts it in the same category as policies on aid, climate change, advertising on the side of buses and compliance with European directives on weights and measures. As opposed to the economy, migration policy, fuel taxes, bailing out banks and being soft on welfare cheats.]
        **I feel sorry for the guy on this one. That must be an excruciating sort of life to lead. What does personal integrity demand where sincerely held beliefs about the ordering of the universe are in conflict with one’s personal desires?
        ***X could be anything from failing to recycle to disapproving of multiculturalism to driving very inconsiderately. Or supporting Chelsea.
        ****It’s a child of the 1990s thing – weirds me out how fast intellectuals have gone from embracing relativism back to flavours of realism.

        • David Edmonds says:

          Thanks Dave. You seem to be conceding the point…Pol Pot etc., but then go on to talk about murky cases. I made it clear, I thought, that I wasn’t talking about murky cases. The point about the Cardinal was that, at a time when many terrible stories of abuse are emerging from within the church, it might have been wise for Alex Salmond not to make those remarks until the facts came to light.

          I don’t get the realism footnote.

          • Dave Frame says:

            Hmmm… But this Scottish guy is a murky case if ever there was one, and he was the hook through which you made the point. If you’d written about Pol Pot the point would have been clearer, but less topical. [You could have chosen Hugo Chavez and had your cake and eaten it too…). So far, it sounds as though all O’Brien’s done is hit on a few dudes who weren’t very keen on the idea. There may be more allegations, of course, but in view of the fact there aren’t (as yet) should we be giving the benefit of the doubt to O’Brien? The point you make about some people being beyond redemption is no doubt fair enough. But to make it in the context of someone who hasn’t yet been alleged to have done anything terrible strikes me as pretty unfair.

            And the realism footnote doesn’t particularly matter. It’s just that I see a rush to judgement among people these days that I didn’t see twenty years ago. There’s a really censorious do-goodery in the air, I think, something very Victorian and quite punitive. This blog features lots of strong examples – posters make lots of calls to ban things (most of these calls are good examples of blunt and bad policy thinking) and, in this case, a claim that this Scottish guy may well belong in the higher and more excruciating circles of hell, even though no one has actually accused him of doing anything you wouldn’t defend, if anyone other than a priest had done them.

            • David Edmonds says:

              Hi Dave

              Fair point. I was interested in the structure of the argument. (I won’t go into detail (we don’t have much detail) about the allegations against him, but they sound like they are not entirely trivial: they are to do with ‘unwanted contact’…that’ll get you thrown out of most jobs, and I wouldn’t defend it, whatever the profession of the culprit).

              I like Anders’ distinction…that it matters a bit whether the good and the bad are interlinked.

              It was the use of the word ‘realism’ that confused me…I guess you mean ‘moralistic’. Hope I’m not!

    • David Edmonds says:

      Hi Dave

      You quote me, but then ignore the proposition. If a criminal cured cancer, the bad wouldn’t, presumably, massively outweigh the good.

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    O’Brien’s hysterical and abusive campaign against gay marriage (and gay rights in general) is reason enough to regard him as a man who has used his undeserved influence in society for seriously anti-social purposes. And when he wasn’t doing that he was working hard to perpetuate ignorant superstition amongst gullible and vulnerable people. A bit of charity work on the side isn’t enough to excuse a largely delinquent “career”.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    I think it matters whether the good done is separable from the bad in the person. Hitler’s Autobahn projects had very little to do with his racial or totalitarian views (I assume), so it might be reasonable to commend them (if one thinks they were a good thing). His vegetarianism and environmental views on the other hand were tied to a nexus of ideas about natural purity that were inseparable from his racial views; it seems harder commending them even if one thinks vegetarianism and environmentalism are good things but for reasons not tied to purity ideals.

  • George says:

    “This cardinal guy” may have committed a civil tort such as seducing a married woman, or he may have committed a criminal act such as abusing children. Until we know, it’s pointless to speculate on the basis of assumptions that may turn out to be utterly false, and it’s pernicious of the First Minister to do it publicly. Given the history of the Catholic Church, I would assert that we have a positive right to know exactly the nature of the offense, because if it involves children, the proper response should be a swift arrest and vigorous prosecution.

    That said, we shouldn’t deny positive acts by evil persons, including Hitler and his autobahns. If we do, then we lose a crucially important piece of information: what it was that the individual did, that enabled him (it is almost always “him”) to gain power in the first place. When we lose that information, we lose the capacity to recognize the next budding monster before it is too late.

    For example Hitler didn’t start out by promising a Holocaust and a world war: had he done so he would have gotten nowhere. Instead he promised economic revitalization, national pride, and so on, making an awful lot of people feel jolly and proud and eager for the future. Having hooked them he ratcheted up the tyranny and terror by degrees, each degree made “thinkable” by way of acceptance of the prior degree, until the point of no return was reached.

    Minus the information about Hitler’s early “good deeds,” we can’t comprehend how he could have come to power. With that information, we can be prepared for the next such monster, and consign him to the bin before he gets a foothold.


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