When someone, particularly a politician, does something wrong, why is it that we sometimes judge their actions harshly, and sometimes leniently? It seems to me that passing judgement implicitly involves considering questions like “is the action legal?”, “is the action socially acceptable?” and “is the action fair and morally justifiable?” And then we overlay an additional question – “who is doing it”?
Consider these four scenarios, all of which relate to receiving money from the New Zealand government:
- A young mother lies about how many flatmates she has and receives a higher Domestic Purpose Benefit.
- A middle-aged man lies about where his primary residence is located and receives an accommodation allowance and rent.
- A 65-year-old couple receive superannuation, despite being on executive salaries and receiving significant investment income.
- A student loses a fingertip in a workplace accident and receives a disproportionately high pay-out.
How do we judge scenario one, the young mother? No, it isn’t legal to claim a higher benefit than your entitlement. No, it isn’t socially acceptable. There is however some moral justification for doing what you can to ensure that your child is fed and clothed when you are living in poverty.
How do we judge scenario two, the middle-aged man? It is at best scarcely legal to claim an out-of-town accommodation allowance when you don’t actually live out of town, nor to live in the house your family trust owns and receive a rent allowance. These are not socially acceptable actions and nor are they morally justifiable.
How we judge scenario three, the 65-year-old couple? It is both legal and socially acceptable to receive superannuation no matter what your income, but is it fair to give money to people who don’t need it while withholding it from those who do? And if we are trying to create a form of universal basic income that is not means-tested, why should this apply to older people only, and not to children and families?
And how do we judge scenario four, the student? Writing a cleverly-worded letter which over-emphasises the severity of accident’s impact falls marginally on the right side of being legal, but is not socially acceptable and is not morally justifiable.
Now let’s consider who is involved in each of these scenarios:
The first scenario involves the former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei when she was a solo parent in the early 1990s, while the second scenario involves our prime minister, Bill English in the late 2000s when he was still a minister. (For a good analysis on their comparative wrongdoings see this NZ Herald article and this Spinoff article.) From a judgement point of view, the interesting thing is that Bill English emerged comparatively unscathed, while Metiria Turei had no choice but to resign. Both people were politicians, both seem hard-working and intelligent, so why were the judgements made about our prime minister comparatively lenient while the judgements about the Green party co-leader were so harsh? The obvious difference is that Metiria Turei is Māori and female, while Bill English is Pākehā and male. How much does this influence our judgements?
Scenario three is involves us all, as when we turn 65 we can receive government superannuation whether we need it or not. And because we are all likely to benefit from this, our judgements seem muted at best.
And scenario four? This was me as a 22-year-old English Lit student on a summer job in a wool testing lab. And no-one expressed concern about a sweet young thing who knew how to write a good letter to ACC.
These musings on the nature of judgement lead me to four conclusions:
- When we judge the actions of others, let’s first check our prejudices or unconscious bias. Are we judging someone who is poor and/or Māori and/or female more harshly than we do someone who is wealthy and/or Pākehā and/or male?
- Do we need more debate about why it is fair for older people to receive non-means tested benefits while families don’t? Especially, as this 2015 article by Victoria University’s Lisa Marriott shows, when superannuation is so much more costly than other benefits.
- Before we judge others, let’s take an honest look at our own history. For most of us there are things in our past which we should not have got away with.
- And if we have done something wrong, it is never too late to put it right. Today I began the process of paying back my undeserved lump sum payment for a 1983 work place accident. “Well that’s not something we hear every day” said the helpful if slightly bemused ACC official, but it appears to be possible. And isn’t that nice to know.
PS: there is a corollary to this story – after several conversations with the friendly and helpful staff at ACC, they told me that I was not able to repay the lump sum payment I received in the 1980s. Why? Because, after reviewing the file, they determined that although I didn’t feel morally entitled to the payment I was in fact legally entitled to it. So, instead, at the recommendation of someone who had been a struggling single Mum, I donated the money to a cool little organisation called The Aunties , an Auckland-based group who provide practical help and support to whānau in Women’s Refuges. Which is quite a nice ending for me, but also underlines the huge discrepancies in entitlements and how we judge people receiving them.