Saturday, September 13, 2014

What is it Worth to You?

When I was first taking courses in Project Management, one of the classes I had signed up for was one on Ethics. After class one day, I asked the instructor: “Can you ever be considered really ethical if you’re not willing to risk your job, and maybe the rest of your working life?” What followed was an uncomfortable silence and an unspoken agreement. We both knew that the answer was, quite likely: “No.” But we also both knew that it was, quite likely, an untenable trade-off.
I was reminded of my earlier post while reading “Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness” at The Atlantic. When I wrote it, I was commenting on the fact that accountability has costs for the person(s) who enforce it, and not just the person being held accountable. At the time, I noted that this created a rational incentive for us to avoid holding people accountable. When the costs of holding someone accountable for what we have defined as wrongdoing are greater than the cost of not doing so, it may simply be worthwhile to look the other way.

But in reading the Atlantic article, I realized that I'd left out a facet, one that I'd touched on in the excerpt that I quoted above. Courage.
Geneva’s father demanded that she change her speech for the second round, offering less detail, and less of her personal experience, because people would be jumping to conclusions, wondering who she meant when she said “it’s happening in his house, in her house, even in your own bed.” He feared her words could implicate him.
“Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness”
This is not the only instance of a lack of “courage” in the article, but it was perhaps the first, and one that really stood out for me. As a species, we are not courageous unto death. If we were, there would likely be none of us left. And we understand that, and so we do not often demand it. But where before that is the line drawn? And is there even a line? If I make an ethical choice that turns out to result in perpetual unemployability, then what do I do? How do I support myself? If someone takes me in and gives me food, shelter and clothing, it is wise to bring my ethics with me?
For that reason, family members often blame the victims, or the friends of victims, who attempt to report a crime, out of fear of losing material support, or a vital link in a precarious web of familial structure.
In the end, whether it is rape, murder or simple theft, all crime culture stems from the want of a certain level of courage. The perpetrator lacks the courage to ask permission or do without, and the rest of us lack the courage to suffer the consequences of enforcing our own rules. It’s easy to become outraged when the consequences strike us as trivial. Watching football is enjoyable, certainly, but not so much so that we should condone domestic violence simply to watch one more faceless bruiser suit up. But what should we expect of people? Loss of their livelihoods? Their homes? Their families?

There is more to courage than simply someone else standing up to things that we cast ourselves of unafraid of or have some confidence that we can overcome. In the end, courage requires a level of detachment from life that allows us to walk away from everything, even life itself, in the name of doing what we understand to be right, even if nothing comes of it but loss on our part. A friend of mine once remarked to me that “If you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to bring about what you believe in, I question your commitment to it.” By that standard, I am uncommitted, because I don’t know that I am ready to be destitute, utterly alone and/or dead in the name of enforcing my primary ethical conviction - that the costs of an action belong to the actor. As such, I am inclined to forgive Geneva’s father. He may be willing to have the message watered down and, in doing so, perhaps see others suffer sexual assault rather than be thought of as a sex offender himself, but his tolerance for risk is his own, and not subject to my approval.

There is a reason why our tolerance for risk is not infinite, regardless of what one thinks of its origins and utility. And, as our courage can never be absolute, despite the stories we tell ourselves, our ethics can never be so, either. And so, ethics become like everything else - worth only what we are willing to pay for them.

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