(featured image: Isriya Paireepairit CC BY)
Rules and laws matter, and they often matter even more when we don’t like them – because they protect the needs of the many against attacks by the powerful few
The works of William Shakespeare are often quoted to illustrate the rich and complex nature of human life. Moral dilemmas and judgements are central to many of the bard’s plays, and he has been called one of the first and greatest psychologists. But good more modern drama, too, goes to the heart of humanity in depicting the choices its protagonists face.
A personal favourite of your correspondent is Star Trek, the science fiction show in which Spock, the science officer on the starship Enterprise, is perhaps the most rewarding character when it comes to describing decision-making. He has a human mother and a Vulcan father, which gives him both the emotional characteristics we humans are familiar with, and the Vulcans’ aspiration to live by logic and reason, with as little interference by emotion as possible.
The laws of logic
At the end of the 1982 Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise and its crew are about to be obliterated, as the damaged propulsion mechanism prevents it from escaping disaster. Spock enters the highly radio-active engine room to carry out repairs. The ship can get away, but Spock succumbs to radiation poisoning. In his final moments, he refers to something he had said at the beginning of the movie: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” to which his superior, Kirk, had added “…or the one.”
Now weakening rapidly, Spock struggles to finish the sentence: “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many…”, and Kirk continues, “…outweigh the needs of the few.” Spock replies, “Or the one.”
For Vulcans, logic is much like the law and religious or moral guidelines are for humans. They codify how we ought to act in the interest of the whole group. When we are confronted with dilemmas with a choice between our narrow self-interest and the greater good, and tempted to go for the former, they tell us the right thing to do.
More than 35 years after the Star Trek movie, a Norwegian crime series currently on British TV describes how the central character, detective William Wisting is accused of tampering with evidence seventeen years ago, supposedly to secure the conviction of a person whom he was convinced was guilty of murder. In Norway, like in many other countries, such tampering by the police is illegal – of course, most of us would no doubt say. Just obey the law already.
Earlier on in the series, in a joint operation to capture a serial killer, Wisting has an argument with an FBI colleague about covertly recording witnesses: “We don’t spy on random citizens.” Undeterred, special agent Maggie Griffin persuades one of the junior Norwegian officers to wear a secret camera, but a little later Wisting catches her watching the images and orders the officer to remove the camera. “Most people here trust the police. I find that valuable,” he says, to which Griffin replies, “That sounds cosy. Where I come from people prefer to be safe.”
The situation pitches the long-term relationship between the police and the general public against doing what is necessary (possibly even essential) to apprehend the killer. Should the rules prevail, or does the end justify them being bent somewhat? This is ingeniously inserted by the makers a few episodes before Wisting is accused of interfering with the evidence. Could he have bent the rules himself back then in the interest of nailing a murderer?
As a police officer, it is your duty to ensure perpetrators are caught and made to face justice. But it is also your duty to work within the law, and to ensure that you honour and sustain the enduring trust of the public at large in the police force. Without laws and rules, the trade-offs that police officers make in the field would, in all likelihood, not be the same.
Such a choice is often deeply personal, and not just in crime fiction.
On 18 January, an item on the BBC Radio 4 morning current affairs show, Today, provided a remarkable illustration. Justin Webb interviewed Alan Dershowitz, one of the latest recruits to President Trump’s defence team in the impeachment case. (You can listen to it until 20 February 2020 – skip to 1:15:30).
Defence lawyers, especially in egregious cases, are often viewed with a mix of suspicion and disdain – how can they possibly take the side of the accused? Dershowitz is no stranger to this controversy, having represented notorious celebrities like OJ Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein. But in this political case, there is something even more peculiar about the situation: Alan Dershowitz is widely known as a liberal (in the US sense of the word) Democrat (in the political party sense) – a clear opponent of Trump.
In the interview, Dershowitz (a scholar of US constitutional law according to Wikipedia) declared that his motive is that the constitution is being abused. Impeachment is an extreme measure that should not be called upon for partisan political purposes. His worry is that removing a president for obstructing congress will set a dangerous precedent.
He does not deny that the president did indeed perpetrate much of what he is accused of, but argues that, even if he is actually guilty of everything he is charged with, none of it amounts to an impeachable offence (treason, bribery or high crime or misdemeanour). Dershowitz’s belief is that if the argument is “made by a Democrat and a liberal that this impeachment should not go forward, it will be good for the country”. From this viewpoint, he does not so much take the side of Trump against the Democrats, as the side of the constitution against partisanship.
Would he, as a liberal, be proud of helping keep Donald Trump in office and enabling him to seek re-election, the interviewer wanted to know. Dershowitz’s reply: “That is a different issue… […] It creates ambivalence in me, as it does whenever I represent someone whose acquittal would produce results that would make me unhappy as an individual; but I would never ever allow my partisan views to impact my views on the constitution. […] and on what I think is best for the long term survival of the constitution, rather than the short term partisan advantage of getting my person elected to be president.”
Cynics may question Dershowitz’s sincerity – there may be other, self-serving motives for him to join Trump’s legal team. Despite his age (he is 81) it is possible that the money and the spotlights still have appeal for him, and it is possible that he is willing to sell out his ideological aims for a bit more fame and fortune. This is hard both to prove and to disprove. But does it really matter?
Just like in the Norwegian thriller and in Star Trek, we see the good of the few pitched against the good of the many. We see a choice between adhering to a rule – the constitution – that is serving the latter, and breaking or bending that rule for self-serving reasons. Whether or not Dershowitz is motivated by, as he claims, the desire to uphold and safeguard the constitution, or something else, he illustrates how it is necessary to uphold and safeguard the rule of law over the long term, even if it leads to an undesired outcome in the short term.
That political sacrifice may not be on the same scale as that of the fictional Spock, who gave his life to save his fellow starship crew members, but it is still significant.
Then again, we should, as humans, reserve the right to challenge these human-made rules (and take responsibility for doing so). In the sequel to the Star Trek movie, The Search for Spock, the crew takes many risks to find Spock (who turns out not to be quite dead). When a recovering Spock is puzzled why his mates came back for him, Kirk answers, “because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.” Or perhaps the friendship of the one outweighs the self-interest of the many…