Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Yes-Buts: How Much Good Cancels One Evil Act?

Among the persons politically reachable with logic and evidence are the "sincere yes-buts:" those who find the logic of the pro-freedom / limited government position attractive, but who have sincere, nagging concerns about particular conditions that appear (to them) to demand State intervention. It's not easy by any means, but since their concerns are focused, they can often be addressed in a focused manner.

Unfortunately for us, there's a moral conundrum to be faced, one that's especially stiff when institutions are involved, and not everyone agrees on the solution.

In an individualized context, most persons find a common way out of the maze: It doesn't matter how much "good," by anyone's standards, Smith has done; his evil acts require the application of justice. Justice requires that Smith's philanthropy, or his artistic achievements, or his inventions, or what-have-you be ignored in considering the proper penalty for his evil deeds.

Consider the recent case of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, co-founder of the "Crips" street gang, in 1979 tried and convicted for two murders and sentenced to death. Williams claimed, with some substantiation, to have undergone a complete transformation during the 26 years of his incarceration on Death Row. He became something of a prison anti-gang evangelist, though to what ultimate effect remains a matter of dispute. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then the governor of California, wrote this in his review of Williams's clemency petition:

"Williams has written books that instruct readers to avoid the gang lifestyle and to stay out of prison...(h)e has also...tried to preach a message of gang avoidance and peacemaking...(i)t is hard to assess the effect of such efforts in concrete terms, but the continued pervasiveness of gang violence leads one to question the efficacy of Williams' message."

Schwarzenegger's ultimate decision was that whatever good Williams might have done, his murders fully demanded the penalty to which he'd been sentenced. Williams was duly executed on December 13, 2005.

If we omit the protests of those who claim that Williams was in fact innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted, and the representations of those who claim that the death penalty is inherently wrong, what skein of logic would lead to any other outcome? Had Williams written his books and undertaken his anti-gang evangelizations before committing and being convicted of first-degree murder, would the proper course have been different?

I can't see it.

Similarly, film director Roman Polanski has been convicted for the anal rape of a thirteen-year-old-girl. Those who would like to see Polanski escape the penalty for his deed cite his artistic accomplishments...but why? Can any number of well made, entertaining movies offset the violent evil deed Polanski committed? What chain of reasoning would lead to that conclusion?

Good acts, whether creative, intellectual, philanthropic, or other, are always discretionary; the avoidance of evil acts is mandatory -- and the reason for having a justice system at all.

The above discusses individuals. When we turn to the crimes of institutions, the focus becomes blurred...and the yes-buts are there to remind us.

Consider this horrifying story from the recent news:

ROCKDALE, Texas (KXAN) - A foster parent in Milam County is in jail charged with murder after the two-year-old girl she was taking care of died in her custody.

According to Rockdale police, emergency crews responded to Sherill Small's home in Rockdale when they received a 9-1-1 call on Monday evening stating that a child was not breathing and unresponsive.

The child, Alexandria Hill, was flown to Scott and White McLane Children's Hospital in Temple where she was placed on life support.

Doctors determined that Alexandria had brain hemorrhaging and retinal hemorrhaging in both eyes.

Detectives said the explanation Small, 54, gave of the child's injuries were not consistent with the nature of the injuries determined by the doctors.

The child was removed from life support on Wednesday and Small was arrested for murder the following day.

Small admitted to authorities that she threw Alexandria to the ground.

An autopsy is being performed by the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office to determine the child's official cause of death.

None of this would have happened, were it not for the intervention by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services:

Alexandria was taken from her Williamson County home and placed into Small's foster home in January; according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Service (TDFPS), Small was a licensed foster parent through Texas Mentor.

"She was placed into foster care for neglectful supervision because her mother and I smoked pot at the time," explained [Alexandria's father Joshua] Hill.

According to court records, Alexandria's mother had a medical condition that does not allow for the child to be left alone with her. The TDFPS also received allegations that Hill used marijuana on a regular basis and on one occasion Hill almost dropped Alexandria while going down the stairs of the home as he was trying to hand the child to his sister.

During the month of November, Alexandria was being cared for by her paternal grandmother before the State intervened on Nov. 26.

The TDFPS concluded that "Through the assessment of the Department and family members of the parents, it appears the parents have limited parenting skills and need to develop their understanding of being protective of their child. Until these services are offered, the Department does not feel either parent can be the sole caregiver for the child."

The article says nothing about why Alexandria's grandmother was deemed unsuitable as a custodian for Alexandria.

Residential Child Care Licensing is investigating the foster home and the agency, Texas Mentor.

"We rely on the child placing agencies to do their due diligence in doing background checks and home studies and training for potential foster parents," explained Julie Moody with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Service. "There was one allegation of a previous foster child in her care that had bruising and lead poisoning, but no deficiencies were found."

According to State records, during the last two year Texas Mentor has 15 deficiencies ranging from lack of updated background checks to leaving children unattended for extended periods of time.

[Thanks to Vox Popoli for the citation.]

A government agency with unbounded coercive powers it uses to part children from their parents brought about the death of a two-year-old girl.

Can any amount of "good" offset the evil that was done in the above case?

The "yes-buts" will argue that such an institution is necessary, as are its coercive powers. There are too many neglectful and abusive parents, they will say. There are too many children suffering too many evils to allow private arrangements as the be-all and end-all. Besides, the argument will continue, it's the individuals responsible for this atrocity we should pursue, not the institution itself. The institution is concerned with the well-being of children, and nothing else.

Ponder those arguments for awhile. How would you evaluate them? If you find them specious, how would you respond?

Over time, government agencies become adept at averting the odium for bad results and for bad secondary consequences of their operations. Such maneuverings sometimes involve choosing a "sacrificial lamb" upon whom all the blame for a tragedy will fall. However, an agency of some duration will have learned to minimize such occasions: even when it's plausible to isolate all fault onto a single individual, to accept blame at all negatively affects the agency's prospects for increased power and funding.

In summary, government agencies are efficient machines for thwarting justice -- justice as you and I understand it, Gentle Reader. Since unjust acts will always conduce to someone's benefit, for a government agency to exist at all guarantees that over time, the "good work" it was ostensibly formed to do will dwindle, while its failures and depredations increase.

Quite a lot of "yes-buts" will fail to grasp the logic...until they confront a case like the murder of Alexandria Hill.


Mark Alger said...

You may have heard me say this before...

The biblical assertion that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, yea unto the seventh generation, might be seen as less a threat of divine retribution and more a general observation of the facts of life.

Or as Niven or Pournelle put it, "Think of it as evolution in action."

Sorry if it sounds harsh, but, while I don't believe the state ought to have authority in the matter, some people just ought not be permitted to reproduce. Apparently, in this case, permission was withdrawn retroactively.

Pray for the poor child who suffered for her parents' sins.


lelnet said...

I can actually see a legitimate argument for limited clemency in a case like Williams'. Individuals, after all, have the opportunity to repent of the evils we do, while we live.

But in the case of state agencies? No. There is no room for mercy for them. Let those individuals working for them who aren't wholeheartedly in league with evil find what escape they may, but the agencies and their powers must be utterly destroyed, as they are an incorrigible hazard to both the physical and the moral well-being of mankind.

Joab Parmacetti said...

This is a tough one.

In my experience, when a child is removed from parents, there's more to it that "parents smoke marijuana". The other justification presented in the article ("medical condition that does not allow for the child to be left alone with her") could be anything, but the specifics were enough to convince a judge to place her in custody.

"A government agency with unbounded coercive powers it uses to part children from their parents brought about the death of a two-year-old girl."

Let's assume for a moment that the homes of parents and grandmother were a serious, genuine danger to the safety of the girl. Let's assume that there was no other relative was available. If that was the case, the state failed - but not by taking the youngster into custody, but by placing her in another dangerous situation. That's the failure.

"The "yes-buts" will argue that such an institution is necessary, as are its coercive powers. There are too many neglectful and abusive parents, they will say. There are too many children suffering too many evils to allow private arrangements as the be-all and end-all."

There ARE abusive parents, victim children and occasions when private arrangements are not available. That happens. It's not an abstract point in a discussion about the intrusive government. Ulitmately, after everything else is stripped away, there comes a moment when something has to be done. All the well intentioned people step back and decline to take responsibility. There's the girl, and she can't go home. What happens next?

I worked for more than twenty years in children's protective services, as investigator and manager. There's a lot about any system of that kind that I detest. They're dangerous, flawed and can do harm. Yes, the scope of state authority should be reduced. Here's my "yes, but": There are circumstances when there is no one else but the state. That's sad and terrible, but it's true. There is a legitimate role for government; intervening in these situations, as a last and only remedy, is part of it.

Anonymous said...

One more pot smoker 'got his due' from God via their child, according to the first poster.
Judge not lest ye be judged, poster #1, if the best you can glean from the Bible is THAT conclusion.
Poster #2, repentance is one thing...but the State of CA rightfully also extracted punishment.
Poster #3 continues to tote water for their former/current(?) employer- THE STATE- but needs plenty of assumptions to be able to do so with a straight face.
The FACTS as presented were that one parent was 'determined' (in an indeterminate fashion) to be unable to provide sole care, one or both parents smoked the >GASP< devils weed, and granny was dismissed from consideration as caregiver out of hand.
It's okay though...the State maintained it's rights to trample roughshod over its citizens lives because POT was involved and after all... it was only ONE little 2 year old.
yes...that last part WAS sarcasm.