The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: April, 2011

The lack of empathy

I’m currently working on a criminal law essay which was:

  • started early enough not to be a panic (it’s worth doing this), and
  • on a question which encompasses most of everything (I was thinking that the sermon at mass yesterday was relevant)

One of the unexpected resources I’ve come across, which I won’t directly cite, was an Independent article on empathy.

The problem with “root of all evil” arguments is that it’s important to work out if the person speaking really has stumbled upon the root of all evil or if they are just a man who only has a hammer. I can’t quite make up my mind about Simon Baron-Cohen’s (cousin to that Baron-Cohen) contention that empathy (and the lack of empathy) determines basically all problems. People who put themselves in other peoples’ shoes don’t hurt other people.

I think that’s partly obvious but partly things are more complicated than that. I can put myself in others’ shoes reasonably well but I still hurt people (more than I’d like, frankly) so I don’t think I can put it down to being exposed to too much testosterone in the womb. Empathy is a tricky thing to make into a characteristic and I have a feeling that empathy is something you do rather than something you just have.

I have a well developed fear of heights and every time I climb somewhere high I can feel myself working out what it would take to fall off. In fact the way that I can climb anything is by obeying a mental “precariousness limit” and I find that sounds sane enough that I suspect everyone stops climbing when it feels too precarious. I wonder if I do a similar, unconscious, thinking process for empathy — I don’t pull the legs off flies because I’ve worked out that must hurt.

Disappointingly the article mainly focuses on the newsworthy examples – psychopaths – rather than the interesting cases – overly empathetic people – and it’s a tale of slavery and Nazis for the most part. I’d like to see why deeply empathetic people (level six empathy) can still do bad things.

H/T: Rock, Paper, Shotgun




Masterclass: How to keeping digging when in a hole

The police officer connected with the death of Ian Tomlinson during Operation Glencoe in 2009 has given evidence about his role in the event.

My principle reaction to Tomlinson’s death was that, regardless of what really happened that day, the authorities couldn’t have made themselves look guiltier if they tried — they seem to choose the dodgiest pathologist available to examine him, drew out investigations, refused to bring charges that were in time  and missed deadlines to bring others — and I expected the people involved to really pull out the stops in proving that there’s not a huge conspiracy involving the CPS and the Met ganging up to kill random members of the public going on here. This new evidence suggests they’re not even trying.

In particular, The Guardian reports that there was a sequence of questions designed to clarify the differences between the initial statement that the officer gave at the time and the photos and videos that emerged of the event.

Video footage and photographs shown to the jury, however, appeared to cast doubt on many aspects of Harwood’s account of the incident.

Asked whether he stood by his initial account of what had happened, Harwood appeared to struggle. The judge, Peter Thornton QC, who is an acting deputy coroner, interrupted to clarify matters.

“At the time I wrote this, I thought I fell to the floor,” said Harwood.

“At the time I wrote this, I thought I fell to the floor” ? This is a police officer who has had two years to get his story straight. That’s not acceptable for someone in a position of executive power in a first world country. He’s either lying about it for some reason[1], which we cannot have in the police, or he’s not got the brains to know when he falls over and we don’t particularly want that in the police either.

The judge seems to screw down the lid a bit more:

“Do you now accept that this is not correct?” the judge asked. “Yes,” Harwood replied.

“That you lost your baton – that is not correct?” the judge asked. “Yes,” Harwood replied.

“That you received a blow to the head – that is not correct?” the judge asked. “Yes,” Harwood replied.

“And that there were violent and dangerous confrontations – that is not correct?” the judge asked. “Yes,” Harwood replied.

When asked why he made so many errors in his account he could only manage a wimpy:

“Because at the time that is what I believed happened, from the information I had, that is what I believed happened to me.”

I frankly expect a better class of suspended-pending-investigation copper in my country. I can only wonder what the jury is making of this.

H/T: The Guardian

[1]. The next question is why did he say these “not correct” things?

4dd6465fc78a86d0987870f88dffcb9c Frivolous law suit stories, an internet comedy site that does a great line in funny articles that are well referenced and well reasoned, has published an article on the problem of frivolous law suits in the US.

Every so often, there’s a big news story about how America is drowning in an epidemic of frivolous lawsuits, and instead of going on with boring statistics and facts — which nobody wants to read — they tell sensational stories about burglars suing their victims or kids suing schools because they hurt their feelings.
The problem is that most of these stories are anywhere from half-bullshit to complete bullshit. But we want to believe them, because it feels good to believe that tons of people out there are stupider and greedier than we are, and those people are what’s wrong with this country today. Not us. We like outrageous villains that don’t hit anywhere close to home.
People like Stella Liebeck.

I really hate misreporting of court cases, my particular bugbear is human rights cases, because it means that you very often come to an entirely wrong conclusion. It’s not fair to snort at someone because his ladder slipped in manure when it actually broke.