Not infrequently a letter arrives at our house which is intended for a neighbour. What should be one’s first instinct when that happens: to deliver it to the right address, or to open it first to see whether it contains anything of interest?
I would hope that your own answer is the former. I would take it as a sign of ‘good neighbourliness’. Indeed, I would go further, and say it is a necessary quality for a strong social order.
Trustworthiness when we are unobserved is, in short, a virtue. It is not one that we all possess, and certainly not one we all possess all the time. But that is because we are not entirely virtuous, not because trustworthiness is optional.
Imagine, though, that your neighbour is a local councillor. Imagine, furthermore, that the letter is marked ‘Confidential’. Add to that, there have been rumours about irregularities in the recent business of the Council and, furthermore, that these have directly affected you and your welfare.
Now are you so keen to take the letter next door?
Or what if another of your neighbours came to you with the same letter having opened it already, and says, “Here, I don’t understand these things myself, but perhaps you’d like to have a look through this to see if it sheds any light on what the Council’s been up to?”
What will you do now?
Philosophers love to construct such dilemmas, not least to show the fragility of our moral absolutes. What if your neighbour were a known drug dealer? What if you thought they were a spy? — and so on, and so on.
The tendency of such arguments (indeed, often the deliberate intention) is to weaken our reliance on traditional ‘rule based’ systems. And if you are a Christian, there is something to be said for that.
But the fundamental question, familiar to moral philosophers but often overlooked in debate, is not whether we can come up with a workable ‘rule’ (often we can’t), but what is the kind of thing that would be done by the kind of person we ought to be.
In short, what would a virtuous person do in any given circumstance?
This, however, may itself be the subject of some debate, and I am therefore inclined to turn the question round and ask, ‘What would a wicked person do?’ Suddenly (for some strange reason) the answer is generally clear.
If I were a wicked person, for example, I would certainly open any letter that I thought might contain anything to my advantage or offer an opportunity for causing harm to another. The greater my wickedness, the less compunction I would feel in doing so. And if my other neighbour brought me such a letter I would ask whether there were any more from the same source (all the time making sure that as little harm as possible could come to me as a result).
Of course, this still does not translate into a ‘rule’ system. It is not that the wicked person operates by ‘wicked rules’ (though we may be sure such have been devised). Rather, it is that the virtuous person and the wicked person approach a moral dilemma very differently.
Faced with the so-called ‘trolley problem’ — shall I divert a runaway train to a siding where it will kill one unfortunate individual, or leave it on its current track where it will kill five who have been tied to the rails by a mad philosopher — it is easy to know what a wicked person would do. (Indeed, the whole problem is posited on the somewhat-politically-incorrect presumption that madness produces wicked acts, such as setting out to kill people or to tax the morally virtuous with difficult choices!)
But if we may thus be sure that the wicked person would have scant regard for an accidental breach of confidence, we may equally deduce that the virtuous person will, on the contrary, seek to minimize the consequences of such a circumstance.
This still does not push us into the realm of ‘absolute rules’. What if one’s neighbour were indeed a suspected drug dealer? What if the envelope were already open, the letter fell out and one could not help noticing it described plans for an act of terrorism?
The theoretician can always come up with tantalizing situations. The fundamental answers, however, must be couched in terms of what a virtuous person would do, which can itself often be assessed in terms of what would be done by a person lacking in virtue.
Now this brings me to the subject of Wikileaks — its rationale, but also its social impact. What is the significance of such a website becoming part of our cultural ‘fabric’, and of media outlets participating in the process, particularly when they are favoured recipients of the material Wikileaks has obtained?
The reaction of many (including the editors of certain newspapers) is that such a phenomenon is vitally important, exposing, as it does, that governments are corrupt and that they have acted corruptly.
But that leads me to ask, what do we expect of governments? Or do we rather expect that they should be virtuous, and if that is the case, where will we find the men and women of virtue, and by what process will we produce them?
We seem to have forgotten that society can only work with the individuals who actually make up that society. We cannot therefore expect to produce incorruptible police officers, self-sacrificing captains of industry and honest politicians from a population of morally indifferent individuals. Virtue begins in the individual, not in theoretical ‘values’ a society demands, but fails to apply at the personal level.
Let me pose another dilemma. You find the lap-top belonging to an MP. As a virtuous person, is your first duty to open it and see what you can find? Or is it to return the lost lap-top intact to its owner as soon as possible?
What a wicked person would do is surely self-evident.
But why would a person of virtue presume that there might be damaging material on the lap-top. And why would they want to know? Surely the virtuous person would first presume virtue in the other? And the virtuous person would equally regard the keeping of a confidence and the preservation of trust as their first priority.
The problem with the Wikileaks phenomenon is that the values by which it operates either presume a lack of trustworthiness or rely on such untrustworthiness in others. There is something about it of the ‘wiki-sneak’, and a true danger of it undermining our necessary social fabric.
By all means let whistles be blown. But let them never be blown by those who love ‘whistle-blowing’ for its own sake, and let us never become people who long for the next ‘revelation’ of wrongdoing. The difference between the reader of the Guardian and the reader of the News of the World is not as great, in this regard, as the former might like to imagine.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
30 November 2010
30 November 2010