“I Suppose I Shall Have to Compound a Felony as Usual”

The next essay in “Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy” in “I Suppose I Shall Have to Compound a Felony as Usual” by Mihaela Frunza and Anatolia Bessemer.  The main thrust of this essay is to examine notions of justice, as Holmes on  a number of occasions either lets people off for their crimes or commits crimes himself in order to investigate the crimes of those people.  This despite the fact that Holmes declares that his business is to uphold the law.  So the suggestion of the authors is that Holmes focuses more on justice than on the law, while the investigators that he interacts with focus more on the law than on justice.  This suggests that they might have different views of justice, and much of the essay is spent trying to justify the idea that different notions of justice might be not only valid, but desirable in our society.  Which, as a strong moral objectivist, isn’t a position I favour and so the arguments given there aren’t all that convincing to me.

But that’s not what I want to focus on, nor what I feel they didn’t properly address in the essay.  What I think is missing from the essay is a really good argument that Holmes and the inspectors actually have a different view of justice here.  Especially given that the essay makes it clear that Holmes feels that the inspectors would be obligated to report the crimes he lets go whether they agreed with him on whether doing so would be just or not.  So perhaps the inspectors would agree entirely with Holmes in his assessment of what is just in those situations.  Indeed, since we are expected to agree with him based on his arguments, it only seems reasonable that they would be equally convinced.  So perhaps it isn’t a differing sense of justice that would cause them to arrest the criminals that Holmes would let go, but something else that explains the differing behaviour.

We can solve this by appealing to virtues and noting that they indeed have a differing virtue here that will change at least how they behave wrt the justness of the action.  For the investigators, they have made a commitment to find criminals and turn them over to the system to be judged.  Given this, they give up their ability to be the judge of the criminals they find.  They commit to letting that be judged by the judicial system, and so their duty would require that they turn those criminals in even if their sense of justice says that they shouldn’t be.  They also commit strongly to the system of law, and so in the same sense give up the ability to say that someone should not be arrested because they think the law in general or in that particular case isn’t right.  In cases like that, they would insist that the law should be changed through the normal legal channels.  For them, they have committed to enforce the law as it is, not how they wish it should be.

Holmes, on the other hand, has not made any such commitment.  While he has made a personal commitment — that he thinks is a requirement of being a citizen — to uphold the law, he has made no commitment to uphold the law even if he thinks the law ridiculous or inappropriate.  He also hasn’t made any commitment to subordinate his own sense of justice to anyone else.  So he has no duty to report people to the investigators as criminals if he doesn’t think that it will be just to do so.  So the difference between Holmes and the investigators is not necessarily that they have disagreeing notions of justice, but instead that the investigators have an additional obligation of duty that Holmes does not, leaving Holmes free to act on his notion of justice in a way that the investigators are not.

So from this angle, it again looks like a conflict of virtues for the investigators:  their sense of justice would agree with Holmes and so they should refuse to report the crime, but their sense of duty requires them to report the criminal anyway.  As per the discussion, Holmes at least believes that the investigators would choose duty over justice and so doesn’t bother to tell them about the things he believes should be let go.  But it’s interesting to note that there are still things the investigators could do to try to promote what they’d think is the just solution even after reporting the criminal.  For one thing, they could ensure that they document the crime in such a way to highlight the aspects that would make convicting the criminal unjust, to make sure that the judges are aware of that.  And they can even personally advocate for the criminal in court and point out how it would seem unjust to convict them.  But even if the judge has the same sense of justice but decides that the law needs to be enforced even in cases like that, it would not mean that they all must have a different sense of justice.  The investigators could very well be acting out of their sense of justice, but just not be free to take the same actions as Holmes does, and the judge might feel the same about justice but note that their obligation to the law requires them to act towards the law in a way that doesn’t seem perfectly just.

What this suggests is that we might be making a mistake in judging virtues — and also rights — as being individual things that we balance against each other.  Virtue Theories tend to justify themselves on the basis of what acting on the virtues makes the whole person, but when examining these issues we then split that all out into competing virtues.  But what we see here is that the individuals are in different situations and so what it means for them to act from the virtue of justice is different for them when we consider them as a whole.  The investigators don’t disagree with Holmes about whether convicting the criminal is or might be unjust, and they are even obligated to do whatever they can to ensure that the injustice doesn’t happen.  They just have other commitments that means that they cannot virtuously do the same thing to ensure that that Holmes can.  We don’t need to argue that they and Holmes have different ideas of justice, nor do we have to argue that the investigators are choosing duty over justice.  We can think of all parties as holistic entities of virtues that always act in a way to maximize their virtuous obligations.

So this reveals, to me, that our trend of breaking down virtues or rights into individual elements that we balance against each other that leads us to believe that they can be or are often in conflict is actually a mistake.  What we need to do is look at things at the level of the total individual or all of society and see how to fit everything together the best, not argue over whether we should choose one over another.  From that, we can all have the same idea of the virtues even if we have to act differently from them.


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