Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Royal Hoax - Cruel of Funny?

Two Australian DJs have been harshly criticised for the hoax they played on the staff of a London hospital where the pregnant Kate Middleton was treated for severe morning sickness. They called, pretended to be the Queen and Prince Charles, asked to be put through to Middleton's room, and recorded everything. The nurse did what they asked and later, when the hoax made the news, killed herself. Why exactly no one knows, but it is reasonable to assume that her suicide had something to do with the hoax and her failure to see through it. At the time, the DJs thought their hoax was very funny; the hospital, after the nurse's death, condemned their behaviour as "cruel" and "truly appalling". But was it really? After all, the DJs had no idea that their hoax would result in the death of a person. Could they have foreseen it? No. Nobody could have foreseen it. One would not think that a one-time failure to realise that someone is not who they pretend to be is a sufficient reason to kill themselves for anyone. And perhaps it wasn't. Perhaps there were other, additional circumstances about which we don't know anything yet. But be that as it may, there can hardly be any doubt that if the nurse had not killed herself, the vast majority of people would find the whole thing simply hilarious. What a great prank, we would say. We may even wish we had done it ourselves. What a cheek!

And taken by itself, there was nothing cruel about it. It was intended as a harmless joke, and unlike many other TV and radio stunts that we are supposed to laugh about, the object was not even to make fun of someone. The goal was not, as it is so often, humiliation and public embarrassment. The nurse was not the target. She wasn't meant to make a fool of herself. And she didn't. Nonetheless she killed herself. The question is, can that fact retrospectively turn a harmless prank into a cruel and appalling action? I don't think so. Sometimes things we do can be harmless or even very funny and still lead to terrible consequences. And we are very unlucky if it happens to us. But the thing is that it can happen to any of us. We can not always predict the consequences of our actions. Good intentions cannot fully protect us. You make a joke at the expense of one of your colleagues, fully expecting them to laugh it off, but instead they jump off a bridge. You don't love someone back and reject their advances; they take an overdose of sleeping pills. You drive to the supermarket, well within the speed limit, and a child runs in front of your car, too late for you to stop. The child is dead.

Are we, in all these cases, not to blame then? Do we not carry any responsibility for what happens as a result of our actions if we couldn't foresee them? Actually, I think we do. There is such a thing as causal responsibility. We are responsible simply because we caused something to happen, even though we may not have intended it and even though it may have been impossible for us to prevent it. It's still us who did it. Moral luck, bad luck in these cases. And we cannot undo it. We caused a person's death. And that is the knowledge which those two unfortunate DJs have to live with for the rest of their lives. We shouldn't blame them. We should feel sorry for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment