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March 26, 2019


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Kevin Heller

I know it's kind of tangential to your response to Burawoy, but I'm curious about your assertion that Goffman conspired with Mike to commit murder. Conspiracy requires a double intent: the intent to agree and the intent to commit the object of the conspiracy. I don't see how Goffman had either intent in the scenario above -- particularly not the intent for Mike to actually kill the shooter. To be sure, had Mike actually killed someone, Goffman could easily have been convicted of aiding and abetting that murder. But I don't see the argument for conspiracy as an inchoate crime.

Steve L.

First, let me repeat that I had no intention of returning to Goffman's murder conspiracy, and my initial Contexts essay did not mention her at all. I addressed it in Part III only because Burawoy defended the "Glock ride" as acceptable, and perhaps even admirable, ethnography.

I suppose that now obliges me to answer Kevin Heller's very reasonable question.

In Pennsylvania, and most U.S. states, a conspiracy is complete when there has been agreement to commit the crime plus an overt act. Goffman wrote that she agreed the drive the car "because I wanted Chuck's killer to die." So there you have agreement. Driving the getaway car -- especially when Mike followed a suspected victim into an alley -- was an overt act.

In Interrogating Ethnography, I provided the full vignette to four former prosecutors in state and federal courts, including Pennsylvania, and they agreed unanimously that Goffman had committed conspiracy to commit murder.

For an example of a recent federal prosecution (and conviction) based on agreement plus overt act, but in which the crime itself was never carried out, see:

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I want to share some thoughts provoked by this: “There is nothing about ethnographic research that warrants or excuses, much less requires, actively endangering the lives and safety of others. Randol Contreras and Phillipe Bourgois managed to ‘maintain relations’ with subjects who were torturers and rapists, without getting ‘involved in those crimes.’ I doubt that Burawoy would adhere to his cavalier position for ethnographers who studied, say, racists who were plotting to murder Somali immigrants.”

While I agree with Steve, I would like to provide an example in which individuals (as members of groups) do and probably must maintain relations with those who have and are continuing to commit morally reprehensible acts and crimes (and Steve may very well be aware of these other and cases that are significantly different to that in the instant case) and in which the relevant moral considerations and quandaries (some would say paradoxes) are not captured by the otherwise important distinction “between an act that is malum prohibitum, which is wrong only because it is prohibited, and one that is malum in se, which is inherently bad, in and of itself,” in other words, this distinction is not helpful in or at least central to addressing the morally relevant or salient features or properties of actions and their consequences in these cases. The cases I am referring to involve individuals, in their capacity as group members, are deliberately maintaining or even cultivating relations with morally bad or evil actors. More importantly, such cases find sufficient moral warrant or excuse or morally mitigating factors that help us see why the maintenance of such relations is, however regrettably, necessary, if only because of the moral good that results alongside of or in spite of the moral bad or evil that is not directly confronted or eliminated.

This exemplum thus does not involve ethnographic research (or social scientific research of any sort) but humanitarian aid workers in situations of violent conflict in which the overarching aim is to prevent and or/eliminate the suffering of civilians that has arisen in whole or in part* owing to that conflict; perhaps more precisely and generally or ideally speaking: “The aim of humanitarian action is its own disappearance. Or rather, it is the disappearance of the conditions occasioning the need for humanitarian assistance in the first place.” The example I draw upon is from a very important book: Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin’s On Complicity and Compromise (Oxford University Press, 2013).

The wrongs in this instance are morally (i.e., inherently) bad, and the humanitarian aid workers are in some respects and minimally speaking, clearly complicit (which is rightly distinguished from it ‘conceptual cousins,’ namely, connivance, contiguity, collusion, collaboration, condoning, consorting, conspiring, and full joint wrongdoing’) in the ongoing commission of at once illegal and immoral acts (the former minimally viewed from the vantage point of international humanitarian law and human rights), thus they are in some undeniable and troubling ways “involved in [these] crimes.” In this instance, “genuinely well-meaning people, with great reluctance and regret, find themselves contributing to the wrongdoing of others because that is the only way that they themselves can accomplish some greater good.” There is here a question of moral judgment and a weighing of consequences in which one is knowingly but regretfully complicit in acts otherwise deemed malum in se, but only because such complicity allows for acts of compassion and beneficence that would not otherwise occur in absence of this complicity, and the resulting good is considered sufficient to outweigh the otherwise morally bad action. This is morally hazardous territory, to be sure, for moral acts in the real world are often messy and thus with some justification we have a body of literature on the occasional or “obligatory” need for—in even conventional political environments—“dirty hands” and yet, as C.A.J. (Tony) has argued, not all such putative cases are correctly characterized as necessary or unavoidable, particularly when the conditions that give rise to a perception of unavoidability or necessity are mutable, as in those cases, often commonplace, when political environments are morally bankrupt or corrupt. Coady contends that not only are we

“likely to draw the wrong norms from politically behavior [in effect, inferring from what we conveniently believe to be—contingently or relatively—the case, situation or circumstance, to what normatively should be the case with regard to our political behavior] but that we tend to focus our moral concerns too narrowly. We concentrate upon the particular act that will require dirty hands and ignore the contingency and mutability of the circumstance that have given rise to it. Yet it is precisely these circumstances which often most deserve moral scrutiny and criticism, and the changes which may result from such criticism [which is not to that claim criticism alone will accomplish such changes, only that it sets in motion, if you will, the causal chain that leads to the requisite changes] can eliminate the ‘necessity’ for those types of dirty hands in the future. [….] Robert Fullinwider once remarked that we need politicians just as we need garbage collectors, and in both cases we should expect them to stink. But, once upon a time, we needed the collectors of what was euphemistically called ‘night soil’ and, in many parts of the world, human ingenuity has eliminated the need for that very malodorous occupation [a job which, at least in some parts of the world, is still thought to be fit for people who are themselves said to be categorically “polluted,” a religiously and socially sanctioned inhumane form of status, standing, and treatment that denies such individuals in these groups full personhood and thus exercise of the powers and capacities we understand as fundamental to human agency as well as, and relatedly, essential to the recognition of and respect for human dignity].”

But in the case of these humanitarian aid workers (in situations in some respects similar to those undercover operations in law enforcement where, in order to gain the full trust of the individuals involved, say, in gun trafficking or the trafficking of human beings, may act in varying degrees of complicity or collaboration with those they are seeking to eventually arrest and convict for their crimes) there is no immediate or realistic imminent prospect for altering let alone removing the contingent circumstances or conditions and thus their only real hope for aiding in the relief of suffering may entail moral entanglement or cooperation with those committing morally egregious if not evil acts (e.g., genocide or other ‘crimes against humanity’). Because it would take up too much time and space and tax most readers’ attention span, I will not illustrate these examples but refer the interested reader to Lepora and Goodin’s compelling discussion and analysis of the situation in the refugee camps that were established in the Great Lakes region of Africa (1994-1996) as a result of the exodus of refugees, largely Hutu, who were passively or actively opposed to the genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi minority: “Having first committed genocide against the Tutsi, the FAR (Rwandan Armed Forces) soon began using the refugee (mainly Hutu) population in various ways: as a source of income and power in their own right; as a lure for international assistance and legitimation; and as a protection against those who might punish or retaliate against the FAR for the genocide.” Put more starkly, “Those refugee camps [largely established or organized by FAR!] constituted … a terrible and consistent example of a human shield for the military and political perpetrators of genocide. The use of human shields is, of course, prohibited explicitly as a war crime under international law.” Among the conspicuous horrors associated with the camps was a cholera epidemic in 1994 that caused “more than 80,000 deaths in ten days” and continued to ravage the camps for months.

As for the moral quandary and related dilemmas that arose from these refugee camps the following will have to suffice, for I cannot do justice to the incisive and fairly comprehensive nature of the analysis and real world exemplum provided by Lepora and Goodin:

“When providing aid, [international and regional humanitarian] organizations [NGOs] were obliged to acknowledge, interact with and contribute to those perpetrators of genocide. [The NGOs] that intervened on a purely humanitarian basis thus ended up contributing to FAR’s power, from a symbolic and sometimes material point of view. All international aid organizations faced the same dilemma: continue working in the camp, and thereby strengthen further the power of genocidal perpetrators over the refugees; or withdraw from the camps, abandoning a population that was in extreme distress.”

* I suspect it is not always necessary or even possible to draw a distinct line between the suffering that civilians were experiencing prior to a violent conflict and that suffering said to be directly or indirectly caused by that conflict, even if it is clear that conditions characterized by needless or unwanted and eliminable suffering have worsened in the latter case.

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