Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Principle of Heightened Responsibility

We often talk as if responsibility were a sort of general and ongoing thing, but in practice we recognize that special situations can call for special kinds of responsibility -- things that are serious become more serious, things that are morally necessary somehow become even more necessary. There are several things that can intensify our duties and obligations, but the overwhelming majority of cases fall under a single principle, which in practice tends to be the principle of heightened responsibility: Responsibilities and obligations are more serious, and our actions with regard to them must be held to higher standards, in cases involving relevantly vulnerable people. This principle is not a principle that defines any particular course of action; rather it changes the modality of obligations and responsibilities we already have. It is a form of the responsibility to be appropriately responsible. (In the history of ethics, there is not, as far as I can see, much extended discussion of these kinds of principles, although they keep popping up. Probably the most developed discussion is found in William Whewell, who discusses things like the Principle of Earnestness, which is a different principle, but one that also affects modality rather than content of duty. But even Whewell's discussions are at a very general level.)

The kind of relevant vulnerability varies depending on what we are talking about. Patients are relevantly vulnerable with respect to doctors, students with respect to teachers; family members, the disabled, the elderly, minorities, employees might all be relevantly vulnerable in different cases. In general there needs to be some specific reason provided why there should be heightened responsibility with regard to these people in these circumstances; if you are too promiscuous about what requires heightened responsibility, you are obviously not talking about heightened responsibility but just ordinary responsibility. There is one group, however, that has the status of having universally relevant vulnerability: children, or minors more broadly. Any situation involving minors creates heightened responsibilities. This does not, of course, mean that the responsibility is unrestricted (again, it doesn't actually change your duties, but only the way you should go about them) or that everyone must freak out all the time with children; it just means that, when minors are involved, you should not only try to do what is right but take special care to do it, hold yourself to special scrutiny in how you do it, and take special precautions when appropriate.

This is recognized by most decent people in most situations. It's why trying juveniles as adults is a matter for serious ethical argument. It's why, when minors become public figures for any reason people are rightly slapped down for not taking into account their age when responding to them. It's why people were reasonably upset to see children in caged areas in ICE stations. It's why "They're kids" can be the kernel of a genuine, even if not always definitive, moral argument. We recognize that ordinary obligations and duties require special attention when children are involved. The principle of heightened responsibility with regard to minors is a basic moral principle of all civilized and decent people.

This past weekend, of course, we were treated to the shameful sight of a vast number of adults not grasping their responsibilities when it comes to minors, and doing in so ways that, sometimes, were such that I would not hesitate to call them evil and wicked. It was indeed a serious reminder of just how evil ordinary people can be when they begin to mob. A Catholic school from Kentucky had sent a group of boys on a field trip to Washington, DC for the March for Life. A confrontation during the trip blew up to huge proportions when a video went viral and journalists reported on it; it spread through social media, to huge uproar. Students from that high school -- including some that had not gone on the trip -- were threatened; people in social media tried to doxx them; then it came out that maybe there was more to the matter than originally had been thought, leading eventually to a spate of apologies; and it still continues with people trying to justify themselves over the matter, so that, for instance, the school had to cancel classes today out of safety concerns. Now, whatever the political situation, in a civilized society, decent people do not go about trying to intimidate or punish anyone they choose; and when dealing with high school students, the principle of heightened responsibility applies to this. There was one tweet that I thought summarized the attitude of a lot of people involved; it said, and I quote, "We must condemn those actions as wrong so that they and others will learn to recognize them as such." This kind of reasoning is sociopathic. The 'we' that they assume to exist does not exist. Most people are not parents, school officials, the priest or bishop or even the chaperones. The appropriate response -- one might almost say the response that one would expect of any reasonable adult -- is to recognize that inquiries and punishments, if any, need to be done by the relevant authorities, and when dealing with high school students, 'relevant authorities' does not include random people surfing on the internet or reading news articles. In a serious case, you might inform the relevant authorities. And that's it. Nothing else is appropriate behavior. It does not matter how bad you consider it; you don't have the authority to stalk, harass, and bully people merely because you think what they did was bad. And whatever complications to this one supposes there to be in real life, when there are minors involved, heightened responsibility applies and you have to demand more of yourself in avoiding this sort of injustice.

But this is not the only failure. Both the school and the diocese failed to exercise their responsibilities properly to try to guarantee fair protections for the minors involved. Their statements in the first phase of the uproar are extraordinary examples of putting placating other people over other concerns. It's not that they didn't do something like their duty; their doing it was inadequate probably even in ordinary circumstances, but in this case, involving high school students they had a responsibility to protect from injustice, it was utterly inadequate, although, alas, not too far from what we've had to come to expect from schools and bishops.

The most serious failures, however, were in the press. Journalistic ethics is a remarkably well developed field of professional ethics. There are lots of excellent professional codes of journalistic ethics, and there has been a lot of honest and very intelligent discussion in the journalistic community about ethical issues arising in the field. And throughout even very different approaches to journalistic ethics, you find a number of recurring themes, of which three in particular are relevant here:

(1) Journalists, as such, have a special responsibility with regard to the truth, in the sense that they have the responsibility as journalists to make every reasonable effort to guarantee that those receiving the news are receiving everything they need in order to interpret and evaluate as part of trying to discover the real state of what happened.

(2) Journalists have a responsibility to the public good; the difference between journalism and gossip-mongering is that the former involves taking the trouble to consider what is genuinely appropriate to the public good, in ways that are genuinely appropriate to the public good.

(3) Closely related to (2), everyone has the the right not to be subject to unnecessary intrusion; when journalists publish matters potentially harmful to someone, it needs to be justifiable by some necessity created by (2). No journalist has the right to strip someone of their ordinary privacy protections and expose them unprotected to public view; the tabloid tendency to engage in unnecessary intrusion is precisely why they have a bad name.

Now, all of these should be operative all the time. There was a kerfuffle a while back in which CNN exposed the identity of the pseudonymous creator of a gif mocking CNN; that was a very grave violation of journalistic ethics. CNN had no right to the intrusion by any principle in any standard of ethics recognized by professional journalistic associations. The existence of tabloids shows that such principles are often violated; journalism is, for reasons that are not wholly the fault of journalists themselves, is subject to far more extensive ethical violations than many other professional fields. But they should be in play, and any respectable journalist will ensure that they are.

But it's clear that in this case all three ethical responsibilities were violated; and this is an especial problem here given the principle of heightened responsibility. In the middle phase of the controversy it became quite clear that journalists reporting on it had often failed to make a serious effort to gather and provide information that was available and relevant to evaluating what happened. Given that minors were involved and that this was a controversial matter, it was an especially grave form of negligence not to do things right and by-the-book from the very beginning. Second, many journalistic outlets published a particular photo showing one particular student's face very clearly. Now, in any situation involving something that can be regarded as negative, publishing a name or a photo of someone is an ethically serious matter. It's not just the person in the news who is affected by it; people are mistaken for other people all the time, and there have been many cases of people who were harmed because they happened to share a name with someone, or because they happened to look like someone, about whom something negative was reported in the press. In addition, journalism is not infallible; sometimes what appears bad turns out, with further information, not to be so. In many cases, of course, there is good reason why someone's name or photo can and should be provided; but not for private persons who could potentially be harmed by it when there is no clearly definable public-interest need for it. And all of this is vastly more serious when we are dealing with minors.

It should not have to be said, but, unfortunately, in this age of moral barbarism apparently does, that none of this is affected in any way by one's assessment of the original event. That you think a high school student did something bad does not make them cease being high school students, and it provides no license or pass for failing in your responsibility to take special care in doing right by them. And this is all a matter of basic ethics, not particularly controversial even between very different ethical schools of thought; recognizing that special care needs to be taken when minors are involved, regardless of the situation, is part of what it is to be civilized. I have unfortunately seen more and more cases of uncivilized behavior in this respect; but usually it's just someone exercising bad judgment here, not taking proper care there. The scale -- and in some cases the self-justifying obstinacy -- with which it was done in this case, though, has been mind-boggling.

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