Who’s afraid of the Deodand?

Sometimes Philosophy hides in plain sight; interesting questions emerge, unbidden, when you least expect them. A few months ago I was waiting in a line to order a coffee in a poorly-lit shop, when the woman behind bumped into me as she struggled to read the menu posted on the wall over the counter.

“They don’t make it easy in here, do they?” she grumbled in a token apology.

I turned and smiled; I’d been having the same difficulty. “I should have brought a flashlight,” I added, trying to make light of it.

“Photons should be free,” she mumbled. “It’s not like we should have to carry them with us to get a coffee…” She looked at me with a mischievous grin creeping across her shadowed face. “I mean they don’t have to pay by the pound for them like bananas, or anything…”

I chuckled. “Photons have mass…? I didn’t realize they were Catholic.” It was a silly thing to say, I suppose, but it just popped out.

She actually laughed out loud at that point. “That’s very clever…” she said, and despite the dim light, I could feel her examining me with more interest.

But I found myself standing in front of the barista at that point, so I ordered my coffee, and headed for a table in the corner. A moment later, the woman from the lineup surfaced out of the darkness and sat beside me under a feeble wall light at the next table.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” she asked, not really waiting for my reply.

I smiled pleasantly in response, but in truth, I had been looking forward to the solitude usually offered by a dark coffee-shop corner.

“I’m sorry,” she said, immediately sensing my mood. “It’s just that you cheered me up in that horrid line, and I wanted to thank you…”

“It was a bit of a trial, wasn’t it?”

She nodded as she sipped her coffee. “Your comment on the mass of photons was hilarious -I’m a Science teacher at the Mary Magdalene Women’s College, so I enjoyed the reference to Catholics. My students will love it.”

I looked at her for a moment and shrugged. “I’m afraid it’s not original, but thank you.”

She chuckled at my honesty and picked up her coffee again. “I don’t recognize it,” she added after a moment’s reflection, still holding her steaming cup in front of her and staring at it like a lover.

“I think maybe it was one of my favourite comedians who said it…” But I wasn’t sure.

“Oh? And who might that be?” she asked, smiling in anticipation of a shared interest.

I thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know… Woody Allen, perhaps.”

She put down her cup with a sudden bang on the table and stared at me. Even in the dim light, I could feel her eyes boring into my face. “A horrid man!” she said between clenched teeth. “How could you ever think that anything he said was funny?” she muttered.

I was beginning to find her eyes painful. I was aware of the controversies about Woody, of course, but I suppose I was able to separate them from his humour. And yet, I have to admit, that when the woman reminded me of his behaviour, I felt guilty -as if by laughing at his jokes, I was tacitly approving of his other activities.

It’s a puzzling, and yet fascinating relationship we have with things used by, or even owned by people we consider evil: deodands. The word, once used in English Common Law, was originally from Medieval Latin –Deo dandum -a thing to be given to God. The idea was that if the object had caused a human death, it had to be forfeited to the Crown, and its value would equal the compensation given to charity, or the family of the victim.

The question, though, is why we feel such revulsion for something that, through no fault of its own, was used in the commission of a crime? It could have been any knife, say, that was used in a stabbing, so why is this particular knife somehow different? Does the aura of what it did cling to it? Haunt it…? Would Woody Allen’s unrelated jokes -or, for that matter, Bill Cosby’s- be funny if we didn’t know their sources?

I have to admit that humour is a lot more reflective of the personality that created it than, for example, an assassin’s gun, or a criminal’s knife, but in isolation -ie divorced from context- is there really any difference? I certainly have no answer, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised that the issue was not one that I was puzzling over on my  own. I came across an essay in an issue of Aeon by Paul Sagar, a lecturer in political theory at King’s College London that looked at first as if it might be helpful: https://aeon.co/essays/why-do-we-allow-objects-to-become-tainted-by-chance-links

He wrote that ‘It is not uncommon to find that one’s enjoyment of something is irrevocably damaged if that thing turns out to be closely connected to somebody who has committed serious wrongs…  knowledge of somebody – or something – having done a bad thing can deeply affect how we view the status of the thing itself.’ But why should that be?

Obviously, the answer is not easily obtained, and in a roundabout way he throws himself on the mercy of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith, and his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). ‘Smith thought it undeniable that we assess the morality of actions not by their actual consequences, but by the intentions of the agent who brings them about.’ And yet, if a person were to throw a brick over a wall and hit someone accidentally, he would also be judged by the consequences even though he hadn’t intended to injure anyone. ‘Smith thought that our moral sentiments in such cases were ‘irregular’. Why do we respond so differently to consequences that have bad outcomes, when those outcomes are purely a matter of luck? Smith was confident that, although he could not explain why we are like this, on balance we should nonetheless be grateful that we are indeed rigged up this way.’

Have patience -this may slowly lead us to a sort of answer. First of all, ‘if, in practice, we really did go around judging everybody solely by their intentions, and not by the actual consequence of their actions, life would be unliveable. We would spend all our time prying into people’s secret motivations, fearing that others were prying into ours, and finding ourselves literally on trial for committing thought crimes.’ Only a god on Judgement Day should be allowed that privilege.

Also, it is good be bothered by consequences rather than just about hidden intentions for social reasons: you have to do good things to get praise, not just intend to do them. And conversely you have to do the bad things to get the punishment. Uhmm… Well, okay, but that doesn’t really explain deodands, or anything.

At this point, Sagar kind of gives up on Smith’s attempts at moral philosophy and heads off on his own wandering trail to find an answer. ‘It is good that we feel aversion to artifacts (be they physical objects, films, records or whatever) associated with sex crimes, murders and other horrors – even if this is a matter of sheer luck or coincidence – because this fosters in us not only an aversion to those sorts of crimes, but an affirmation of the sanctity of the individuals who are the victims of them.’ Somehow that makes us less likely to act the same way? Whoaa…

In the last paragraph, he essentially throws up his hands in frustration (or maybe those were my hands…) and as good as admits he doesn’t know why we would even think about deodands.

And me? How should I have responded to the woman in the coffee shop? Well, probably not by talking about Adam Smith -but changing the subject might have been a good first step, though…