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The "It Could Be Me" Factor

By Robert Wright

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- The nation's opinion leaders continue to brood over the nation's reluctance to follow them. For months, politicians and commentators have doggedly tried to transmit their indignation about Bill Clinton to the hinterland. It's slow going. "There's a lot of indifference out there," lamented Bill Bennett, the dean of Washington outrage, during a recent TV appearance.

Indifference? That's one theory. Another is--imagination. Imagination, after all, is our basic moral gauge. If you can imagine yourself doing what someone else has been caught doing, it's hard to recommend the death penalty.

I'm not saying that most Americans daydream about sex in the Oval Office. I'm saying that many Americans have enough experience with temptation, addiction in one sense or another and the little lies that become big ones to look at President Clinton and say, "There but for the grace of God go I." As a Democrat in Congress has put it, "People understand human frailty better than political pundits do."

An expansive moral imagination has much to recommend it--including the endorsement of Jesus Christ. (Among the tactical advantages of Clinton's prayer breakfast was getting reporters to quote clergy quoting Scripture: "He that is without sin, let him first cast a stone.") Still, however humane a generous imagination may be, it poses a problem: Once started, where does it stop?

Granted, most Americans don't have trouble setting limits on forgiveness. They can't imagine themselves being, say, bank robbers. So it's off to jail with bank robbers--justice has been served! But however emotionally easy it is to condemn a garden-variety criminal while forgiving an errant President, is it logically defensible?

After all, imagining ourselves in someone else's shoes often takes poetic license. Many women, mulling Clinton's sins, don't ask how they would have acted in his situation but how they would have acted if burdened with male genes--and, perhaps, with a sense of entitlement inflated by years of alpha maledom. Maybe, for enhanced accuracy, some women throw in any distinctive Clinton genes for large appetite--and maybe even formative childhood experiences. (He is reported to have once recalled being the "fat boy in the Big Boy jeans," before his rising social stature started turning ladies' heads.)

Anyway, whether or not women in Peoria have performed such elaborate thought experiments, people often take account of a perpetrator's genetic and environmental factors. The troubled child's genes for hyperactivity or his history of parental abuse earn him some leniency. To the extent that our knowledge allows, we try to ask, What if we really were in his shoes?

But of course, if you were literally in his shoes, you'd be him and would make the same choices. If you had been born with a bank robber's genes, into a bank robber's environment, then you presumably would have become a bank robber. Genes and environment, so far as science can tell, are all there is.

That's the trouble with letting your imagination off its leash. An untrammeled imagination--an imagination of true, unblinking clarity--drives home an uncomfortable point: it is always in some sense unfair for people to send other people to prison. There go all of us but for the grace of God.

Of course, as a practical matter, we have to send people to prison. So the moral imagination, followed to its logical conclusion, short-circuits, becoming its own reductio ad absurdum. It begins by extending our empathy to Clinton but in the end leaves us weighing his fate without dwelling on his frailty, because if human frailty were an excuse, the streets would be full of robbers.

What we're left with, then, is a purely consequentialist ethics: What are the effects of punishing Clinton? Now that we're in the middle of this awful morality play, what is the most productive way for it to end? What lessons do we want to teach--about Presidents, about prosecutors, about what's right and wrong, what's public and private?

Such questions are beyond the scope of this inquiry. (There's a sentence you haven't heard in Washington lately.) But another question is admissible: Why do Washington opinion leaders seem to have more trouble than average Americans imagining themselves in Clinton's shoes? Oddly, the problem may be that they consider Clinton a peer. Clinton and the politicos and the pundits all inhabit the same basic social arena. And social proximity makes detachment difficult. It breeds rivalry and enmity, hence harshness of judgment. True, it can also breed friendship and alliance, hence leniency. But for Bill Clinton, a gladhander and an ideological chameleon, there aren't many true friends and allies left.

Was all this Philosophy 101 really worth the trouble? After following our moral imagination to its bitter logical end, don't we find ourselves forced to do what so many opinion leaders have been doing all along: judging Clinton without pity?

No. The point isn't really that compassion has no place in the punishment of a President. The point is that compassion is always in order--just no more for a President than for a bank robber. Harsh verdicts should always be rendered with a kind of reluctance and regret.

That's a lot to ask. Still, we can at least ask that harsh verdicts not be rendered with the gleeful zeal that has been emanating from some parts of Washington these days. In a judge, a touch of indifference isn't an altogether bad thing.


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Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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