On doing bad things, being a bad person, making a living, and having a voice

The torture report hit the streets today, and John Yoo is teaching in my university, with a named chair.  I have a real problem that we are putting him in front of a classroom, especially a law classroom, no matter whether the course is international criminal law, constitutional law, or even civil procedure. That the law school permanently displays four canvases from the Botero Abu Ghraib series doesn’t make it OK, it just puts in doubt the efficacy of art as moral improvement.

I could be wrong, or inconsistent, about this. In the last three weeks, I’ve assigned my students leadership “cases” by Richard Wagner (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and T.S. Eliot (Murder in the Cathedral).  I make a point of recognizing that these authors are a pair of notorious anti-Semites and misogynists, that Wagner was adopted as a Nazi poster boy, and make sure they attend to Sachs’ nasty little xenophobic speech at the end of the opera. I also point out that while this is a fairly long assignment, as a freebie they get to spend time with some of the most glorious music of the 19th century and poetry of the 20th.

This morning we learned that MIT has taken down Walter Lewin’s online physics lectures, because he sexually harassed one or more students taking an MITx  course that he is no longer offering.  There’s no suggestion that the lectures contained sexist physics, whatever that would be, or sexist anything else. Over the last few weeks, Bill Cosby has had what appear to be all his gigs pulled, including reruns of a TV show more than 40 years old that no-one ever complained about, because of offstage behavior that is invisible in his paid work. The football news is all about whether players whose on-field performance is completely unsexist  and sober should lose employment because they hit their lady friends or drive drunk.  I’m writing this on a computer made possible by the invention of William Shockley, who was just awful both personally and politically, but his transistor works fine both for harmless bloggers and ISIS recruiters. My college organic chemistry professor invented napalm that helped win World War II, and did so with that end in mind, but he took a lot of heat when it was used in Vietnam.

Two issues are on my mind.  The first is the continuum (if it is one) from

I. being an evil person in general, both personally and in one’s work, through
II. being a bad person who did some or a lot of good work, and
IIIa. being a person of average morality and conduct who did one or a few bad things, on the job, to
IIIb. being a person of average morality and conduct who did one or a few bad things in private life.

Anyone who has taken the implicit associations survey on line has to be careful about mixing up II with III. If the operational definition of “being a racist or a sexist” (traits) is having blurted out something racist or sexist , the categories thus defined are vacuous because they embrace everyone, and it’s a counsel of despair because it excludes learning.  We don’t take away licenses for a single speeding ticket, and shouldn’t.  I think, in general, well-meaning people are too quick with atom-bomb sanctions, hating the sinner instead of the sin, for III.  Fear of having my career wrecked for a careless moment in class may raise my expected cost of saying the wrong thing very high, but (i) I don’t have careless moments because of computational errors (ii) hanging pickpockets in public didn’t prevent pockets being picked at the hangings (iii) if the only place to dance is the edge of a cliff, I’m going to just sit down. Making people afraid usually makes their behavior worse, not better.

Category I is pretty simple; despicable people who do and say hateful things might be studied in a social pathology lab or as cautionary examples, but we shouldn’t learn from them in the usual way, or hire them.  So my second issue is with category II.

The easiest case would seem to be scientists; there’s simply no way not to use a finding once it’s revealed, so we have to stand on the shoulders of the occasional moral midget like Shockley and act out despising him on another stage.  For all I know, Thomas Bayes was someone whose hand I wouldn’t shake, but I can’t boycott a theorem and the result is itself completely amoral.  It’s a little harder for a teacher, but if there’s good physics learning on tap in Lewin’s online content, and even if there’s a sexist joke in them somewhere (that could be edited out or annotated), I think MIT made the wrong move here.

One of Nathan Pusey’s good moments was his defense of a Harvard physicist from the McCarthite hyaenas on grounds that he wasn’t teaching subversive science and his personal politics were irrelevant to his job.  Maybe they can take away Lewin’s emeritus office, or make him feel unwelcome in the senior common room (depending on how the case II/case III analysis comes out).  No-one at MIT would think about rewinding all their electronics courses to pre-transistor days.

Charles Murray presents himself as a scientist, but social science is a lot mooshier than physics and it’s reasonable to look at (for example) racist-comforting findings with an eye to biases the author may have revealed in private or other professional life.  We have to be careful, of course, not to ignore real facts merely because we don’t like them, or we are as bad as the climate-denier fossil fuel shills.

Entertainers and artists are the hard cases, because the whole personality of the artist is part of the work (not all of it). Football players are explicitly marketed as role models, and the game as building and expressing admirable character traits.  I have no problem with people who simply can’t listen to Wagner’s music because they can’t get their associations with him out of their mind; no-one has a right to an audience. While Meistersinger is overall a profoundly humane work with many priceless political and artistic insights (Parsifal, not so much) , it has some really icky moments. The whole plot, after all, is set in motion when Pogner puts his daughter up as a prize in a singing contest to prove how cultured he and his friends are.

Even in the arts, though, it’s asking a lot to boycott Wagner, or Cosby, because their creative work is so much bigger than their personal oeuvre: every composer of the twentieth century and every comedian of the last four decades is channelling them, respectively, so good luck with censoring them out of your life. Wagner was a jerk, but he was also a genius.  These cases are not that different from the scientists’.

Malefactors in category II deserve some sort of sanction, including not having them to dinner, publicly deploring their behavior, and for the worst cases like Ezra Pound’s treasonous collaboration or beating your child, jail time.  But if the bad behavior isn’t part of their work, I’m thinking a line should be drawn.  If you think no-one will watch Cosby now, of course you take him off the air; if the football player’s endorsements are tied to his personal character, take him out of your ads.  If the prof is hitting on students or humiliating them in class or not giving women author credit or teaching evil stuff, he should be fired (yes, even tenured faculty can be fired).  But if he’s going to KKK meetings on the weekend and not bringing it to work, I think he keeps his job if not his friends.

On the consumer end, I think being your best self means trying to draw that line even against your first instinct, and attend to the work on its own terms, while making appropriate judgments on the character of the author. What my students appear to be willing to do.

Oh yeah, John Yoo: he got his job with a resume that notably included professional behavior as a lawyer that makes him, in my eyes, a war criminal.  It’s a law school. If he can’t be fired, I think he gets a terminal assignment with no duties, no authority, and no interaction with students or colleagues, looking out his window alone at a tree with a squirrel in it. We’ve paid lots of severance pay to people whose only offense was losing football games.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

28 thoughts on “On doing bad things, being a bad person, making a living, and having a voice”

  1. My dissertation advisor, a very nice woman, spent the war years at Peenemünde and developed the guidance system that was used for controlling the flight of the V1 "buzz bombs". Sounds horrible, doesn't it? My first job out of graduate school, which lasted only three months before I moved on, was working on the development of guidance systems for ICBMs.

  2. "But if he’s going to KKK meetings on the weekend and not bringing it to work, I think he keeps his job if not his friends."

    Really? I don't think that level of racism can be hermetically sealed off from one's work life. That level of hate just doesn't stay contained. It's got to seep out somehow. Certainly, if his going to these meetings is public knowledge, there is no keeping them separate. It really is not reasonable to expect people of color to work along side known members of the KKK. I'm generally for protecting workers from termination due to behavior outside of work, but I think we can put "actively participates in a hate group" in the 'Fire him" column without worrying about slippery slopes leading to people getting fired for garden variety bad behavior in their private lives.

    1. I have to disagree with you here. We hit a very slippery slope when we start regulating faculty speech. For example, substitute a Jewish professor who is openly supportive of Israel and identifies himself as a Zionist. Some people believe that Zionism is racist. Should he be fired? How about the Muslim professor who openly supports the Palestinians? Or how about a professor of religion who has written in support of creationism?

      These gray areas are where ethics get really interesting. In the Talmud, the sages don’t talk about slippery slopes, they talk about building a fence around the law. So, we have at least two laws here. First, every student should be treated with dignity and respect. Second, faculty should be able to speak freely and hold their own opinions.

      I think Michael is right here. We build the fence at what happens in class. Professors have the right to say provocative things, but they have the obligation to treat all students equally. If they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be teaching.

      1. This is not just about faculty (football players and entertainers are also mentioned). What about a police officer (which, with all the protests lately, is the first thing I thought of)? It depends on the job and the employer. I agree that faculty should have particularly robust free speech protections. The fact of the matter is, they can generally do very little harm and students who object to their positions can usually avoid taking their classes easily enough. On the other end of the spectrum, employees of religious institutions not receiving government funding can be discriminated against in hiring and firing in ways that are generally illegal, and a church could fire both your hypothetical Zionist and Palestinian supporter with impunity. I'd be concerned about separation of church and state if we did it any other way. Protections for police officers should lie somewhere in between.

        One rather vague line drawn in the law is whether a pattern of speech and behavior creates a hostile work environment. Whether general knowledge of a teacher's participation in a hate group is something that rises to the level of creating a hostile work environment, or contributes to a hostile work environment is debatable, but I think there is a strong case to be made. On the other hand, I would not want police officers who participated in a hate group (even just attending meetings) to be able to keep their jobs.

  3. I think a terminal assignment for John Yoo makes sense. I would only hope he looks out a window with a tree frequented by a screeching bluejay, or maybe a skunk, rather than a squirrel. He should also be shunned by campus colleagues.

  4. This was a thoughtful essay Michael, thank you for writing it.

    On this "Entertainers and artists are the hard cases, because the whole personality of the artist is part of the work (not all of it)." that is true of today's celebritized artists, but not of most historical ones. I remember when the Mia Farrow-Woody Allen divorce and his marriage to his adopted daughter occurred, some people said they would never watch his films because of his immorality. I told a number of them never to look at a Caravaggio because he murdered a man in a bar fights. Lots of other famous painters have sucked up to despots in exchange for commissions. Once you start throwing stones, it's actually pretty hard to find much art to enjoy because artists are human and humans do bad things.

    1. Bernini was of similar character. Discovering his mistress had cheated on him with his brother Luigi, Bernini (according to James Fenton):

      chased his little brother to their work place at St. Peter’s, and went at him with a crowbar, breaking a couple of his ribs. Then he pursued him home, sword in hand. [….] While all this was going on, Bernini had sent a servant to the house of his mistress, the beautiful Costanza Bonarelli, with instructions to disfigure her. The servant found Costanza in bed and slashed her with a razor. Bernini, who had painted a double portrait of himself and his mistress, went home and cut her face out of the painting.

      The trouble for our censorious judgement here is that this out-of-control sexuality is also what makes Bernini's sublime, though not sublimated, Ecstasy of St Teresa so gripping.

      1. Besides being against unnecessary violence, my main beef with this would have to be the issue of proof. I haven't read that book, but it seems unfair to condemn people without giving them a hearing. One of the many reasons not to engage in vigilantism is the difficulty of even being sure you've got the right person. Emotional involvement clouds our judgment. Plus, in my book, it is much worse to engage in paid violence, so the servant goes even lower on the list.

        If someone ever murders me, it *better be* because I *actually* did something bad to them. None of these insurance schemes.

    2. What about philosophers? Does Martin Heidegger's ties to National Socialism vitiate his philosophy, assuming that philosophy is a guide to living?

  5. We want to get rid of the High Romantic myth that genius excuses, and is even enabled by, personal depravity. My impression is that talent and virtue are completely uncorrelated. Some additions to Mike's list – leaving out the morally average like Mozart and Eliot:
    A: Horrible people of genius:
    Alexis Carrel (consultant to Vichy on race laws and euthanasia, discoverer of the major histocompatibility complex which allowed transplants)
    Francis Bacon (inventor of the scientific method, torturer)
    Thomas Jefferson
    B: Good people of genius:
    Anton Chekhov (died caring for plague victims, even his ex-mistresses still admired him)
    Josef Haydn
    Charles Darwin
    Abraham Lincoln (?)
    William the Silent.
    There must be many more of both.

    1. I rather wonder if TJ wasn't just personally morally average for his time? Or, since he was a genius and should have known better, we judge him more harshly? Not that "thousands of other people did it too" is an excuse, of course, but … where do you get the "horrible?" Otoh … I guess I hope that someday, things will improve socially to the point that our descendants will call us "horrible" for letting people be homeless. It could happen!

      Also, what about an "inevitable discovery" variable. If a discovery is something that someone else would have found out eventually, then should that person still get full credit?

      1. It's a straightforward comparison with George Washington, another Virginia slaveowner who freed his slaves in his will. Jefferson couldn't because he had borrowed heavily against his slaves as security. Freeing his own children by Sally Hemings is not much of an exculpation. The other charge is hypocrisy on a heroic scale.

    2. Good people of genius:
      Albert Schweizer
      Florence Nightingale

      I'm at a loss for horrible people of genius. Nobel might nominate himself, but I wouldn't. In the first place, dynamite isn't much of a military weapon itself. In the second place, high energy nitrates were around before Nobel and if he hadn't hit on stabilizing nitroglycerine with diatomaceous earth someone else would have found it or another stabilizer. I don't see behaving badly in private life as rising to this level, so Einstein and Beethoven are out, too.

      1. Nightingale, yes. Not sure if Schweitzer makes the cut on the genius aspect.

        Politics and warfare are rich ores for horrible genius. Julius Caesar, Chin Shi Huang Ti, Genghis Khan, Timur the Lame, Chaka, Pizarro? Horrible enough, but perhaps he was lucky rather than talented: reckless bravery usually fails, but occasionally pays off hugely.

  6. First dealt with this issue on my 18th birthday after watching a TV movie — QB VII (Anthony Hopkins American debut!).
    What hasn't been addressed here yet is repentance: how much, if any, difference does it make if our evildoer admits his sins and attempts to make amends?

    1. Admits sins? Attempts to make amends?

      John Yoo?

      (Yes, I understand your point, and it's an important one. I just had to chuckle at the juxtaposition of those phrases in the current context.)

    2. First, show me an evildoer who admits his sins.
      All the people involved in the Bush Torture program are CERTAIN they did the right thing.

      1. Hey, c'mon guys; forget about the Yoo particulars for a sec — think of this as part of O'Hare's continuum. I think it makes a difference (on the rare occasions it occurs). We just have to make sure that it doesn't turn, in less enlightened times, into cultural revolution-style self criticism.

  7. If we have an interest in how scientists, engineers, artists, lawyers and so forth behave in the future, we should be willing tolerate some potential losses and inefficiencies. If for no other reason than because Dunning-Kruger. Everybody thinks they're doing — or going to do — great and important work, and if it's standard practice that their work will be widely cited and remembered through years to come regardless of their personal behavior, that will encourage some traits that really ought to be discouraged. If I remember correctly, after WWII some disciplines did indeed impose a citation ban on human-subject work done by Nazi researchers, on the grounds that the loss of those results to science was a small price to pay for the delegitimization of experiments on unwilling subjects.

    It's also the case that — both in academic fields and in art — it's rare for someone's work to be entirely insulated from their personal qualities.

    Where you go with those points I'm not sure.

  8. You took Chem 20 with Fieser? So did I. A charming windbag, well past the age when he should have been introducing students to modern organic chemistry.

  9. Are you sure Yoo didn't already have the tenure before he did the really outrageous writing? I seem to recall he did. Because I don't see him getting it at Cal afterward.

    For me, I think it would be fine if the bar kicked him out … if he is even in one now? … but formally, it seems to me, any whackjob can be a professor. (I haven't read the memos yet. Maybe someday. The problem is, the law has a lot more wiggle room in it that people think.)

  10. Okay, I know I'm talking a lot today, sorry. But what I think we might profitably consider is our human tendency to not confront the evils committed by the prominent. This is a bad primate habit we've retained, and we should think about getting rid of it.

    Cosby, if confronted and prosecuted years ago, could still have practiced his genius. Sure, he would have made less money, but maybe he'd have learned and grown, and who knows, been even funnier (there being a relation between humor and pain?) What was really gained by looking the other way? (And I haven't been following this closely … but when the number of accusers gets that high, there could be something to it. Not proof I know.)

    1. I know that the charges against Cosby have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. But, wow, the testimony of at least twenty-one women* does not constitute proof of any sort in your mind? Thankfully two men can now corroborate some of the stories.**

      *with the potential to rise to thirty-three, see http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/….
      ** One appears here: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/b
      The other appeared on Melissa Harris Perry's show this past weekend.

  11. Me again.

    Just here to note … the kusc site informs me that the Met is broadcasting "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" at some point this … Saturday I think . It says 9 am, which I hope is PST, but if you really care, better doublecheck.

  12. One of my favorite doers of great good and great harm is Fritz Haber, whose synthesis of ammonia is probably responsible for saving more lives than any other single person's life work. He's also remembered as the father of chemical warfare.

    1. never mind chemical warfare, plain old explosives/artillery warfare. Most explosives are nitrates. Nobel felt guilty about dynamite but its uses have been almost completely peaceable.

    2. I didn't put Haber in my list because SFIK he was quite ordinary as a person. Distinguish Carrel, whose high-level lobbying for racist policies was not closely related to his research – the case is closer to Shockley, but far worse. In the end Vichy did not go as far as the hardline French anti-Semites wanted, and Laval refused to deport the French Jews. (The foreign ones were packed off to Auschwitz.) But Vichy's mass murder of the mentally handicapped by starvation was carried out, without pressure from Germany.

Comments are closed.