Thu | Feb 27, 2020

Daniel Thwaites | I can recall

Published:Sunday | December 30, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Dwight Nelson, who passed away last week, became the laughing stock of the country because of his performance at the West Kingston Commission of Enquiry and the infamous "I cannot recall" response that he gave to question after question.

The Gleaner's editorial, while rightly praising Nelson, curtly notes:

"His performance at the inquiry left a caricature of fumbling incompetence by a man who had much to hide."

Thing is, I know Dwight Nelson was a gentleman. Although I didn't interact with him all that much, it was enough for me to deduce that he was a gentle and thoughtful soul. Also, I have the testimony of others who knew him better and for longer that this was his usual character. The tributes to his work as a trade unionist further consolidate that he was a serious and worthwhile contributor to the national project.

So how then to understand the "I cannot recall" phenomenon that taints Nelson's memory? Personally, I think a decent man was thrust into circumstances that would have sorely tested anyone. I think Nelson's downturn was at least in a major part, just plain bad luck. He was catapulted into a near impossible position by forces outside his control, and he was unable to handle the crazy crosswinds. I don't say it explains everything, but it's what comes to my mind when thinking about Nelson's "I cannot recall" debacle.




Thing is, we praise and blame people based on acts and states of affairs that they control, or over which they exercise some control. But our ability to control our circumstances as moral agents seems very tenuous when you actually stop and look at it. From my days as a philosophy student, I can recall that this, known as the problem of 'moral luck', was a fascinating cluster of problems and paradoxes. So follow me along a little gallop before we return to Nelson.

Consider 'constitutive luck': some of us by virtue of our inborn personality find it easier to behave generously or courageously than do others, who may find it very difficult to be gentle, generous, or courageous, however much they may try. This isn't to say that we don't all normally have some degree of control over our behaviour. But it is to acknowledge the obvious, which is that our natural dispositions make us very different people, and some are simply born with a disposition to more admirable traits.

Our capacity to behave well also seems affected by our stage of life. That's why we tend to be more forgiving of children and the elderly, but also of lunatics and the very stupid. We figure they don't have quite as much control over their actions as the rest of us do, so we offer excuses for their lapses in judgement and behaviour.

The puzzles about moral luck run really deep. For instance, our moral characters are formed by things that have happened to us, and over which we have no control. Some were just born lucky, with loving and caring parents and community, while others simply drew the short stick in life's lottery. And yet generally we hold people - or at least want to hold them - to the same standards.

Or how about one of the biggest puzzles, which is why we blame people for mistakes when what came out of their error seems the result of happenstance? For instance, in otherwise identical circumstances where an adult leaves a protective gate unlocked, a child may wander outside and be struck by a car, or, distracted by the television, remain safely inside. We apportion extreme blame to the unlucky adult whose charge was killed, but only mild admonishment to the second, when in reality there was no difference in their behaviour, only in the outcome. Why is that, when they did exactly the same thing?




Here's another puzzle. A man who lives in peaceful times has enough food and drink, and is reasonably well constituted, may live a whole life without facing some of life's most terrible and trying challenges. He will be accounted a good man by himself and others. But that same man, born in perilous times and places, being sorely tried, may behave monstrously.

How many would pass a real test of their moral fibre, like if you happened to be of soldiering age in Nazi Germany? Empirical evidence, social research, and a few millennia of history all seem to support the thesis that most of us are capable of great viciousness when placed in the 'right' circumstances. Therefore the conceit that we behave better than others purely as a result of being better people is probably unwarranted.

Actually, not to get too controversial, but it's worth thinking about this in the context of slavery because that touches us so closely. There was a time not so long ago when it was considered quite normal that one person could own another. And even though a man might regret that he himself was a slave, it wouldn't necessarily occur to him that slavery itself was a great evil. Nowadays we find it easy to fulminate against the evildoers of the past, but how many of us would have been willing to risk the social censure of polite society, ostracism from family, and relative poverty compared to our peers, that opposing slavery entailed? My guess is very, very few.

I've taken this extensive detour to urge extreme caution with overlaying Dwight Nelson's memory with the "I cannot recall" mess. Even though it was a national tragedy, and even though the creators of that unique national nightmare deserve severe censure, those of us who give that censure are also in a precarious position. Do you know that you could have done better? At least to me, it is a reminder to not judge anyone by their lowest moments. For that was a very low national moment, and there are scores of Jamaican souls whose names, almost none of us can recall, who were sent into the ground. But even so, Dwight Nelson was, at core, a good man.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to