The past few weeks have brought us an onslaught of American tragedies receiving heavy news attention. From the murder of Christina Grimmie, followed closely by the murder of 49 people in Orlando, there’s been little reason for hopefulness about where our country is headed. However, the two men who committed those crimes are both dead, so most of the talk surrounding these events has been mourning the deaths of the victims.
That said, it’s been a much different story with another recent headline-making crime. I’m referring to Brock Turner, whose court case for rape caused nationwide outrage over how easily the offender got off. Before I say anything else on this issue, I’ll quickly get three things straight:
1. I agree with the outrage over his unsettlingly slight sentence.
2. I am not defending Turner or his actions.
3. I am not saying no one has been showing care or compassion for Turner’s victim.
There’s something equally ironic and encouraging about the public outcry following Turner’s sentence, a mere six months in jail. As a whole, our country doesn’t normally seem so emotionally or socially invested in crimes receiving fair punishment. For example, here’s a recent news story that received far less coverage: Rod Matthews has earned a second chance. This April 29th opinion piece from the Boston Globe details multiple attempts to allow parole for Matthews, who was convicted at age 14 for brutally beating a schoolmate with a baseball bat, leaving him to die in the snow where he wasn’t found for three weeks, and threatening to kill friends who knew about what had taken place. Or take a look at this article from Newsweek: Neuroscience is Changing the Debate Over What Role Age Should Play in the Courts. That’s another recent story about the supposed inability to hold 18-year-olds, or even 24-year-olds, liable for their crimes because some psychologists and neuroscientists argue (based here on only one study) that the human psyche has not yet developed control over moral and emotional decision-making.
This tipping scale is the result of a culture that’s becoming increasingly relative on issues of morality. If moral liability and moral discipline exist on a sliding scale, dependent on the times or the circumstances, then all crimes and moral evils are in danger of losing their edge, becoming socially acceptable, and deemed worthy of lesser and lesser punishments. Consider this Independent article where a female friend of Turner argues that he isn’t a “rapist” because he was a typical rapist figure and because his crime wasn’t premeditated. According to her logic, killing someone due to drunkenness or “party culture” wouldn’t make someone a murderer.
Most justice systems throughout history have been predicated on giving punishments equal to the crime. That’s where the idea of the death penalty stems from (which is now banned in 19 U.S. states): if the punishment should equal the crime, then someone who takes a life should give a life. Even though 19 states officially disagree that the death penalty is humane (and I personally don’t have a hard stance on it), I’m also not seeing anyone expressing remorse that Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, was shot and killed by the police in the midst of his attack.
That’s where it all falls apart, isn’t it? Only within a culture of moral relativism could the thought of 18-year-olds not being responsible for their crimes even be feasible. Yet for the people agreeing with such propositions in theory, the story changes when we’re dealing with real life circumstances–actual people and victims.
Imagine you’re sitting inside a boat, looking out the window as the waves gently rock you back and forth. Outside the window, there’s another boat, one that’s moving in perfect alignment with your boat. As unlikely as it seems, the boat looks perfectly still from your vantage point. For all you know, the two boats could still be tied up next to each other on the dock. You could also be miles and miles away from shore, with the boat outside your window impeding your vision to see how far you’ve moved. The boat’s functioning as a relative position marker. Your position in relation to the boat should tell you nothing about your own movement. What you need is a fixed object, like the dock itself. By staring outside your window at the dock, you’d be able to tell just how far you’re moving.
That’s the other issue with relative morality: it’s based around comparative ideas of “better” and “worse,” determined by comparing relative moral judgments to other relative judgments. This brings us back to Brock Turner. As the internet community bubbled to the surface with tweets and statuses declaring Turner a “bad” man who deserved greater punishment, something sinister was happening beneath it all: many people voicing opinions on the issue were speaking with the underlying sentiment, “He’s worse than me.”
You see, in a relative society where definitions of “good” and “bad” are often disagreed upon, (if not denied their existences entirely), the best thing we can do to ensure we are good people is to point at someone else and say, “He’s definitely worse than I am.” Perhaps I should accentuate that differently: He is definitely worse than I am.
This does us no good. Comparative morality causes us to define other people by their flaws while we ignore our own. Anyone wanting to commit rape can look at Turner and say, “He’s worse, he actually did it.” Any murderer can look at Omar Mateen and feel better about themselves and their own crimes: “At least I’m not that guy.”
What we need is a dock: a fixed object that we can look at to say “this” is right and “that” is wrong. Without a dock, we’ll never know just how far we’ve gone or how wrong we are. If law-and-order is a boat instead of a dock, following culture out to sea, our culture will strip laws down to meaninglessness, destroying the purpose of law-and-order: to keep society grounded. And trust me, if culture and the legal system are both out in the ocean, there will come a day when those two boats crash into each other.