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March 10, 2009


" This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are."


It's as though they did not consider the possibility that Mr. Harrison might be an actual person, with feelings and a life of his own, as opposed to a character in their internal drama whom they might use or abuse as they saw fit.

On almost any account, if morality requires anything at all, it requires that we take other people seriously as people, with their own independent existence, rather than using them as screens onto which we project our own psychological needs at will.

hilzoy....oh my. I don't know where to begin.

You can trip over people on any street corner, or sometimes even in your own house, who have never remotely begun to consider that other people are not only really real, but really other. JanieM's theory of life and the universe says that this is practically the core problem of living together on our shared planet, because it is at the root of so many of the others.

We are all constantly giving each other roles as psychic content in our own mental picture shows. The beginning of maturity is when we start to have a glimmer of understanding of the fact that we are doing this, and that other people are not just characters in our movies, they are both other, and real.

As to the comments on newspaper websites: In general, I check in at 2 or 3 other blogs now and then; if by following a link I end up at a blog that allows the kind of nastiness you're quoting from the WP article's comments, I never go back. Life is too short.

But I do now and then, every few months, look at the comments in response to letters to the editor, and occasionally articles, in my local paper here in the boonies of Maine. It's the same thing. The filth that gets spewed about perfect strangers is mind-boggling and sometimes downright scary.

I’ll be interested to follow this thread, but right now -- bedtime.

Hilzoy, I think your observations are trenchant as usual. However, part of the context for these scornful, hostile judgments is left out of your synopsis.

This suggests to me that you're unaware of the importance of a seemingly insignificant fact. The Harrisons adopted the toddler, who had been abandoned to a Russian orphanage, a few months before Miles left him in the car to die.

Not to conflate the comments on this story with the kinds of randomly ignorant and judgmental comments I'm subjected to by strangers anytime my kid isn't behaving perfectly...and sometimes even when she is...but it's there.

I think you would be very surprised at the force with which a surprisingly large number of strangers feel they need apply to get across to me and my kid that her adopted status is unnatural, that real families and good parents don't have the kinds of problems that flow from infants being institutionalized, and that whatever is challenging about this life we're leading was caused by our own choices, and therefore not as real as the problems they face.

You can't understand the arrows being hurled at this father unless you account for the degree to which this wall of judgment is just normal life for some of us.

I was not surprised in the least bit by the comments.

I hope Mr. Harrison and his wife can find some peace of mind.

I think such kinds of comments are particularly common in stories about parents, because all of who are parents have at some time been Bad Parents, those who do something stupid or careless or negligent that could have led to disaster. (I shut my daughter's fingers in the front door on the day I'd forgotten my keys so I had to wrench her hand out, and I've occasionally left her alone for minutes at a time, so she could have been abducted, she once swallowed a safety pin etc). Near disasters with children are common to most of us at some point, but we have to pretend that we never ever would do something with such dire results, or our pervasive parental guilt would become even more enormous.

Check out yesterdays's online discussion at washingtonpost.com with the author, Gene Weingarten. Some very interesting exchanges and some details that didn't make it into the Washington Post Magazine piece.

let's see. the comments in question combine:
hysterical hatred mixed with large doses of misogyny and slut-shaming;
repeated emphasis on the perfect innocence of the sainted babies;
calls for criminal charges and punishment if not outright calls for lynching.

it would be very interesting to take a few of the nut-cases responding to the car-death story and ask them: what is your position on abortion?

it might provide some illumination. i doubt it would provide any consolation.

I'm touched by your concern as an ethicist but I'm surprised by your surprise. Firstly, the notion that people assume the worst when it comes to the behavior of others really isn't a new thing, or a reflection of a breakdown of morality or ethics on the part of the observer. People have been killing their own children for profit and without reason for a long, long time--one of the first cases was a man who poisoned his own son for the insurance money in Victorian England. Susan Smith. Charles Stuart. And a host of others have followed. The fact that *this* form of child death also is generally accidental doesn't make it unlikely that, as a matter of social fact, the parents in some cases did it deliberately.

Secondly, on your point that the massess should withhold judgement (in the form of blog comments) because the ethical issues are all for ourselves and in ourselves. That's a very acultural and ahistorical view of ethics. Ethics, and morality, are and always have been social. They grow out of a social milieu and they are promulgated and enforced through social sanctions first, and only secondarily through legal ones. That's true for every major religion as far as I know.

The idea of the free standing individual who makes his or her own ethical judgements and whose primary duty is merely to determining what is or is not ethical for himself is a modern artifact. I doubt there is any time in history where women, children, or the lower classess were believed to be able to excercise that right and these are all groups whose behavior was closely monitored and structured through group norms enforced through gossip, shame, comment etc...

Even in the catholic church with its tradition of confession, repentance, and absolution the primacy of the notion of "scandal" puts the lie to any assumptions about ethics inhering primarily in the individual. In almost all forms of modern christianity individuals suffer for the actions of others, individuals are shunned or excluded because others disapprove of their behavior. The role of the community in passing judgement on the individual is paramount while that of the law is secondary.

I have nothing but sympathy for these parents and their situation. I've got young children and I lived in dread of forgetting one of them in a car and it has taken me several years since they were in car seats to stop turning around as I get out of the car and saying "oh, where's the baby?" But to think that people will not or should not think about these deaths and even comment on them is childish. They will. They have to. That's part of being human and imagining that your scorn or your approbation creates a better world in which these things don't happen. Its that illusion that enables us to live in communities in the first place.


Can't believe no one's referenced John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory:

Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad


You're welcome.

(My take? The phenomenon is always the same. The content just differs based on who's grinding what axe. The previous commenters here seem very on point, for the most part.)

P.S.: I have a ten-week-old daughter. You better believe I know exactly how possible it is to forget her in the car. Thank any gods you care to name that killing her that way is very very unlikely.

The Post article said this happens about 25 times a year. There are 350 M people in the U.S. -- about a quarter of those are minors, about 87.5 M; so let's lowball a little and say 20 M kids are car-seat-aged and too small to let themselves out of a locked car.

25/20,000,000 = 1.25x10^-6 = .000125% chance per year, say I get four years' chance to kill my kid this way = .0005% chance per kid. Lessee, in words that's five ten-thousandths of one percent. I really should be spending my time worrying about mop buckets with two inches water in the bottom, or leaving a pot of boiling pasta unattended, or any other more likely calamity.

I like to say these horrible events -- locking your kid in the hot car, having a stranger abduct your child -- are like winning the lottery in reverse. Very, very unlikely. But oh, my God, how terrible when it happens.

Hilzoy--this site is rife with people who judge others' morality, it's just usually on the basis that they make too much money and don't want to pay a lot of it back to the government.

It's equal parts ignorance and scapegoating. Ignorance among well-meaning folks who aren't parents. And scapegoating among well-meaning parents who don't want to recall all the stupid things they've done. As Magistra correctly notes:

Near disasters with children are common to most of us at some point, but we have to pretend that we never ever would do something with such dire results, or our pervasive parental guilt would become even more enormous.

You know, hilzoy, I have been wondering about just this same thing lately. That story was one of the reasons, but there were others. I don't really buy that it's the anonymity possible with the internet that allows people to be so inhumanly cruel to one another. That's too flippant an answer. No, this sort of nastiness well predates the internet. It just makes me wonder about human nature.

The thing is, I know I've participated in similar behavior. I was never a troll, that I can think of, but I used to have a set of friends online who I treated very badly sometimes. I would subject them to angry rants about things that - in retrospect - were simply no big deal. A month or so ago I found some logs of conversations and was simply appalled at my behavior. And confused, too, because I didn't see any reason why I would have treated people I cared about that way. I did care about them. But I was nasty to them.

I'm not Catholic, but I think I'm going to give up saying mean or snarky things about people for (the rest of) Lent.

I think what is at work here is the special loathing people feel toward those who harm children whether intentionally or by gross carelessness.

And it does take something more than "oops" to first leave a child unattended in a car in the heat, and then forget about it.

I think what is at work here is the special loathing people feel toward those who harm children whether intentionally or by gross carelessness.

I'm not sure about that. People, in general, don't seem to have the same loathing for politicians and taxpayers that drastically underfund family services departments which then become so understaffed that overwhelmed case managers "lose" a kid who ends up dying.

And I'm not sure the cases we're talking about constitute gross carelessness. They might be if you define gross carelessness as a failure to focus with laser like precision on the location of your child at all moments of every day, but if we're going with that definition, it seems like every parent with a job or household responsibilities must be grossly careless.

And it does take something more than "oops" to first leave a child unattended in a car in the heat, and then forget about it.

I don't know what you mean by "oops" here. Humans make small cognitive errors all the time. In some contexts, those errors can kill an infant. What is the "something more" that you're concerned with?

Natural selection, people. We have been bred for fierce antagonism towards people who hurt children, regardless of intent.

Plenty of exceptions, as the newspapers record, but you still get plenty of angry blog commenters.

N.b. also Nietzsche's observation that "intent" is a relatively late consideration in our evaluation of malefactors.

dm, it is not necessarily that is hot, a car can heat up even on a mild day.

On a warm, sunny day windows collect light, trapping heat inside the vehicle, and pushing the temperature inside to dangerous levels. On an 85-degree Fahrenheit day, for example, the temperature inside a car with the windows opened slightly can reach 102 degrees within ten minutes. After 30 minutes, the temperature will reach 120 degrees. At 110 degrees, pets are in danger of heatstroke. On hot and humid days, the temperature in a car parked in direct sunlight can rise more than 30 degrees per minute, and quickly become lethal.

A recent study by the Stanford University School of Medicine showed that temperatures inside cars can rise dramatically even on mild days. With outside temperatures as low as 72 degrees, researchers found that a car's interior temperature can heat up by an average of 40 degrees within an hour, with 80% of that increase in the first 30 minutes.


The article also points out how, when children are being taken to daycare, the parent who forgets may think that their child is there being taken care of, so 'forgetting about it' isn't really applicable.

I'm also curious, hil, when you say

the person with whose moral character we should be most directly concerned is our own.

I know this isn't an academic presentation, but I thought that the feature of a moral system is not that it is applicable to the person who creates it, but that it is applicable to all situations, such that one counterexample unaccounted for is sufficient to wreck the system. I'm thinking that applications of moral systems are primarily attempts to instill the general moral system in the individual, not the other way around.

And it does take something more than "oops" to first leave a child unattended in a car in the heat, and then forget about it.

I share Turb's puzzlement about "oops" here. Also, I don't understand how this is two separate actions -- leaving the child unattended and then forgetting about them. There's only the initial forgetting, and that's not a conscious leaving.

I agree with Turb and KCinDC. Humans go on autopilot *all the time* and forget things. It doesn't usually matter so it doesn't register with us. For example at this very minute I have not only forgotten my purse in a coffee shop but I forgot that half an hour ago I called them to make sure it was there and promised to come pick it up. Instead, operating on my invisible checklist of "the next thing I need to do" I came home to take a pill, forgot to do that, and sat down to comment on this thread. After I started typing,w hile I was thinking of things people routinely forget (like their dry cleaning) I realized I, too, was in mid forgetting of the location of my purse.

The point about forgetting an infant, anywhere, is that the consquences of the act can be unimaginably awful within a few minutes of the "forgetting" which is, itself, incredibly common. Look, kids die when you look away from them *for a second* in the bathtub. Infants are fragile and our social system which places a huge burden on individual parents simply doesn't have enough redundancies in it. That's not the fault of the parents but of the thin social networks we have around us. Its one reason why there are set regulations about how many adult caregivers are necessary in group care settings. Because accidents happen all the time.


Also, I don't understand how this is two separate actions -- leaving the child unattended and then forgetting about them. There's only the initial forgetting, and that's not a conscious leaving.

I don't necessarily disagree with this and I am certainly not going to judge another parent. However, my wife and I made a pact to always know where our young son is when we back up (i.e. not just look behind us) and to never, ever leave him in the car. We also have a habit about who is in charge of him when we are together so one of us can turn of the "parent" program for a bit. I think the problem is in not setting up habits beforehand because it is too easy to forget especially if you have other children to distract you. But some things are so important they demand conscious attention at the outset.

I do think some of the outrage is due to parents not making conscious decisions in the interest of the safety of their children until those decisions become an ingrained habit.

Oh, nonsense. My dh and I were conscientious parents and etc... but the fact of the matter is that no one--and I mean no one--can make those deliberate choices all the time for actions that become routine. Take, for example, your example about "not backing up." Certainly I became obsessive about "not backing up" without checking where my children were but if they were in the house I might still have backed up over *someone else's child* quite easily having satisfied my parental responsibility vis a vis my own. And I might yet, if I'm backing up in some place where my internal monitor has not alerted me that children may be running around.

Or take, for example, your example of you and your wife divvyign up the parental monitor role. I don't know about your life but in mine my husband and I divvied it up so successfully that only one of us was required to be driving the children at any one time so unless my husband was instructed to call me every time I got out of the car to ask me "where's the baby" there was zero chance of my being able to rely on that second brain to catch any temporary glitches in my own.

Your very blog post is an example of how difficult it is for people to let go of a totally erroneous belief that they can stave off disaster by being "better" or "more aware" than other people even though on some level they have to know that its pretty much random chance that has protected them so far. In The Right Stuff Tom Wolfe has a great section on how the test pilots and their wives can't let go of this notion that they succeed on their merits because to admit that they may fail *while still being meritorious* is simply to scary. He runs through a pilots reasoning as his plane "augurs in" as he's screaming for help saying "I've tried A and I've tried B and I've tried C...now what." And he describes the pilot's friends at his funeral comforting themselves by asserting over and over again that they themselves would have tried A-C in a different order and survived, or tried E-F and survived.

One thing to remember is that children and their needs shift very rapidly from day to day as they grow. The helplessness of the day old infant is qualitatively different than the helplessness of the toddler and the "ingrained habits" bc wants parents to achieve are outdated almost as soon as repetition makes them firm.

A little modesty and humility in the face of other people's disasters may be unusual but we might as well strive for it.


Aside from the reaction to this particular situation, I feel like comments on news/newspaper sites tend towards the unusually vitriolic and unhelpful, even by internet standards.

I'm not sure why; maybe it's a system that has a relatively small amount of community-building among the commenters, and effectively a higher degree of anonymity - not even an online reputation to consider.

There have been cases here in California of parents who left their children to die not because they forgot, or thought the kid was in daycare, but because they were neglectful - drunk, high, or using the car as a babysitting device and then losing track of time (say, while playing in a casino). Some of the outrage is probably spillover.

But AIMAI is correct that this is a lot of defensive attribution - c.f. bc's posts. Care and precautions certainly reduce the chances of terrible accident happening. But to turn that around and pretend "therefore, terrible accidents don't happen unless one is careless" is nothing more than an attempt to reassure oneself: I have been careful, thus these things will never happen to me. It's exactly the same mental process that leads prosecutors to be wary of putting women on juries in rape trials.

The corollary the the comment that one of the first signs of maturity is recognition of the realness of others is that much of populace is not in fact mature.

Nathan Williams: I feel the same way about newspaper comments sections and I too have mused about why that might be, without coming up with a theory that rings true. (Which wouldn't mean it was right anyhow...)

Jake -- but not the one: I agree, that is the corollary....

Hilzoy, this was spot on.
I've sat on juries. And I've later picked juries. And talked to them afterwards. People who feel a bit guilty about something, say, an alcoholic past, can be the quickest to condemn someone else whose alleged crime [and I mean alleged. Some defendants are totally innocent, believe it or not] involves alcohol in any way. They walk into the situation with an intense prejudice to convict, before hearing the facts, and I think it's because they have something in their own past for which they have not forgiven themselves. And the accused becomes a lightning rod for that self-hatred.

But AIMAI is correct that this is a lot of defensive attribution - c.f. bc's posts. Care and precautions certainly reduce the chances of terrible accident happening.

I didn't mean mine to be a defensive post. Aimai-I've been there. I don't deny that in spite of the best precautions accidents happen. Heck, my son when he was two wandered off in the woods near our home and any number of things could have happened and that was in spite of reasonable precautions (thank goodness for loyal yellow labs that like to follow their young masters). None of our girls had done that and we were unprepared the first time (he was out of sight for maybe 30 seconds but that's all it took). I installed locks on our door after that. I don't for a minute that all my precautions mean I won't some day forget for the reasons Hilzoy cites in the article.

I don't automatically judge any particular situation. My typical response is "but for the Grace of God go I . . " But I also tend to examine my own situation and see if I can change my routine to make it better. My wife and I talk about this often. I think good parents do and what I am talking about. I don't believe that my precautions are some bulletproof protection. Something may still happen. But I may actually be able to live with myself if it does. Balfour is a good example. She can live with herself but is apparently taking further precautions.

I am curious whether established, verbalized habits have a positive effect on avoiding the "Swiss Cheese" situation, like a pilot's check list before flight. I tend to think they do even if not perfect in prevention.

Sure, bc, and I didn't mean to take you up so sharply. But, look, accidents happen. Accidents happen even when you try your pilot's check list because that refers to a set of already known dangers and accidents sometimes involve unknown or unanticipatable dangers or events that temporarily cause you to lose focus on the baby. These car seat leaving cases are a case in point. Anyone can get overwhelmed by sensory overload while driving and end up on autopilot. Anyone. Anyone who is taking on a new task, or a task that isn't usually in their purview, can forget what they are doing for that crucial few seconds. And, of course, the most conscientious parents can make a mistake and precisely *because* they were the most conscientious *never* forgive themselves while the drunken fools tend to chalk stuff up to fate.

Its horrible. Just horrible, to contemplate the incredible array of things that have to go right every day for our children to survive and outlive us. If we didn't just bull through and continue doing things and taking risks while doing them we'd simply never leave the house at all.

But as others have pointed out, especially in the field of legal culpability, there is a tremendous human desire to assign definitive blame to victims in order to assure ourselves that bad things won't happen to us. I well remember a young woman who had worked with rape victims assuring me that she felt "much more confident" after doing so because despite everything they had been telling her she was sure she could detect a "pattern" in which "they were at fault" and by completely altering her own life to take care she was sure she would "lower her risk" of "being raped." Given the myriad of contexts in which women are raped this had to be a complete misattribution of risk on her part but her response to the anxiety of coming face to face with the dangers facing all women was to push it off onto the victims. Its human. And maybe its even psychologically adaptive or whatever for the individual. But its not actually a serious plan for avoiding chance disaster.


You obviously don't read comment threads on newspaper sites very often. If you go by them, you'd think that dittoheads were the only ones who read newspapers.

Actually, aimai, I do think it is very useful to review a rape, or other horror, to see where maybe the victim made a mistake, or could have done something she didn't know would help, or whatever.

I was the victim of an attack once, a purse snatching + violence to my person, and people would ask me about the facts of the case, such as where I was, what time, etc. and their faces would fall to find that I was on the block of the street I live in broad daylight, because it appeared I hadn't made any mistakes, none that they could learn from and prevent in their own lives/pass on to others.

I don't resent them for this or think that they were trying to blame the victim. I did it myself, when I recreated the whole thing in my head. And I did come up with some "should-have"s. And maybe this kind of thing will not keep you 100% safe, but anything that shaves down the risk is good. As long as you're nice/sympathetic about it, it's a positive inquiry that does respect the victim.

There's a second built-in human bias here, besides the tendency to believe that bad things only happen to bad people. Humans are wired to interpret engineering problems as moral problems. We prefer to think "he should just try harder" rather than "let's mistake-proof this process so mistakes won't happen".

Over the past 20-30 years, engineering (my profession) has switched from "fire the guy who screwed up" to "mistake-proof the process". There was INCREDIBLZE human resistance to that change.

How does this relate to the hot car deaths problem? From an engineering point of view, we are setting up the worst process possible. We require parents to put their children in the back seat, FACING BACKWARDS, so it's difficult for parents to check the child seat on exiting the car.

Apparently we do this to protect children from deaths by passenger side airbags. There are better fixes for that problem. We could require that passenger side airbags have an on/off switch, and allow child seats if the airbag is off. That might mean we make the restraints in the front seat more robust. That's a solveable engineering problem.

As it is, we set these parents a problem that some of them are sure to screw up, and then put them on trial? That's really, really wrong.

By the way, public awareness can help. Check the cars you walk past. My current employer requires us to drive through a security checkpoint (defense facility) and the guards are instructed to check the back seat for kids. A couple years ago, they spotted one- one life saved.

I liked the phrase "evil negligence". Kind of makes you wonder about its opposite and its corollary, doesn't it?

I agree that the comments on newspaper blogs, or in newspapers are more rabid than the comments that I have seen on this, and my regular blogs. But then, you know, back in those days when there used to be public executions, they were a picnic event, and people used to scream hysterically when the "criminals" (in quotation marks because I ALWAYS question guilt in these cases...) got the axe. Some women would even excitedly dip their handkerchiefs in the blood, and, if my memory is correct, some attendees would openly masturbate.
You will note that there are no more public executions, and In comparison, the comments section of our local newspapers seems pretty tame. Like my mother said, "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Maybe we should revive that maxim these days.

Children have a vital function to society : they represent its future. They are the embodiment of an ideal. In the eyes of their parents, and in the eyes of the social body. We need to keep this in mind at all times. It is the reason why people become so hysterical when anything in relation to children is threatened in any way.

I think that people these days lack empathy. The capacity to IMAGINE what other people are feeling. I have always liked that Native American maxim, that one should not judge until one has walked a mile in the moccassins of the person whom one is tempted to judge.

One nuance : drunk people can leave their children in the car too. But... they TOO had no intention of KILLING their children. Nobody (or very few, at any rate) KILLS their children this way ; the children DIE as a result of heat exhaustion, or dehydration, or whatever.

We have a general tendancy to despise what we perceive as weakness in others in any form...
I think because our species itself is caught up in an orgy of self hate.

It's awful. I don't really see how you can read about any of those cases and think anything other than, "that is such a horrible tragedy, and that parent is already dead inside. There is nothing the justice system can do to that parent that will compare with what he is putting himself through."

Good points, Anne.

I'll add this to my rant about our society's unwillingness to do a cost-benefit analysis for mandating car seats, especially for kids past about 24 months. People say "THINK OF THE CHIIIIILDREN," and the minds shut down. The things cost a lot of money (not necessarily covered at age 1, like bike helmets, the seats are rated for only one bump), they clutter the visual field in the rear-view, and they are so dern big that they force many families to drive SUVs rather than compacts, which in turn causes more accidents and pollution.

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