• NIL

Integrity - why you don't have any

You may have heard about a judge in a US youth court who was convicted a few years back for unfairly sending juveniles to a private detention centre. Judge Mark Ciavarella handed out custodial sentences for even the most innocuous offences, such as making insulting remarks about a school principal on social media, or stealing a DVD from Walmart.

Kids brought before him were more than twice as likely to go to jail than the state average. It turns out that, in return for convictions, the judge was receiving financial kickbacks from the owner of the state-funded detention centre. These so-called ‘finder’s fees’ amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When it came to court, with the judge now in the dock, a plea bargain was offered to him that included seven years of jail-time in return for an admission of guilt. With his professional background, Ciavarella must have understood the implications of refusing to admit responsibility and declining the bargain on offer. Still, in the face of overwhelming evidence he claimed ‘I have never placed a kid for an improper reason’, maintaining that he had the best interests of the kids he incarcerated in mind – the money had no bearing on his decisions. He still maintains this position today as he serves out his 28-year sentence.

Do you believe him? Probably not.

But did he believe he was telling the truth? Quite possibly.

In the last post we talked about factors that skew our evaluations, making us unreliable judges. Here we continue that discussion, looking at another factor that can lead us into error.

Regarding our aforementioned judge: It really wouldn’t be too surprising, would it, if Ciavarella truly believed, at least on some level, that he was genuinely making judgments and issuing sentences with absolute integrity? Psychological bias is ambiguous, straddling, as it does, the conscious and the subconscious. Do we really know all the motives that inform our judgments?

For Nietzsche, that’s a no. As he writes in Genealogy of Morality: ‘We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers’. Psychological bias is difficult if not impossible to avoid because we cannot help but prefer that which we believe is most advantageous to ourselves, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Conflicts of interest (such as money in your pocket for passing the stiffest sentences on children) warp our evaluations, and we always have a conflict of interest to some degree. It is impossible not to prefer one alternative over another. If we did not prefer, judgement might not even be possible. We would be stuck like Burridan’s Ass between two equally appealing heaps of straw, unable to choose one over the other. Preferring is always linked to our desires, which means that which we find most pleasurable, gratifying or advantageous to ourselves.

Think about it: what other criterion of choice could there possibly be? Even if you really want to see justice prevail – isn’t that just about your own satisfaction? Maybe it’s your own pleasure in being society’s instrument of revenge. Maybe being merciful gives you a delicious kick. As Nietzsche writes in Daybreak ‘The charitable man gratifies a need of his own inward feelings when doing good’. For Nietzsche there can be no truly selfless act - you would have to have no self.

In the next post we will look at yet more conflicts of interest that, even with our best intentions, pervert our judgments. Then we will summarize the shocking catalogue of errors to which we are prey when making decisions, before going on to examine what a thinking person should do to address this conundrum.

Next post: Nietzsche’s hardcore skepticism

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