Conscience, disharmony, and the separation of powers

The voice of conscience always sounds a note of discord. It speaks out against something we have done, or contemplate doing. It offends against our good self-image and the prerogatives of our other desires.

If I have done something I feel is wrong, I am strongly tempted to quell that dissenting voice by presenting it with evidence – or ‘evidence’ – that it is in error. I want to look for reassurance from those around me, to go back to conscience’s origins in the admonishing voices of others and hear those voices say ‘no, you did nothing wrong’. I want the discord to stop, so I can be smooth and unified and cheerful again. I’m tempted, in other words, to legitimise the wrongful act.

In parties, bureaucracies, police departments, and all other lasting associations that hold any power whatsoever, all this is in play. When some members use that power to commit a wrongful act – for instance, the drawn-out murder of a helpless man – and their fellow members recognise it as wrongful, discord is introduced into the happy group, and bulk of the members feel the powerful urge to make it go away. How are they to do this? They cannot undo the act.

But they can legitimise it among themselves. They can devise excuses for the behaviour. They can amplify their doubts about accounts of the situation that don’t flatter the perpetrators. They can demonise the victim. They can use existing sets of ideas that are suited to the purpose to make this all seem systematic and coherent, or, with a little imagination, they can come up with new ones. They can ostracise and silence those voices among their number that refuse to participate in the collective endeavour of making themselves feel good about the horrible thing they, or their friends and colleagues, have done (and, on some level, must have wanted to do). And they can reinforce this message to themselves, that the wrongful act was not wrongful at all, by repeating that act. If it’s fine to, let’s say, suffocate a man to death as he begs for his life, why not do it again? If you don’t do it again, aren’t you tacitly admitting it was wrong in the first place?

For the voice of conscience to win out, in the miniature arena of one person’s mind, it must not be silenced. The discord must not simply be tolerated, but welcomed as the appropriate response to the situation. A human being is, and ought to be, swarming with different impulses, all pulling to different ends, many of them useful and valuable in themselves. Only by systematically refusing to take the easy way out of that discord which the voice of conscience creates, can those divergent impulses be kept from drawing the whole into a spiral of moral corruption.

The same is true in the organs of social power – not only law enforcement, and not only state agencies, but also powerful non-state, non-violent organisations such as political parties and corporations, and even presently-hypothetical systems such as large anarchist structures of social solidarity. A system of the use of power that is a harmonious unit, where all the different agents and bureaucratic functionaries relate to one another closely and collegially, where everybody gets on and all their professional relationships are strong, is the perfect environment for wrongdoing to breed. If conscience is to have the possibility of prevailing within such a system, it must at least be divided. Different organelles within it must maintain semi-adversarial relations with one another, with each having divergent interests and separate institutional cultures, while still having enough goodwill with one another to effectively access to one another’s activities and knowledge in order to cooperate effectively in service of the organisation’s rightful aims and monitor one another for wrongdoing. They must not be simply enemies of one another, but they cannot be friends, either – they cannot be joined by bonds of solidarity, but mutual ill-will must not prevent their effective working together.

This is most obviously urgent in the case of law enforcement. When police, prosecutors, and judges are all cooperating closely together, there is not much left to check them. But it also applies to other organisations, with a view both to wrongdoing that is not criminal but involves deviation from the organisation’s justifying raison d’etre, and to cover-ups of criminal wrongdoing. The separation of powers is not simply a state concern; it penetrates deep into many different facets of society.

But how is this neutral relationship to be maintained when one part of the organisation introduces discord by sincerely investigating another for wrongdoing?  How is the balance to be maintained? (I set aside cases where the investigating bodies are capable of effectively monitoring and extracting the cooperation of the accused regardless of the latter’s hostility – I’m concerned here with who guards the guards themselves.) The accusers and their allies within the organisation must retain some kind of legitimacy, loosely speaking, in the eyes of the accused. The accused group must have some enduring psychological or social reason to overcome their hostility and accept the accusers’ right to bring the charge, cooperate fully with its investigation, and accept the justice of that investigation’s verdict. If the potential investigators stay their hands for fear of jeopardising their cooperative relationship with the accused, the system is beginning to break down. After all, that hesitance itself is a form of wrongdoing that can and does breed in its own right.

This is a difficult, wicked problem. The best ways of ameliorating it for each different kind of organisation, and even each particular organisation, will be different. A good place to begin is with organisational forms that don’t involve dedicated members voluntarily cooperating in stable, long-term groups – the idea being to evade the psychological and social logic that underpins the whole process. In future posts I’ll be setting out models that build on this idea. My next post, though, will be more general and formal, taking the problem I’ve described here and combining it with other considerations to lay out the idea of corruption, and describe its relationship to the development of the idea of freedom I’ve argued for in my previous two posts.

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