I think most people are basically good. They’ll look in on an elderly neighbour who might be lonely. They’ll help a lost child or do a sponsored walk for a cancer charity. They’ll do their best to recycle and take their litter home with them when they go on a picnic. Sure, they’ll slip up occasionally and play their music too loud or step on your toes without saying sorry but most people mean well. I’d guess that 60% of people are good people.
There’s a tiny number of exceptionally good people. Maybe 2%. Your Gandhis and your Martin Luther Kings devote their lives to a cause bigger than themselves. Oskar Schindler saved the lives of over 1,000 Jewish people and Greta Thunberg has committed her young life to preventing the worst effects of climate change.
Larissa MacFarquahar wrote a book, Strangers Drowning, that profiles some of the extreme altruists who decide that helping other people is more important than helping themselves. These people are not necessarily saints or good in all aspects of their lives but, in the domains where they have decided to be good, they are the best.
At the other end of the scale are the bastards and arseholes who totally fuck up our world. I’d guess that about 5% of people are like this. There are rapists and child molesters, yes. On the bigger stage, there are malevolent conmen who will corrupt a nation to burnish their reputations or to satisfy their need for gold-plated toilets or gold-flecked wallpaper. The worst of them send millions to the gas chamber to avenge a perceived slight or to fulfil some monstrous racial prophecy. The most pathetic punch old ladies in the street or lob beer cans into a neighbour’s garden. The rest of us know not to do these things, but the 5% seem to recognize no ethical boundaries at all.
There’s a scene in Midnight Express where the protagonist, Billy, discovers, in the basement of the mental prison in Turkey where he is being held, a shuffling wheel where the maddest of the mad walk endlessly around a pillar. Billy is joined in his shuffling by a Harvard-trained philosopher who explains his theory of bad machines.
Sometimes the factory makes bad machines so they put them here. The bad machines don’t know that they are bad machines but the people at the factory know.Midnight Express
I subscribe to this idea of bad machines. The bad machines are broken. Maybe they have reasons for being broken — maybe they had an abusive father or an incompetent mother — and we should have sympathy for their plight. But they are broken nonetheless and should be removed from society. We can still show them compassion and treat them with kindness and help them if we can but the first priority should be to protect the rest of us from them. We certainly shouldn’t elect them President or Chancellor or Prime Minister.
But what about the rest?
To recap: we’ve got good people, some very good people and some very bad people. That leaves about 30% who could go either way depending on what might best serve their interests at the time.
I’m not sure what we should do with this ethically flexible 30%. Donald Trump says we should storm the Capitol, so we storm — or at least defend the Stormers. Adolf Hitler says we should round up the Jews, so we round them up — or at least deny that anyone could have known that we were rounding up Jews.
Nigel Farage says that the brown people are swarming onto our shores to take our jobs and our women and to impose their barbaric laws on our society. Of course, we should ship them off to Rwanda or, better yet, send them back where they came from.
The man on the telly says The Gays are corrupting our children. We need to ban The Gays. Except for that nice Ellen Degeneres and Elton John. They are not hurting anyone and Elton wrote some lovely tunes. But we should ban the rest of them and we certainly should not let them teach our children or get married in our churches.
The ethical behaviour of the easily-persuaded extends from the truly abhorrent to the merely unpleasant. Should I piss in my neighbour’s garden? Should I call this young woman on the internet a cunt? I could go either way — let me see what Tucker Carlson and Piers Morgan say first. The Daily Mail said that High Court judges are the Enemy of the People for upholding the rule of law. Donald Trump said much the same thing, as did Stalin and Robespierre before him. Would the Daily Mail lie to me? Would Fox News?
There’s a crazy story in Bristol 24/7 today. The building opposite ours, Invicta, has just declared that the pathway that runs along the front of the building will be closed to the public because members of the public (I am guessing around 5%) are pissing on their patios and throwing cans and pizza boxes into the doorways of the people that live there. In an ideal world, this depraved 5% would not exist and the footpath would remain open and free in perpetuity. But in this actual, fallen world, they do exist and they piss and they puke and they break. So what to do? Lock them up? The ethically flexible have other ideas.
The most common response to the article is that people who don’t want people pissing on their patio should not move in next to a pub. This ignores the obvious fact that the patio owners did not actually move in next to a pub. There are a couple of fancy restaurants down near where we live but the pubs did not actually arrive until ten years later. I am in favour of pubs though. I’m just against pissing on patios. Why do I have to choose to have neither or both? Why not allow pubs but ban pissing on patios?
At the peak of the pandemic, when all the pubs were still closed, our little corner of Harbourside was discovered as a cool place to hang out and we had around 500 people sitting on the pontoons by the dock every night with a crate of Thatcher’s Gold and an endless supply of nitrous balloons. There were no public toilets so every one of those 500 people would piss in our garden (and about 5% would crap in our garden) and every morning there would be sacks and sacks of empties and thousand of little silver canisters to clean up. The response from the ethically ambiguous was the same: if you didn’t want 500 people pissing in your garden, you shouldn’t have moved to a place where 500 people piss in your garden.
I’m still young at heart so I take pleasure in seeing the young and the beautiful getting high and swimming in the harbour but my neighbours were a little less pro-party and, at times, even I struggled to defend the partiers. The people crapping in our gardens were a bit annoying and the people selling cocaine were maybe taking things a bit too far but most of the revellers were good people who took their cans and their bottles — and their crap — home with them. What was confusing to me was when something obviously bad was happening and the other revellers did nothing to stop it.
The dudes doing wheelies on motorbikes in the middle of a crowd of people were obviously ethically challenged but why did none of the others think to say “Yeah. No. Don’t do that. What you are doing is dangerous. Let’s just enjoy the cool vibes, dude.”
It’s understandable that some of those people are so broken that they think nothing of tossing their empty beer bottles into the square to enjoy the SMASH!!!! but it’s much harder to understand their fellow revellers who laugh and say nothing. When I went down to pick up the glass — and the guy from Invicta came down to help me — what were the other revellers thinking? Did they resolve to tell their friends not to smash bottles next time? Or did they resent our silent rebuke?
Smashed bottles and pissing on patios don’t amount to much in the big scheme of things but there are challenging times ahead on this side of the Atlantic and on the other. I fear the 5% with no ethical sense at all but, even more, I fear the 30% who could go either way.
Ethical? Not Ethical. Makes no difference really. I’ll do what’s most convenient for me. The politicians are all as bad as each other when you think about it. I just want things to be the way they used to be.