Black and white and read all over

“Conrad Black at Florida mansion” last night, after serving only 2 years of his 6 ½ year sentence, writes the CBC today.  Black, of course, was the man who founded the National Post from the throne of Hollinger International, which in its heyday also controlled the UK’s Daily Telegraph, the Chicago Sun Times, the Jerusalem Post, and hundreds of community papers.  Once the #3 media magnate in the world, he was taken down by the US courts on fraud and obstruction of justice charges, and has been serving his sentence until his release on bail yesterday.  (The CBC has a helpful timeline here for anyone who wants a refresh).

The online comments to the news were predictable:

Ah to be rich. Every door opens for you when you’re rich. Even prison doors. *

.  .  .

A different set of rules for the rich and influential. *

.  .  .

Legalized corruption…$2 million dollar bond?! Just goes to show if you have enough money anything can happen. *

.  .  .

Wow, it would almost give you the impression that there’s one set of rules for the rich & Powerful and another set for us slobs. I bet he’ll have Lindsay Lohan’s room ready for her by the weekend! *

And I have to admit, when I first saw the headlines, I had a similar reaction.  Another fat cat getting off easy, using his ill-begotten wealth to fight the system that was supposed to punish him for begetting it in the first place.

This reaction, frankly, surprised me.  While I’ve sometimes disagreed with the editorial positions his papers have taken, I have nothing personal (or political) against Mr. Black.  Plus, I’m an aspiring fat cat myself.

I’m also pretty sure I’m not reacting to the legal aspects of the case.  While I have picked up on the fact that his release is due to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the honest services fraud law under which he was convicted, that’s about the extent of my knowledge of the case.  I really don’t know what he’s been charged with beyond “using company money as his own”, nor have I dug into the facts of the case enough to have formed my own opinion on his guilt or innocence.

I suspect most of the commenters are equally ill-informed, which raises the question, why are we all so hostile?  Enter a growing body of research that suggests that justice may be hard-wired into the brain.

Let’s start here: a team at Vanderbilt University using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans found that we actually use different parts of our brain to process obvious crimes than we do for more ambiguous ones.  The region that’s active when we’re confronted with the former had previously been implicated in decisions of morality and fairness.  In other words we personalize justice, using the same mechanism to make judgements on the fairness of external events (such as a crime we read about) as we use when assessing them in our own lives.

Steven Pinker, the well-known cognitive scientist at Harvard, agrees with this self-interested view.  He argues in The Blank Slate that a professed disposition toward retribution works like a warning beacon that says, ‘Don’t mess with me’.

Yet Black’s crimes weren’t of the obvious sort (homicide, etc.) that the Vanderbilt research tested – after all, it’s taken a Supreme Court decision to get him sprung.  So why might we respond so viscerally?  Pinker suggests a reason: “We blame people for an evil act or bad decision only when they intended the consequences and could have chosen otherwise”.  Conrad Black is known publicly for a certain arrogance and sense of entitlement, so shouldn’t be unsurprising that his actions would trigger a response.  Indeed, this narrative is time-worn, from biblical proverbs to Greek hubris and nemesis.

Now admittedly, this view of justice is relatively new.  It has a persuasive evolutionary plausibility, and some neurological evidence supporting it, but is hardly what you might call an established scientific fact.  For sceptical purposes though, it doesn’t so much matter whether it’s exactly right, but that it causes us to second guess our cognition.  It’s clear to me in how I’ve responded to Conrad Black’s release that something is going on beyond reason, and it’s critical if we hope to debias our thinking that we’re constantly on the lookout for cognitive processes that cause systematic errors.  A hard-wiring for justice may or may not prove to be one of those, but in the meantime, it’s useful to consider it before reaching for the pitchfork.

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  • Erik Davis

    Erik is a technology professional based in Toronto, focused on the intersection of the internet and the traditional media and telecommunications sectors. A reluctant blogger, he was inspired by the great work Skeptic North has done to combat misinformation and shoddy science reporting in the Canadian media, and in the public at large. Erik has a particular interest in critical reasoning, and in understanding why there’s so little of it in the public discourse. You can follow Erik's occasional 140 character musings @erikjdavis