An investment banker closing a factory that has been a small town’s economic lifeblood and shipping those jobs off to Indonesia is creating value for the shareholders, and thus doing what is ethical and appropriate within the context of how he chooses to make his living. It’s choosing to make his living this way which makes him an asshole.
A CIA operative who waterboards a terror suspect is doing what is correct and expected within the context of how he chooses to make his living. It’s choosing to make his living this way that makes him an asshole.
Someone who chooses to make his living destroying rape victims on the stand is an asshole, or at least has a mean streak a mile wide.
Some of you might expect me to argue with this. Surprise!: Rob is right in the end.1
“Say please, say thank you, take your turn, don’t cuss in church, respect authority”: A society has agreed behavioral norms, which help people to live together comfortably in that society. A society’s norms are, roughly, the things you needed to know that you learned in kindergarten. Most people break these norms in private or occasionally without consequence, but people who violate society’s norms consistently and defiantly are “assholes” to those who follow the norms.2
When I talk about a society’s norms I’m not talking about the law, which is a formal system overlaid on the norms.
For example, American society’s norms for treatment of victims include deference. The law does not include this. Instead, under the law, the “victim” is just a witness whose story gets tested like any other. American society’s norms for treatment of people accused of wrongdoing include shunning. The law does not. Instead, under the law, the accused is innocent until proven guilty.
But overlaying a formal system on the norms does not eliminate the norms. There are cases in which the law mimics the norms, as in crimes mala prohibita. And even when the law differs from the norms, the norms are still there, and decent people are expected to follow them most of the time. So for example you might, in your ordinary life, reflexively believe a woman who claims that she was raped, but still be able to serve on a jury if the law required you to presume the accused innocent.
You see what I’m getting at here: The criminal-defense lawyer shatters these (and other) norms. She flouts the will of society, routinely and proudly. When society tells her that she should follow the norms — that she should believe the victim, not slut-shame, not victim-blame — she has the gall to tell society that it, and not she, is wrong. So the criminal-defense lawyer is — if not definitionally, then damn near — an asshole. What’s more, when society (in the form of, say, Rob) tells the criminal-defense lawyer she’s an asshole for defending people accused of rape, she laughs in Rob’s doughy face and tells him to go fuck himself. So not only is she defiant about violating the norms, but she’s defiant about defiantly violating the norms, which is the greatest sin of all — “don’t be an asshole” is a norm of paramount importance to comfortable people like Rob3 because is the fear of being an asshole that society uses to keep people from breaking the norms.
Rob would never be a criminal-defense lawyer or a CIA officer or an investment banker. Good for Rob -0b -b. B- ba- Baa. None of us should live any farther from society’s norms than we want to. Baaa.
This won’t be the first time I’ve copped to being an asshole. I comfort the afflicted, and am an asshole to the comfortable, and I’m okay with that. Because it it’s Rob or his son or nephew who is falsely accused of rape, he’s going to want a criminal-defense lawyer who is more than willing to “destroy” the lying complainant on the witness stand.I am not the asshole the Robs of the world need right now, but when the day comes, I’ll still be here.