Monday, September 10, 2012

Cowards are bad. Courage is good.

So you might have heard about the judge who mentioned during his ruling that breaking into a house and mentioned that it must take courage to rob houses. This predictably caused a bit of a stir in the media, which led to David Cameron saying that burglars are cowards.

Now lets ignore for now the appropriateness of the judges comments and ruling (and, lets be fair, Cameron also made clear that you need to view a judges comments in full before making a full decision, which is true), and focus on Cameron's words. Burglars are cowards. Why are they cowards? What makes them cowards? Well, they're doing a bad thing, and cowards are bad, so they are cowards.

I don't actually blame Cameron for taking part in this demolishing of basic discourse, as to do otherwise would be politically unwise, but bad people can have "good qualities", just as good people can have "bad qualities". Courage is usually defined as to do something which makes one afraid for one reason or another, and cowardice is to refuse to do so.

If stealing from someone's home is something which could be fearful, and someone does so anyway, then they are displaying courage. Ignoring whether burglary is right or wrong (its wrong, btw, if you were wondering), it could be reasonably argued that its a pretty scary activity to partake in: there are many inherent risks after all.

Similarly, shortly after 9/11 Bill Maher made a statement to the effect that the terrorists who permitted said atrocity were not cowards. Again, this is likely to be true. To go through such an act requires a single mindedness focus that certainly isn't cowardice. But again, such an activity is utterly awful. History is littered with brave murderers. The mongol army was, by all accounts, pretty damn fearless, but I wouldn't want to hang out anywhere near them.

I think this stuff matters, because its too easy to point at someone, describe them by a word, and then write them off. People are more complicated than that, and can be described by any number of attributes. If we want to discourage people from stealing, and encourage them to choose a lawful course, then understanding clearly their motives for doing so might aid us in that. Thinking of them of cowards is a bad start to that.


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