Recently I’ve noticed, in reports of crimes against persons, an abhorrent phrase that seems to be commonly accepted: people being quoted as saying that the victim “didn’t deserve this”. Who does deserve being beaten, raped, or murdered? Ah, but maybe this person did deserve a beating––but was murdered instead. No, too subtle.
Was I imagining it? I googled “didn’t deserve to die”, the strongest usage, and quickly came up with half a dozen different instances.
Then, on the front page of the Oregonian a week or so ago, I saw this one: a driver with a blood alcohol level “approaching .30” ran his car up onto a sidewalk in broad daylight and pinned a pedestrian against a utility pole. As the drunk tried to drive away he hit the pedestrian two more times. Oh yes, and the pedestrian was blind and carrying a white cane. The driver was chased and boxed in by other drivers. Since his arrest, he had been trying to make a good impression: visiting the badly injured man, publicizing his own past volunteer work (performed while he was a bank exec), all that sort of thing. The article reported on his appearance in court for sentencing, definitely an occasion to choose one’s words carefully. What did he say, in his attempt at an apology?
“He didn’t deserve it. It was all my fault.”
Good to know that the blind man didn’t actually deserve being run over three times, we were all wondering about that.
What’s going on here?
According to my unscientific survey the phrase is used at least as often by the relatives of victims, as by those accused of the crime in question. So I conclude that this represents a general societal attitude, which tacitly regards some people as deserving to be harmed or attacked by others.
The connexion that came up in my mind was with a shift in moral education over the past three decades or so, which changed the focus from the person acting, to the person being acted upon, and from general principles of interpersonal behavior, to principles regarding certain groups. In an effort to end harassment of minorities and those perceived as different, we started teaching children and adults to avoid ridiculing this or that sort of person––overweight or gay, for example. Something needed to be done, to end these long-winked-at instances of bullying and cruelty, but how much better to emphasize a universal (and positive, rather than negative) approach of being polite and compassionate. Singling out groups creates assumptions that groups not named may be fair game. “Nobody told me not to call him names, he’s an Italian/left-handed/too skinny/a nerd!”
The general approach is better all around.
Some pragmatic reasons: It’s far easier, no need to remember who you’re supposed to be kind to this week. Like deciding that you are going to stop your car whenever a pedestrian is trying to cross, instead of having to make a judgment call on the fly each time. No type of person is accidentally omitted (though of course people who are dangerous, manipulative, etc., can and often must be treated differently). Those are points of persuasion for people not so much moved by moral considerations alone (to me it’s surprising how often there are practical reasons which could be used to bolster the “should/ought” arguments).
Moral arguments include: putting responsibility where it belongs, on the act-or instead of the act-ee; promoting human community rather than division; generally strengthening the moral rule which is one that makes human interchange run much more smoothly and harmoniously.
Then, from a different angle, there’s Shakespeare’s take what the just deserts of a human being, “poor bare, forked animal”, may be