Compassion for Winning

After watching Black Mirror, a TV miniseries about the dark intersection of life and technology, but also about art and politics, my housemates and I wound up in a hearty debate about capital punishment, compassion, morality and justice.

In the third episode (where the series strays from its morbid focus on technology), someone kidnaps a British princess for the ransom of the Prime Minister fucking a pig live on national television.

*SPOILER* It turns out the kidnapper was an artist who hanged himself almost immediately after the PM did the deed and the released princess was found.

One of my housemates remarked that the artist’s family should have been killed for allowing the man to exist, an extreme view he has expressed before, about people who do evil shit, and this time I couldn’t resist asking more about it – he’s otherwise a lovely bloke, who I know well enough to believe he has humanity’s wellbeing at heart, so I’m intrigued by his uncompromising and often-brutal views about the treatment of ‘bad guys’, as he calls them.

Of course it turned into one of those conversations about subjects we (humans) may never unravel entirely, in this case about justice, compassion and the machinations of our society that make it hard (impossible?) to achieve the ideals it’s easy to talk about.

My position in the debate is that the only way to address such aberrant behaviour as rape and murder is by treating the perpetrators with compassion.

My housemate’s opinion was that the most compassionate treatment for them is to put them out of their misery with what is effectively state-sanctioned murder.

Is believing in state-sanctioned murder as much an aberration as individual murder? Maybe it’s worse because it puts murder at arms length from our outrage (could we condone capital punishment if we had to flick the switch ourselves?) And it’s a treatment of symptoms, refusing to deal with the causes underlying these aberrations – causes like disenfranchisement and the erosion of rites of passage for young people entering adulthood.

Of course there’s also always the question of what is right or wrong, and something that always comes to mind for me in debates like this one is how morality has changed throughout history, and how this undermines absolute morality. The definition of right and wrong changes from epoch to epoch, generation to generation even.

There are behaviours that are irredeemably immoral, such as non-consensual violent sex acts, but what seems to me the fundamental relativity of morality makes me squeamish about imposing normative behaviour on ourselves using penal mechanisms of any sort, let alone capital and corporal punishment.

Even reward incentives would be better, but my idealism suggests to me the reward should be inherent in performing acts that are fundamentally good, such as acts of kindness.

But are ideals inherently impossible? Is that what defines them as ideals? Could we slowly manifest ideals into existence by contemplating them so deeply they become an inseparable part of our individual being, and therefore a part of all other beings because no being is individual or separate?

If we start with cultivating compassion we will naturally abstain from behaviour that causes pain, and slowly this incremental negation of negativity will snowball the perpetuation of positivity, of love, compassion and happiness.

And then we will win!

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