?

Log in

No account? Create an account
rant

Politically incorrect: sympathy and charity for Those Left Behind

The Worthy Cause in the previous post, BTW, was the Policemen's Benevolent Association. I don't have anything against them, but they're not on our usual list of Worthy Causes to Donate To. And I started thinking...


Why do people donate money to help the families of police officers who have died in the line of duty, but not to help the families of drug dealers who have died in the line of duty? Obviously, the police officer is viewed as working for the public good, and the drug dealer isn't (although this gets fuzzy; see NPR story below), so the police officer is a more sympathetic victim. But why does this sympathy carry over to their families? Both families have lost a loved one due to a combination of career choice and plain old bad luck. In both cases, the family didn't have much choice in the matter (indeed, the children had no choice in the matter), but they had to deal with the uncertainty in their daily lives. Why is one family more sympathetic, and deserving of charity, than the other?

Here's another thought experiment. Imagine that your husband/wife/parent/child/whatever worked in the World Trade Center, and was killed on 9/11/2001 ... in a car accident on the way to work. Your loved one is just as dead as if (s)he had gotten to the office on the 94th floor. Your family is just as broken-hearted, and just as devoid of a breadwinner, as the families of the 3000 people who were killed in the attack. But you're not eligible for millions of dollars of compensation from the Federal government, because your loved one died half an hour too early.

How about this one: a 26-year-old grad student is kidnapped and murdered, a suspect is promptly captured, tried, and convicted on the basis of solid evidence. The student's family, in accordance with the state's policy on "victim impact statements", appears in court with high school pictures and give their tearful testimony; the suspect gets the maximum possible penalty. The same day, a 26-year-old homeless, mentally ill man who hadn't bathed in weeks is also murdered. Finding his killer isn't a high priority, but police happen to find good evidence pointing to a suspect, who is tried, convicted, and sentenced to a lesser penalty. Both murderers have committed (as far as they knew) the same crime, but the one who picked a sympathetic, attractive victim with sympathetic, attractive, articulate relatives gets the harsher punishment.







This morning on NPR there was a story about a sociologist who "embedded" with a drug gang for a couple of months, and then wrote a book about it. He points out that in the neighborhood in question, the general public don't trust the police (either to come when needed, or to behave helpfully once they arrive), and furthermore that the drug gang has taken on some of the roles of a police department cum social services agency: they bring charitable donations to the victims of natural and human disasters, and when a guy beats up his girlfriend, they round up a vigilante posse to beat him up in return. The same has apparently occurred with some organized-crime families, and with terrorist groups such as Hamas: for whatever reason, the "legitimate" government is excluded from a particular geographic area, and whoever has local power takes on some of the benevolent roles of a government.

Comments

Depends on your theory of punishment. Why we punish impacts the answer to your question.
I presume you're thinking of the murder question. AFAIK, the main "theories of punishment" are deterrence (the promise of punishment will persuade people not to do it), prevention (being in prison or dead will prevent people from doing it again), and vengeance (I will feel better if I see somebody punished for this). So how are the two murder scenarios treated differently by these theories?

With respect to my first question, I guess "why we give charity" impacts the answer. If charity to widows and orphans is primarily for their benefit, then there's no difference between the widow/orphan of a police officer and that of a drug dealer. If, on the other hand, the promise of charity for widows and orphans is part of the incentive to get people to take dangerous public-service jobs like police, fire, and military, then there is a difference: the recipients themselves are no more deserving, but we've made different promises to their dearly departed.
I was thinking of the murder question. But if we are using a utilitarian theory that somehow compensates/discourages for "more valuable" members of society, then the differentiation makes sense. Similarly, if we give credence to deterrence, a stiffer penalty for "more valuable" members of society (i.e., those who have social capital) also makes sense. At least, it informs judgement.

valuable victims or articulate relatives

I think I understand your point.

Here's a slight variant on the thought experiment. Two 20-year-old college students, both with equally promising careers, are murdered under similar circumstances. One has two attractive siblings or friends majoring in drama and journalism respectively, and between them they do an utterly heartrending victim-impact statement. The other has two rather unattractive, inarticulate, math-major siblings or friends, who don't put on a particularly good show for the media or the jury. The murderer in the former case is likely to get a more severe penalty, right?
furthermore that the drug gang has taken on some of the roles of a police department cum social services agency: they bring charitable donations to the victims of natural and human disasters

More precisely according to Freakonomics, the sociologist in question, Venkatesh, learned that the drug gang he was with, as SOP, provided for the widows and orphans of gang members killed in the line of duty -- in short, had exactly a relief fund.

To address your question, though: "Why is one family more sympathetic, and deserving of charity, than the other?" It seems to me it is assumed they benefited from ill-gotten gains, the same thing that makes it wrong to receive stolen goods. They are, even if unwittingly, viewed as accessories to the crime.

Did you see this, in the NYTimes Mag?
it is assumed they benefited from ill-gotten gains, the same thing that makes it wrong to receive stolen goods. They are, even if unwittingly, viewed as accessories to the crime.

That's an interesting explanation. Even if you personally have no agency for a crime, the fact that you benefited from it makes you less "deserving".

I guess another example would be in environmentalism. It can reasonably be argued that the developed nations, until a few decades ago, had no way of knowing that their economics and lifestyle might seriously damage the Earth's life-support system (whether by pollution, depletion of nonrenewable resources, climate change, overharvesting of timber and fish, etc.) So they can't be "blamed" for those actions (until a few decades ago; there's no such excuse for continuing to increase consumption and waste in recent years). Nonetheless, the developed world indisputably benefited from those actions, and the developing world is justifiably resentful that they don't have the same opportunity to benefit.

Or how about slavery? I personally have never owned a slave, nor (to my knowledge) taken any action to support the institution of slavery. As far as I know, none of my ancestors ever owned a slave (some immigrated to North America too late, some to places where slavery wasn't practiced, and some were just too poor). Yet, by virtue of having light-colored skin and free European ancestry, I have certainly had an easier time in many aspects of life than if I had looked like someone with slave ancestry. Relative to a black-skinned person of the same age and innate abilities, I still benefit from the institution of slavery that ended officially a hundred years before I was born. How responsible am I for righting a wrong that I didn't cause, but did benefit from?


Did you see this, in the NYTimes Mag?

No, I hadn't; fascinating analysis! Thanks!
As far as I know, none of my ancestors ever owned a slave....

Ya never know--Kentucky was a border state, after all. Your paternal branch might have "benefited," at the least, from that Peculiar Institution....
True. To be more precise, none of the ancestors I know much about is likely to have owned a slave.