How do we know what is right and wrong? This was the question that Malcolm Gladwell put to his audience at the New York Fest on October 7.
Gladwell set the stage for the question by comparing to pieces of literature: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. He compared the treatment of what combat meant to veterans after World War II and after Vietnam. In The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, there are harrowing depictions of combat, but the effects of the war on the main character come from an affair he had with a woman while overseas and not the violence he faced. On the other hand, the main character of In the Lake of the Woods is greatly affected by the violence that he was caught up in during the Vietnam War.
Gladwell found this quite strange, and I don’t think there were any combat veterans among the New Yorker Fest audience to explain how one veteran might be able to put aside the experience of the war and another could not. But Gladwell used this as a jumping off point to talk about our sense of right and wrong and how it has changed over time.
In the first book, the violence committed was not wrong, but the extra-martial affair was, whereas in the second book, the violence was part of what was wrong.
But Gladwell acknowledged that it was not that simple. He noted that our sense of right and wrong has changed over time to the point that we now measure right and wrong not by a more sense, but rather by how much harm has been done by an action. In the first book, the wrong was an affair that caused no particular harm. In the second book, the harm caused by the violence made it wrong.
Acknowledging that there were difference between the wars and the generations, Gladwell confronted the question a little differently. He raised the question of childhood sexual abuse. He gave as an example a study done by Bruce Rind that found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were able to overcome the trauma and go on to lead normal lives. The response in the media was that Rind’s study was somehow minimizing sexual abuse, rather than the positive interpretation that people can overcome terrible experiences. Rind essentially said that just because people could overcome the effects of the abuse, that didn’t make it any less wrong. (You can read more about it here.)
Gladwell said that this recent approach — that wrongfulness is strictly related to the amount of harm it causes — is a result of secular thinking displacing religious thinking, and that it has impoverished our moral conversations. He mentioned the controversy over the Woodrow Wilson school at Yale, and noted that the students protesting against the name were claiming they were harmed by it.
“You can’t argue , if you are a student at a great school. you aren’t being harmed by the name on the outside of the school,”Gladwell said.
Gladwell asks why they can’t just argue that it is morally wrong to name the school after him, and instead have to claim harm.
I think Gladwell has missed two currents in American society that have led to the shift in our definition of wrong and right from moral to level of harm.
First, the United States legal system has made the determination of harm a fundamental part of determining right and wrong. You can’t bring a case in the courts unless you can prove harm. This is the ‘case or controversy clause,’ which comes out of Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and was part of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. You need to show that you have suffered actual harm in order to bring a case. I believe that this kind of thinking carries over, even if unconsciously, into the American psyche.
The second current that I think Gladwell has missed is more controversial, but it is the fact that there is a certain power in being a victim. Rory Miller, a corrections officer and tactical team leader, has written a number of books on violence and its aftermath. On of the things that he has mentioned is that people will sometimes adopt the role of victim/survivor because it gives them the power to manipulate situations and groups of people. Miller cautions that we should be careful about this, because survivors of trauma and attacks have the capability to recover and even become stronger after something terrible happens to them. He notes that the anyone who might have to deal with violence could end up in the position. But there is a notion, almost unspoken, that victims never truly recover and thus must always be catered to. Miller notes that it is not unreasonable that someone might try to turn that weakness into a strength.
The upshot is that claiming harm has been done and that one is a victim lets people feel as though they are in a stronger position than just making a moral claim. The problem is that spurious and manipulative claims of harm make it harder to help people who have really been hurt.
I think Gladwell would benefit from talking to Miller before writing anything because Miller understands the power of victimhood and the processing of trauma. I don’t know that either of them will ever see this, but I think the conversation would add dimensions to both of their works.
I also think that Gladwell has it right: we do need to think about right and wrong both in terms of harm and in terms of a moral calculus.
“I’d like to see is hold both notions. There are times when what is harmful is wrong. I’d like to say that there are times when you don’t have to make a harmful claim if you are going to make a moral claim,”Gladwell said.