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Trayvon Martin and the Moral Clarity Hypothesis

March 27th, 2012 · 19 Comments

Sanford police are pushing back in the face of public criticism, saying that witnesses have corroborated George Zimmerman’s account of his fatal encounter with Trayvon Martin. Given how many salient facts about the case seem to have been missed in the initial investigation—Zimmerman’s history of arrests for violence, the failure to test the admitted shooter for drugs or alcohol at the scene, the account given by Martin’s girlfriend of their cell conversation during the minutes leading up to the confrontation—that’s no reason to back off calls for a more thorough independent investigation. But it does reinforce my worry that when facts are incomplete, we tend to gravitate toward (and even insist upon) the least ambiguous narrative template available, ideally featuring one completely reprehensible villain and one completely innocent victim.

The most obviously repellent version of this has come in the form of attempts to shoehorn Martin—you know, the unarmed dead teenager—into the crude stereotype of a young thug. Any admission that maybe young black men are routinely subject to unfair “profiling,” that maybe racism exists as something other than a charge to unfairly hurl at white conservatives, would be a victory for “the left”—so it cannot be allowed! Hence we’re treated to reports that Martin used a lot of vulgarity on Twitter or maybe smoked pot, as though these were capital crimes, or even slightly unusual activities for a 17-year-old.

Much more understandably, considering who was shot dead in this encounter, there seems to be a tacit supposition that if Zimmerman was a racial-profiling jerk who mistook himself for Batman, and if he approached Martin (against the advice of a 911 dispatcher) to question him about his “suspicious” presence in the neighborhood for no better reason than his age and race, then it must also be Zimmerman who turned the confrontation violent. And maybe it was. But it also seems entirely possible that Martin—whether from fear of assault or anger and frustration at being treated like a criminal just for Walking While Black—really did strike first, and a panicked Zimmerman (head injury perhaps clouding his already poor judgment) genuinely thought he was defending himself when he fired.

That wouldn’t in any way mean that Martin “deserved” to get shot, or that Zimmerman wasn’t also seriously in the wrong, or that the use of lethal force was a justifiable form of self-defense against an unarmed assailant under the circumstances. It would just mean the situation was complicated, and that it’s possible for both parties to have been partly in the wrong even if one person was more culpable—or even a generally worse human being. But a whole lot of people seem impossibly confident that things must have played out one way or the other, as though it were a matter of moral principle rather than (possibly unknowable) fact.

A commenter on an earlier post suggested that one factor in people’s varied reactions here may be what psychologists call the Just World Hypothesis. Briefly: People want to believe the world is basically fair, and that good people don’t suffer for no reason, so they strive mightily to rationalize that suffering as somehow earned or justified. That (along with a generous helping of plain old racism) may work for the folks who are at such pains to lay all the blame on the slain Martin. But a slightly different story might account for the general impulse to insist that, wherever the blame falls, it falls wholly—all or nothing.

Probably there’s already some other name for the phenomenon I’m about to describe, but I’ll call it the Moral Clarity Hypothesis. This allows that the world is not always perfectly just, but still maintains a strict moral order by insisting on perfect injustice as the sole alternative. Life may not be fair, but at least it isn’t arbitrary. The moral ledger is always balanced: For every good person that suffers, some bad person is culpable in direct proportion to that suffering; for every unjustified harm, there is a corresponding wrong. The result is a kind of compensatory absolution—a way of sparing the unfairly injured the added insult of ascribing responsibility, however small a share. You see something like this, I think, across a number of domains: Either the poor deserve their lot because they’re feckless and lazy or it’s an injustice inflicted by malign plutocrats.

As a corollary, every story has exactly one moral: If the most important lesson to learn from the killing of Trayvon Martin is that racial stereotyping—by citizens and perhaps also police—remains a pervasive problem with catastrophic consequences for young black men, then anything that complicates that picture is a rationalization, a distraction, an attempt to make excuses and blame the victim. Or: If the picture actually is more complicated in any way, we can breathe easy knowing that racism was abolished in 1964, there’s no need to question a criminal justice system that incarcerates black men at rates that would make Stalin blush, and any indications to the contrary can be put down to a leftist plot to score political points.

Maybe it turns out that this case really is that simple: That Zimmerman launched an unprovoked assault on Martin, and bears complete, unqualified responsibility for all that ensued. Even at this late date, I hope a more thorough and independent investigation can provide everyone concerned with more certainty about what actually happened. But the facts of this particular case aren’t stakes in some allegorical battle. They won’t confirm or refute any overarching point about Race in America—only the details of one horrifying night in February in one Florida town.  Which means we don’t have to insist that reality become a cartoon to validate our moral commitments.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Law · Sociology



19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 alkali // Mar 27, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    But it seems equally possible that Martin—whether from fear of assault or rage at being treated like a criminal just for Walking While Black—really did strike first …

    Actually, it doesn’t seem equally possible to me. We know from the 911 tape that Zimmerman intended to confront Martin, and we have an indication from Martin’s female friend (who was on the phone with him) that Martin was trying to avoid a confrontation. Based on that, it seems far more likely that Zimmerman provoked the confrontation.

    That said, I would agree with this if you restated it as, “It is also true that there is a nonzero probability that Martin really did strike first.”

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Mar 27, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Hmm, yeah, that probably is too strong… amending…

  • 3 MFarmer // Mar 27, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    I think most people will admit that racism exists and that citizens react to black men in certain situations in ways that are prejudiced, and that law enforcement officers react in much the same way in many incidences, law enforcement of all races. Why this is has many causes, and I hope the nation can have a real, honest converstation. My biggest problem in all this is the “cartoon” reaction of Racism Inc to situations like this, and the automatic posturing from Leftist groups before all the facts are known — and any fact that doesn’t fit the Left’s narrative is pretty much turned against the fact-finders as an attempt to disparage Martin.

  • 4 MFarmer // Mar 27, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    conversation, not converstation

  • 5 Drew // Mar 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    If we’re adding in the gf’s account, a plausible scenario is:

    1) Martin ran after getting too freaked out about being followed
    2) Zimmerman pursued, but couldn’t catch up to him
    3) Zimmerman headed back towards his car, but along the way, ran into Martin
    4) Martin thought this meant Zimmerman had doubled back on him
    5) they had the interchange that Martin’s gf says she heard

    So far, this basically fits BOTH versions of events.

    Then some sort of physical altercation started. Zimmeran claims that Martin just punched him out of the blue. But it’s possible that Zimmerman left out or lied about a key detail as to why Martin would have done this. Possible examples:

    a) Zimmerman tried to touch Martin, say by laying a hand on his shoulder
    b) Zimmerman showed Martin that he had a gun
    b) Martin tried to push past Zimmerman, and Zimmerman restrained him in some way, leading to a shoving match and then Martin punching Zimmerman

    What it comes down to is that we just don’t know. Martin may have just snapped. Or he may have been provoked. Or he may have outright feared for his life. But apparently none of the witnesses saw the initial physical exchange.

  • 6 tib // Mar 27, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    Murders are often morally complicated, which is why this stand your ground law is so morally objectionable. We work out culpability in a trial, according to Sanford police the stand your ground law prevents trials, depriving the victims of crimes of justice.

  • 7 Jay Jeffers // Mar 27, 2012 at 8:16 pm

    Wow. A sober treatment of the issue. Like water in the desert.

  • 8 K. Chen // Mar 27, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    I really like what you’ve written here. I think your term of Moral Clarity Hypothesis is superior to my application of Just World Hypothesis, but I think their origin is ultimately the same in human psychology.

    Let provide another spin on the whole thing. In your tragic scenario as you set up, or in the various plausible if not probable ways the whole thing could have played out, could both Zimmerman and Martin (or people like Zimmerman and Martin) be victims? That is, could Zimmerman, irresponsibly but not immorally come upon Martin, who reacted irresponsibly, but not immorally by taking a swing when a full threat hadn’t presented itself?

    I’m not going to argue that this is how the facts shook out – but I think there is a part of our psychology that rejects the possibility of a perpetratorless crime.

  • 9 stu // Mar 28, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    BUT FOR test anyone?
    i love the magic of prefacing a ratfucking with “i’m not gonna ratfuck, but…..”
    let’s call it the blenderella playbook.
    i understand though. those rats ain’t gonna fuck themselves.

  • 10 SteveB // Mar 28, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    From everything I have read, seen and heard I still think it isnt enough to facilitate a solid conclusion. There are many unanswered questions and could probably never be answered.

    One thing holds true. When the first moments after a serious situation are fresh in the mind, it becomes hard to put them into the right order. Generally it take a little while to process and put into perspective the exact chain of events. Lots of “what-if’s” and so forth.

    Zimmerman gives his statement, the witnesses questioned give theirs. Then they will get questioned again and suddely things are worded differently. This by no means is a contradiction of what they said prior but more of a retelling because they would had time to really process everything they had.

    A contradiction would be if a part of the statement was told before or after another part from a previous statement. I would entertain the possibility that both were not in their right frame of minds. Trayvon seeing the presence of a would be attacker and Zimmerman seeing the presence of a would be burglar.

    In the end, I hope that when the smoke clears we will see this as an accident. Both sides being both the victim and cause. However, in this society hell bent on assigning blame to things they would never see the possibility that trayvon had a hand in his own fate.

    A struggle where the end result cost him his life. Could he have been fighting off someone he felt was going to hurt him? Possibly. Could Zimmerman be shooting at someone he felt was going to hurt him? Possible.

    This event and its outcome will have major influence in the future of those who feel strongly in the effectiveness of a neighborhood watch program. Hopefully it will not give burglars the idea they can do what they like now, for people who would fight back will now hide for fear of getting into a similar situation.

    This is a case of mistaken identity on both parties that ended in a tragic accident. Nothing more nothing less.

  • 11 Ben Baumer // Mar 28, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    Thanks for the great analysis.

    One important element I feel you’ve missed comes after you outline the very possible scenario depicting that Martin did strike out physically first. In this very possible scenario, I would bet that there is a VERY LARGE portion of Americans who think Zimmerman absolutely had the right to use lethal force if Martin struck first. For some on the principal alone- these types don’t weigh the use of lethal force any differently than non-lethal force, and that their gun is no different from a taser or pepper spray. They proudly report: “If I’m attacked, or my property is under attack, I have the right (or even the duty) to counter attack- even if it means you die.” This, in my understanding, is how many gun carrying americans really view the right to bear arms.

  • 12 Daniel // Mar 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    A refreshing, thoughtful analysis, which as Mr. Jeffers says, has been all too rare in the discussion of this terrible tragedy.

    One thing I have not seen discussed: as I understand the law of self defense (and I don’t think Stand Your Ground changes this at all), you cannot claim self defense, even if you had a reasonable fear of death or severe injury, if the life threatening situation arose from your own unlawful act. For example, if you gt mad and punch a guy in a bar, he draws a knife on you, and you then shoot him dead, you have still committed murder even though you had a perfectly reasonable fear of death, because the situation originally arose from your own unlawful act of assault and battery.

    If Trayvon started the fight, and if he was beating Zimmermann’s head in on the pavement as he claims (though the video makes that hard to swallow), Zimmermann may well have had a reasonable fear for his life and a good self defense claim. But if Zimmermann started the fight, I think he’s guilty of murder EVEN IF Trayvon was beating his head in, because then the situation would have arisen from Zimmermann’s own unlawful act.

  • 13 Steve Sailer // Apr 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    Nobody alive today except George Zimmerman has full knowledge of what happened between him and Trayvon Martin.

    But, the Duke Lacrosse-like glee with which the prestige press leaded on this story as being a “Law & Order” type TV case of a white racist killing a black boy out of stereotyping is hugely instructive about what the media would want to be true. The irony is that the story has played out almost exactly like a 25th Anniversary low-rent version of The Bonfire of the Vanities — showing how the press never learns.

  • 14 Belle Waring // Apr 2, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Steve B: “There are many unanswered questions and could probably never be answered.”
    “This is a case of mistaken identity on both parties that ended in a tragic accident. Nothing more nothing less.”
    Golly, that was quick.
    “I would entertain the possibility that both were not in their right frame of minds. Trayvon seeing the presence of a would be attacker and Zimmerman seeing the presence of a would be burglar.”
    Yeah, except the part where Trayvon is absolutely correct in seeing the presence of a would-be attacker. His only error in this case was not seeing the presence of a would-be killer. (Let us use whatever term we have at hand neutrally; we can say, as a matter of fact, that Mr. Zimmerman killed Mr. Martin, parse the legal aspects how you will.)
    I’m also glad to see Mr. Sailer here defending the white race. One occasionally wonders what Mr. Sailer would have done with the latter half of his life, had some members of the Duke Lacrosse team not had all charges against them dropped and the offending prosecutor sacked, in an unprecedented case, that one time. Also, one cannot help but imagine Mr. Sailer at home yelling at the television during Law & Order re-runs about relative crime rates about sub-populations. Then again, I have a thing for Chris Noth in his 90s leather jacket, so perhaps I should remove the beam from my own eye, and so forth. Not that I’m into that sort of thing.

  • 15 elliot // Apr 4, 2012 at 6:13 am

    all and all, i really enjoyed this analysis. as someone else mentioned, its tone was refreshing, even if i do disagree with you on a couple things.

    i agree with the first commenter, tho – those two possibilities don’t seem remotely *equally* likely to occur, and to me, revising it to “entirely likely” doesn’t read any less strong. maybe something like, “Less likely, but still possible…” i don’t know, but when i read the revision, i still hear “equal possibilities.”

  • 16 Charles // Apr 17, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    I think this is one of the better blogs on the Trayvon Martin case. However, in the end, there is a difference between actual innocence and legal innocence, and from what I’ve read, the only eye-witness to this said that he SAW Trayvon sitting on top of Zimmerman, beating him up, and he SAW Zimmerman crying for help. However it happened, that’s close enough to self defense to me.

  • 17 The Illusion of Accountability | See Infra // Jan 13, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    […] Julian Sanchez coined the term Moral Clarity Hypothesis in response to me suggesting that it and the just world hypothesis were really one in the same. I still think […]

  • 18 Janine // Dec 16, 2016 at 7:34 am

    If you want to get down to it, the message laid out in the New Testement by Jesus (Paul contradicts Jesus, so you have to decide if you are a Paulian or a Christian), Jesus basically states to be a non-pushy good person, and keep your nose out of other peoples buslfess/beiiens. This is a far cry from Evangelical Christianity.

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