Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Yes, but . . . " and "Yes, and . . . " Excuses and Prior Wrongs

Yes, but . . .

Person A is accused of a wrongdoing. In order to block the charge of wrongdoing, a person may offer an excuse – a statement that says that what appears wrong was justified based on additional facts.

For example, one man tackles and assaults another man on a public sidewalk. The accusation is, “You just assaulted that man.” A possible response from the assailant would be, “Yes, but the man I tackled was dragging a screaming and obviously resisting young girl into a van. I drew the conclusion that stopping him was more important than obeying the prohibition on assault.”

This is an excuse. It supports the conclusion that, given the facts of the matter, a good person (a person with good desires) would have done the same thing. A person with good desires would be concerned with the welfare of children – and he would have known that children being dragged into vans against their will often are facing a threat to their welfare. While this is not often the case - or even not usually the case - a concerned person would seek the opportunity to find out.

However, often when people respond to charges of wrongdoing with, “Yes, but . . . “ their response is flawed in some way. The assailant might say, “Yes, but he is black and a black person in this community is obviously up to no good.” Or he might say, “Yes, but he deserved it for driving one of those gas-guzzling SUVs that are contributing to global warming.” Neither of these responses actually justify the assault.

“Yes, but . . .” signals an attempt to offer an excuse. However, it often signals a rationalization for behavior that a good person would not engage in.

A person engages in insurance fraud – breaking some windows in his house and applying to the insurance company to replace them claiming “storm damage”. When it is pointed out that this is fraud, he answers, “Yes, but, the insurance company collects all this money from me every year. I just want some of it back.”

A drunk charged with drunk driving says, “Yes, but, I had a really bad day at the office. My boss yelled at me and my project is behind schedule. I just had to have a drink after work.”

Or a person who rapes a woman answers, “Yes, but, did you see how she was dressed? She was asking for it. Besides, women secretly like to be raped. They get all of the fun of sex without the responsibility or guilt.”

In many cases, these rationalizations are not only used as an attempt to shield a person from condemnation and punishment from others, but to satisfy the self-image of the person himself. People tend not to like to see themselves as bad people. When they do bad things, they often try to wrap their behavior in some sort of justification or rationalization. These "Yes, but . . . " claims serve that purpose, allowing the agent to convince himself (wrongly) that he is not such a bad person after all.

These illegitimate excuses or rationalizations deserve their own condemnation. A person who attempts to use them adds one wrong on top of another. In addition to the original wrong - the insurance fraud or the drunk driving or the rape, the agent now faces a charge of epistemic recklessness leading that endangers or actually harms others. People have many and strong reasons to reduce the incidents of this type of rationalization, so it too is something that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

Yes, and . . .

However, there is another response to an accusation of wrongdoing that looks very much like the "Yes, but . . ." response but which has a significant difference.

That response is, “Yes, and . . .”

Let us say that Person A performs a series of provocative actions – insulting Person B. Person B responds by violently assaulting Person A. Person B was wrong to do - at least in a civilized culture - where Person B instead must either accept certain provocations such as insults without violence, or summon the authorities of the provocations justify violence.

Person B might respond to the charge of assault by claiming, "Yes, but Person A performed these provocative actions." This would be an illegitimate excuse and can be offer the insult as a provocation for the violence. “Yes, but, he insulted me.” This would be an inappropriate insult and deserves to be condemned as such.

However, Person B may offer a different response - a response of “Yes, and . . . “ as in, “Yes, and he performed these provocative actions for which he also deserves condemnation."

A person offering a, "Yes, and . . . " response is not attempting to shield himself from blame. In fact, the "Yes, and . . . " response admits that the action was wrong and that condemnation is justified. It simply adds the fact that it was not the only wrong committed.

It is in this context that the cliche, "Two wrongs do not make a right," appears. A response of, "Yes, and . . . " admits that two wrongs do not make a right. However, at the same time, it insists on recognizing that there were, in fact, two wrongs - and not just one.

A person who commits a prior wrong may have a vested interested in using the second wrong as a red herring - a way of deflecting attention away from his prior wrongs by focusing attention on the wrongness of the response. In other words, the victim of the second wrong in such a case may have reason to misinterpret “Yes, and . . . “ as “Yes, but . . .” in order to fix attention on the second wrong, and deflect attention from the first wrong.

More specifically, Person A commits a wrong at Time 1. Then, Person B responds inappropriately at Time 2. Person B is charged with an inappropriate response and says, "Yes, and Person A committed a wrong at Time 1." Person A has an incentive to interpret this as a "Yes, but . . ." response and level additional accusations against Person 2. These inaccurate and unjust accusations not only warrant condemnation for being inaccurate and unjust - they also warrant condemnation as an attempt to shield wrongful behavior from scrutiny.

Police and prosecutors often have to deal with this distinction between "Yes, but . . . " and "Yes, and . . . " to the point that it is often second-nature to them. The police get called to a scene where Person A has assaulted Person B. They charge Person A with assault. Person A answers the charge with, “Yes, but, you should see what he spray-painted on the wall of my garage.” The police find a spray painted insult and evidence connecting Person B to the crime. Now, in addition to charging Person A with assault, they charge Person B with criminal trespass and vandalism. They have successfully translated, "Yes, but . . . " to "Yes, and . . . "

So, when a person responds to an accusation with, "Yes, but . . ." this is a signal that what follows is being offered as an excuse. To be a good excuse, it must actually justify the actions - demonstrate that they are the types of actions that a good person would have performed. Failure to offer a good excuse can be condemned as a second wrong - an attempt to rationalize away bad behavior. It is an attempt to convince others - and often to try to convince oneself - that one is a better person than one is in fact.

One of the common forms of excuse attempts to justify an action as a just response to a prior wrong. This excuse fails when the response is disproportionate to or not justified by the prior wrong. When it fails, the person attempting to use it deserves condemnation as specified above.

However, this form of the "Yes, but . . . " is close to the "Yes, and . . . " response - and this response deserves no condemnation. It is an admission of wrongdoing plus a report of the fact that a prior wrong was committed that deserves some sort of response as well. Where it is illegitimate to use the first wrong to justify the second, it is also illegitimate to attempt to use the second wrong to deflect all attention away from the first.

No comments: