April 18, 2006

The Crucible…..review

Went to see Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" loosely based on the Salem wiitch trials. Im too lazy to summarise the plot suffiice to say that some hysterical girls get caught dancing at night and making incantations a few take ill and they blame the older women on the village and a witch hunt ensues. In the course of this an ex servant who was dismissed by the protagonists wife for having an affair with him gets set up and to save his wife the protagonist lies and says he is in league wiith the devil. At the end he is given the choice to confess and give his signature in a testimony to avoid hanging with the view of pinning up this confession in public. He refuses ending with the line you and God both heard my confession but I wiill not give away my name

OK a few interesting issues

1. The fragility of the system of trust and the limits of our claim to knowledge

Now we are to a large part motivated by personal interest especially when it concerns life or death issues and if telling a lie saves our life we will invariably do it. To try and mitigate this motive law generally is more lenient on those who confess as opposed to those who are found guilty. We also have laws against perjury or perverting the court of justiice and require witnesses to swear they are telling the truth etc.

You see things like keeping promises and telling the truth are essential in cooperative society as we need to trust others or else we end up in a situatiion where everyone is paranoid and unable to enter any agreements or transactions with others for fear of being screwed and are always looking both ways for fear of being knifed in the back. We also believe in justice and fair play.

Now with the witchhunts we get an extra ingredient to fuel the fire….the unknown. Knowledge is gained mostly through experience and partly through the use of logic. But there are very few axiomatic truths and a lot of things are impossible to prove absolutely. Say we say all swans are white. Now however many white swans we see, we cannot say categorically that all swans are white as we only need to see one black swan to refute this notion. Also some issues like the existence of God or for that matter the existence of the devil or withcraft or the supernatural are unprobable. We can say that there are no sightings of any of these but this does not mean they cannot exist. They are mostly a matter of blind faith and used to explain the unexplainable.

As was pointed out by the judge in the play the work of the devil is observed only by the victims or those in league with them. Now those in league with the devil are obv gonna lie so we have to rely on the testimonies of the victims unless they can be proved to be false.

This provides a fertile breeding ground for lies to propogate aided by the self-preservation motive which leads the accused to confess even if innocent and to shift blame to another. Little wonder things like witch hunts, show trials can occur amongst seemingly rational human beings. And this isn't just a remnant of the past. The McCarthy witchhunt happened as recently as the 1950s. Nowadays the equivalent is rape….a girl can accuse a guy of rape and lacking genetic evidence or witnesses it is a v difficult situation as the only people often who really know the truth are the accusor and the accused both of whom have incentive to lie. Similarly if a man confesses he gets off pretty lightly while if a court wrongly convicts him he can get screwed.

What can we do in a world where the only motive we have to play fair and tell the truth is a sense of conscience (which in most people is fickle and in self preservation or the motive of personal gain can take the backseat)? We are taught that telling the truth and keeping promises are good as they lead to benefits in the long run via faciliating cooperation etc. We also try and incentivise truth tellings….economics geeks can look at revelation-mechanisms and notions of punishment in repeated game theory. Religion tries to get people to play fair by the stick and carrot mechanism of hell and heaven. Sen (an Economist) looks to a notion of commitment whereby people do things even though they are not in their self interest because it is the right thing to do. Christian moral philosophy looks to the conscience and the idea of an internal judge which evaluates our actions and guides us.

But none of these are a cure all. In the end we should do the right thing no matter what using the best of our rationality to determine what the right thing to do is and do it regardless of the consequences. We may get hurt or even die but we can rest safe in the knowledge we have lived an honourable life and despite our mistakes our motives have been pure.

Not for the recognition of others as reputation is often artifiicial and very few people are in a position to form a balanced opinion of you and a good reputation can be earned through deceit, lies, and having Alastair Campbell on your paybook. But integrity and being able to look at your face in the mirror is what matters.

Now onto the thorny philosophical issue of what is the right thing to do. We can fudge this by acknowledging the existence of an innate conscience either God-giiven or part of the make up of man. But if we refuse to accept these things then we are forced to accept that conscience is a product of society and our upbringings. Again this is something hard to prove or disprove…as motives are multifaceted and often conflicting. When we decide not to steal it is in part because we fear legal punishment, or because we acknowledge that if everyone stole then shopowners would stop selling things and we would no longer be able to buy bread and be forced to grow our own food (while guarding our crops night and day for fear of theft). Or maybe it is because we are brainwashed into believing it is wrong to steal.

And if conscience and a code of ethics etc justiice etc are socially constructed then we can argue that they have been adopted and propogated because in the long run we believe universal or near universal adoption of these principles would mutually benefit the majority of society.

Anyway for the most part we have a decent idea of what is right or wrong and basically to have integrity we have to do what we know to be right whatever the circumstances. Occasionally we will have ethical dilemnas and then we can appeal to reason and try and detach ourselves from the situatiion and ask what we would advise someone to do in the same circumstances.

Occasionally we will get screwed from doing the right thing but that is life and I truly believe in the long run we will prosper from unwaveringly doing what we know to be right. For compensation and reward for our right actions does not only happen in the afterlife but within our lifetime we will surely be rewarded for maintaining our integrity.

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