This morning on the Today Programme I heard Labour MP John Mann question whether the public humiliation of Fred Goodwin might detract from the need to engage in deeper questions. It put me in mind of a personal dilemma.
Preparing for conversation in which my starting point is contrition, I find myself rehearsing the words; ‘I am asking you to understand, not to excuse’. You may have said or heard something similar. Sadly, although this sounds like a thoughtful and humane distinction, it is probably fallacious; a consideration which may be relevant to the preponderance in recent times of mass outbursts of vilification (think celebrities, think MPs, think bankers).
The idea of pure personal blame involves putting a punctuation mark in the narrative of cause and effect. Something bad happened because someone who was free to make a good decision made a bad one. Attributing personal blame (rather than mere proximate cause) involves adhering to a robust sense of free will; a bad decision was the result not of what led up to it but of a freely made choice.
But when we ask for our actions to be understood we are suggesting they were, at least in part, the consequence of factors other than a free and bad decision. Explanation dilutes blame. Clarity isn’t helped by the different associations of the word understanding (the verb to comprehend ‘he is good at understanding maps’ and the adverb meaning sympathetic ‘he was very understanding’). While the conflation or overlaying of the positive meanings of understanding is common, it is logically necessary. It is perfectly possible to separate them entirely as in ‘I understand exactly why you did it and that’s why I want you to suffer’.
When it comes to individual blameworthiness, as in the case of Fred Goodwin, our options could be put in a two by two matrix using the different meanings of understanding as the x and y axis.
Square one: neither understand/explain nor understand/sympathise, is associated with total personal blame. Fred should be punished to the max.
Square two: don’t understand/explain but do understand/sympathise might be the space for the religiously humble (‘let he who is without sin…’). A person holding this view would probably not want to punish Fred gratuitously.
Square three: understand/explain but not understand/sympathise could be the position of the anti-capitalist. Such a person night argue that to single out Fred from all the other ‘evil bankers’ is to excuse ‘the system’.
Square four: understand/explain and understand/sympathise might be the square either of other bankers or soft hearted academics. Presumably they too would hesitate before taking Fred’s knighthood.
There may be utilitarian or symbolic reasons why Sir Fred should have been stripped of his title but of these four positions it seems to me only the first is commensurate with taking such a rare and exceptional action (there are after all plenty of rogues with honours). So, on balance, I think John Mann is right; there is at some level a trade-off between a desire to punish the man and a willingness to question the system. This approach also throws up an irony; advocates of lightly unregulated financial capitalism should presumably be relieved that the public seems more inclined to blame Fred than explore how he came to be so powerful and why his decisions caused such mayhem.