"Crime and Punishment"


We’re talking Dostoevsky’s pre-Russian-revolution novel, which has what a Hollywood producer would call a “high-concept title” [like “Snakes on a Plane”]. We’re also talking Kohlberg’s first stage of moral development: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” So, that Note to Self takes 22 years of living and learning to develop? [In humans, that is. Still no word on how long it takes in dogs.]

Alas, doing the Right Thing turns out to be a bit more complicated than just following the rules. To begin with, whose rules? In the Royal Navy they have a little [inside] joke: “We have a code. We don’t live by it, but we have a code.” In the 1970s Marvin Harris, an Anthropology prof at Columbia, published an instant cult classic [in my reference group, anyway]: Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches. His premise was that the Code of Conduct is not universal, but regional, often determined by geographical considerations, such as weather patterns. Thus, in the Subcontinent, where it is very dry except for the monsoon season, if no rains come one year, a farmer might be tempted to eat his draft animal, it being pointless that year to use it to plow the arid soil. Ah! But if he does, then next year when the rains come again, he will be SOL. So this culture devised the no-eating-cattle taboo, to keep the idle beasts off the menu, preserving them to plow another year. Hence, the Sacred Cow.

My generation of social scientists took this model and ran with it, seizing on every cockamamie cultural taboo we could find, and asking: “What’s the local survival payoff? Does it involve the health & safety of the community?” Thou shalt not eat oysters in months without Rs. [Hint, cuz it’s hotter then, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.] Play along at home.

Now comes along another anthropologist, Jonathan Haidt, with his 5 Moral Spheres, the relative importance of which vary by geographical region and [intriguingly] by political leaning. Liberals are all about Do No Harm to Others, and Social Justice for All; whereas Conservatives are all about Be True to Your School [or Tribe, or Reference Group], Respect Authority, and Remain Pure. This is why it takes so long to stock the brain’s Code of Conduct library. Back in the day, when people tended to live their lives where they were born, and didn’t have so much access to information about other places and their exotic folkways, it was easier to know what the Right Thing to Do was. Nowadays, not so much.

Reductionists insist that there are–always were, always will be–absolute commandments, so to speak, concerning the human Code of Conduct. “Thou shalt not kill,” for instance. Do me a favor, guv! What about combat troops? Are they supposed to kill no one? So, why do we spend so much on weapons? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Oh, so we’re cool with extreme interrogation methods being used against our troops? Once again, I invite you to play along at home. Find me a rule, in any Code of Conduct, that applies to everyone, without exception.

Which brings us back to Dostoevsky’s fictional student, Raskolnikov, a Nihilist [Remember Durkheim’s WTF anomie?], who had just written an article on moral philosophy, justifying the killing of undesirable individuals for the greater good of society. He murders a “disgusting, old, dishonest” pawnbroker, and then has to do away with her friend, who witnessed the incident. The rest of the book is a psychological cat & mouse game between the student and the detective assigned to the murder case, Porfiry Petrovitch.

So, it all depends on “when you come in to the movie,” whether you think a specific act of aggression should be lauded or condemned. In this scene, is Lili in jail for her acts of unjustified aggression, or is she policing other incarcerated individuals? Plot twist: she’s returning to the scene of her two crimes–the Lacrosse field–where the little boy “rattled her cage”and she growled at him, and where she ran up the hill to challenge the out-of-the-blue dog. Spoiler alert: Raskolnikov does, too.

So, the “second of all” thing to do, to promote development of the Pre-frontal cortex, is to learn from our own trespasses [and, far less costly, from those of compelling fictional characters]. As the London cabbie’s brain actually expands when he gains The Knowledge [the cognitive map of the city], so our Pre-frontal cortex grows, as we lay down ever more complex pathways for navigating between Right and Wrong.

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Filed under aggression happens, lesser of two evils, pro bono publico

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