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April 18, 2010

An Open Letter to Mr. Rooney: Crime and Punishment and the Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlistberger

A law is a rule that society accepts and agrees to be bound by. The basic argument is laid out in Hobbes' Social Contract theory, which holds that people trade constraints on their own action in return for the opportunity to live in a safer, regulated society - a civilized society. When people break the law, it's a crime against both the victim and the civil system.

When USAir cancelled the retirement system for thousands of employee's, was it a crime? Apparently not, since it was done within the laws - in fact, it was facilitated by the laws.

This brings us to the concept of natural law, which posits the existence of a law set by nature and which has validity everywhere. When the authors of the United States Consitution declared "we hold these rights to be self-evident", they were invoking natural law.

Was USAir cancelling the retirement system for thousands of employees a crime in natural law? Yes, I think so. They bargained and agreed to future benefits in exchange for work now, and when the work was done and the cost inconvenient they broke their word in a case of temporal arbitrage. In a more refined era of social clarity, the Board and Management would be shunned and excommunicated from civil society.

We don't often shame people anymore, and we seem to increasingly say "if you're not convicted, you're all right - who am I to judge?", which is a subjugation of morality to legalism.

When a legal crime is committed, our legal system calls for punishment. Why punishment? To stigmatize the undesirable behavior, to demonstrate the dominance of the law, to deter others considering the same behavior, and to restore a modicum of justice to the victim(s), all of which serve to perpetuate the system.

When the crime does not rise to the legal standard but offends natural law, propriety and the social conscience, we should support a social punishment - disapproval, disavowal, condemnation, censure, separation - for all the same reasons. It doesn't have to be a legal crime to be unacceptable.

Sometimes a transgression is forgiven. Forgiveness is a moral action based on moral considerations. Increasingly, forgiveness and even absolution are becoming utilitarian judgments rather than moral judgments. It's a fallacy to conflate moral judgment with utilitarian calculation.

Talking heads tell us that some organizations and people are "too big to fail" (TBTF), or in other words too big to be held responsible for their actions. Bank of America, General Motors, and Fannie Mae were all too big to be left to accountability. When people know they're unlikely to be held accountable, the situation is called "moral hazard", which we've written about before in this space.

steelers roethlisbergerMoral Hazard is the situation in which decisions are disconnected from, and even insulated from, accountability. Moral hazard results in reckless, bad decision making, the costs of which are borne by others.

What do you do when you're the boss, and a key subordinate acts unacceptably - not once, but a few times? What do you do when you're the judge, and a public figure acts unacceptably? Does the importance of the individual matter? Are you less likely to punish a wealthy, important, popular person than an entry-level unknown? Does utility bear on morality?

So, Mr. Rooney, here's a rhetorical question. You're the Bishop. One of your Priests has been outside the limits, more than once. There's been stories but they were all in-house. Now there's been two public events. The individual is a key player. If left in position, the individual may do important business and bring a lot of people to salvation. Priests are hard to come by. Do you:
  • Suspend the Priest for six months, send him to counseling, and then return him to his previous assignment?
  • Fire the Priest, remove them from the organization, and reinforce the moral standards of the brand?
Your answer would be of interest to parents of school children everywhere.

Fortunately, Mr. Rooney, you've got an easier question. You run an entertainment franchise that showcases athletes. The individual is a key player who brings in a lot of people. Do you:
  • Suspend the player for two months and return him to duty?
  • Fire the player, accept the loss of results, and reinforce the standards of the brand?
Does another winning season matter so much?
Is a young woman worth a Super Bowl? How many would be too many?
How would you treat it if he were the janitor? Or a wide receiver?

Your answer will be of interest to parents of 20-year old girls, and to parents of 14-year old football players, everywhere.

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