Mary Beard is right about Haiti – we shouldn’t underestimate our capacity for evil

The recent tweets written by Mary Beard sparked a row over the present Oxfam scandal in Haiti and summoned the dark horde of twitter invertebrates claiming their virtuous superiority over her supposed moral colonialism.

Instead of casting stones Beard has asked a question we are only ever familiarised with as an abstract idea as she points out ‘that after decades of Lord of the Flies being a GCSE English set book we haven’t got the point about the breakdown of morality in danger zones’. It’s not the case that someone educated in the moral values of their society has an automatic lifetime virtue pass that never leaves them because they ‘understand’ what it is they are doing wrong.

This invokes a very important classical consideration of the nature of virtue. It would seem to make sense for a history lecturer to be asking this question. Instead, the tweets were met with a usual barrage of virtue signalling and name calling from the Twittersphere. Why would a question of this nature invoke such fury and moral indignation? Simply because it indicts not just those who have done the deed but our own capacity to do the same.

The actions of these charity workers in Haiti were of course horrific but we cannot claim much more than that. We cannot say that it is common sense to not engage in these activities because most of us have not been presented with the opportunity to do so. We live in a world of restrictions and plenty. The law lays out consequences for antisocial behaviours and we are never driven by the want for food or water to risk facing these consequences. What if we had carte blanche in a lawless disaster zone. Would we really remain pinnacles of Western Virtue? I would say not. Virtue can only be achieved by the existence of its opposite. We clearly cannot claim that not using prostitutes is an inherent virtue of someone who has never encountered a sex worker. The absence of sin does not make a moral person. Being purely sheltered and having never been in a situation that may tempt you to make an immoral decision does not make you good by virtue of your own naivety. So, we must ask the question as to whether it is right to virtue signal regarding a breach of moral conduct from the vacuum of what we call civilisation.

Simply, without the opportunity, we cannot know our capacity to be virtuous. When well-intentioned foreign aid workers when presented with poverty-stricken women selling their bodies they were in new moral territory. Some failed to restrain themselves.

In others there were far more sinister motivations and they consistently contributed to this corruption loop as average good-natured people became despicable predators. There were also those who did not engage in these activities at all. But they wouldn’t make very interesting headlines would they!

The morality mob bay for their blood and that of anyone who refuses to follow the social line in condemning them outright. Beard’s tweet didn’t forgive it merely acknowledged a human truth, yet it was treated as an out and out vindication of charity based predators.

The Oxfam scandal as a whole is a microcosm of the same story that has proven itself time and time again in history as Beard tweets she ‘once asked a class of students what they would have done if they had lived in occupied France. They all said they would have joined the Resistance.’ they take this view of themselves because they can only see themselves doing the right thing as well-educated people. These moral values are the equivalent of collaborating with the prevailing social authority as most would have in occupied France. This rears its head in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and even the London riots. It’s not surprising that people unprepared for their capacity for evil act terribly when presented with an opportunity to do so. It doesn’t make it acceptable or any less disgusting. In realising this we are not justifying the actions of individuals we are asking an important question about the reasons good people do terrible things. The critics and virtue signallers should get off their high horses and learn how to ride.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here