Category Archives: Guilt

Not just monkey business

What happens if a person is brought up in a way that is more likely to cause them to act violently? Should they be criminally responsible for their actions? That’s a difficult enough question, but what happens if the perpetrator of a crime is a monkey? These questions are raised by the case of Chico the delinquent pet macaque.

Chico had already been in trouble with the law previously. When US Federal agents had visited the home of his owner some years ago, Chico had acted aggressively and threw faeces at the agents (although he was not the subject of their investigation, of course). This probably didn’t help his cause in the eyes of the law.

On the present occasion, he escaped from his home in Spokane and bit three people shortly thereafter. He was then taken into custody and held at a local humane society. Because he had bitten people, there was a chance that he could have infected them with rabies or herpes B, both of which are fatal to humans. The only way of testing for rabies is a post mortem test of brain tissue, and accordingly, it was decided that he should be put down.

One can’t help feeling sorry for poor old Chico. Apparently it’s a very bad idea to keep monkeys as pets, and they commonly become aggressive and violent. The bottom line is that in many cases, they can’t be “domesticated”, but nor can they then readapt to normal primate society either. Further, some monkeys carry diseases which can be transferred to humans. Many macaques carry Herpes B.

Should a primate like Chico have “quasi-human” rights or “primate rights”? Some might argue that we show no qualms about putting down dogs who bite humans, so a monkey is no different. However, monkeys are much closer to humans genetically speaking. Should they be given more of a chance than a dog?

Here it seems that Chico was put down primarily because of the health concerns involved, but it doesn’t seem fair that he has to pay the ultimate price for that: his misbehaviour is a direct consequence of his owner’s behaviour in treating him as a pet. Incidentally, it appears that his owner will be charged with keeping a dangerous animal. She is already awaiting sentencing for fraud proceedings in relation to a false college degrees sold over the Internet.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if a larger primate (such as an orang utan or a chimpanzee) killed a person. Should it be determined if the primate had understanding of its actions if it was proposed to put the animal down? To establish criminal liability, it is required to establish that there was an actus reus (criminal action) and a mens rea (criminal intention). It has been argued that chimpanzees could potentially be more rational than human beings (in an experiment involving the economist’s ultimatum game). Do chimpanzees and other great apes have the moral agency required to be prosecuted for a crime? I am sure I have seen a documentary where a grieving chimpanzee mother carried around her dead baby for days, until some other chimps from the group took the baby away. It was actually very distressing to watch. Clearly the mother and the other chimps had a concept of death, and what is more, the mother had a very human reaction to her child’s death.

On the other hand, having a “quasi-trial” for an animal could become farcical. There is a long and dishonourable tradition of animal trials. The most common animals which were the subject of such trials were pigs, bulls, cows or horses, or pests such as rats, mice and weevils. Edward Payson Evans wrote a book called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals in 1906, which cited a variety of cases, including the prosecution of a number of moles in the Valle D’Aosta in 824, the charges against a cow by the Parliament of Paris in 1546 and the conviction of a Swiss dog for murder in 1906. It’s well worth reading this article in Cabinet Magazine for more details of the book – I think I need a copy.

Back to Chico: a case such as this does raise serious issues as to how we deal with criminal offences, whether committed by human or primate.

  • How much should ill-treatment and bad upbringing explain criminal conduct?
  • If monkeys can become aggressive through a particular kind of upbringing, is the same true of humans?
  • How genetically close should an animal be to a human being before it is treated like a human before the law? (if at all)
  • What if it can be shown that a particular kind of animal has some sort of moral understanding akin to human understanding?
  • What if a human perpetrator has very little moral understanding of the consequences of his or her criminal actions? Does this make them able to be treated like an “animal”? (I would argue not – that’s what universal human rights are all about – but it’s an interesting question)

It’s a pretty sad case all in all. It sounds to me like the US is in dire need of some laws with regard to keeping primates as pets – primates are very like us in some ways, but they are not substitute children, and they do badly in a domesticated environment.

(Via Short Sharp Science blog, from New Scientist)

(Hat tip to Dave Bath for bringing this case to my attention)


Filed under animals, crazy stuff, criminal law, death sentence, good and evil, Guilt, human rights, morality

Plagiarist law students, beware…

A friend sent me this interesting case, Re Legal Profession Act 2004; re OG, a lawyer [2007] VSC 250. It concerns both fitness to practice law and plagiarism at university.

In my first year of teaching, I was shocked to come across what appeared to be plagiarism (material which seemed to have been copied verbatim from the Internet). Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide whether it was plagiarism or not, and I could handball it to the people who deal with that kind of thing. I don’t know what happened in the end. But if plagiarism was established, I had never thought about the implications for the student’s admission to practice. This case provides a salutory warning for any law students who have been found to have colluded or plagiarised in the course of university assessment.

For the non-lawyers out there, when lawyers are admitted to practice, they have to tell the Admissions Board about every matter which may suggest they are not fit to practice (ss 1.2.6 and 2.3.3, Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic)). This includes fines for parking and speeding, and public transport fines. And it seems that it also includes being frank about allegations of plagiarism or collusion during a lawyer’s university career.

The case involved two students, OG and GL, who were studying Business and Law at Victoria University. In the first semester of 2005, both students were studying Strategic Marketing and Planning. The first assignment for that subject was a group assignment, but the second assignment was to be completed individually, building on the material in the first assignment. The lecturers of the subject formed the opinion that OG and GL had colluded in preparing the assignment. Each were awarded zero marks for the assignment. Once they had graduated, the two students went on to complete a Leo Cussens course in order to qualify for practice. Each made disclosures about the incident with the Marketing Assignment, but they differed substantially. In his letter to the Board of Examiners, GL said:

I wish to disclose the following to the Board.

In late July 2005, I was accused of colluding with another student on an assignment for the subject of Marketing Planning and Strategy. I spoke to the Topic Co-ordinator and Head Lecturer and stated that I did not collude with the other student. They did not accept my reasoning for why the assignments were similar.

My reasoning for why the assignments were similar was that it was a mere coincidence. The assignment was based on the findings of a group project completed a few weeks earlier, I was in the same group as the other student. The assignment called for developing a marketing strategy based on the product research in our group subject. There were only two possible strategies that could be used.

They advised that I could go the University Board to defend the matter but based on my reasoning, they were of the opinion that our appeal would be rejected. They also said that if I went to the University Board there would be a mark of [sic] my record. If the matter was dealt with by the Topic Co-ordinator and Head Lecturer, they would not put a mark on my record.

I decided to take the penalty of receiving a zero for the assignment and they said that the matter would not be taken further. …

By contrast, OG’s disclosure letter stated as follows:

On or about 26 July 2005 I received a zero grade for an assessment component in a Marketing subject at University for a misunderstanding that occurred. I had a clash in my Law and Marketing subjects and as a result the Strategic Marketing & Management subject coordinator exempted me from attending tutorials.

I undertook an assessment component that was worth 15% of the total assessment for that subject, which was to be conducted as a group task for both the research component and the writing up of the assignment. However, I misunderstood this as a result of my non attendance at the tutorials, and whilst I conducted the research process in a group I mistakenly wrote up the assignment individually.

As a result of my misunderstanding the topic coordinator awarded me a zero mark for that assessment component. I subsequently still, successfully passed the subject.

No record of the event was recorded and at no time was it suggested to be plagiarism or the like. I did not go before the University Board, nor did I fail the subject for my misunderstanding. It was an internal matter with the subject coordinator.

OG was admitted, as the Board of Examiners accepted this admission.

GL was required to attend hearings before the Board of Examiners before he could be admitted, and in the course of this, the allegations against OG came to light. By this time, OG had already been admitted to practice. In the event, GL was not admitted to practice on the basis of a lack of frankness in his admissions to the Board of Examiners.

The question for the Supreme Court of Victoria was then whether OG should be struck off the roll. In the event, the Court concluded that the most likely possibility was that the students had colluded in the preparation of the assignment, and that they had discussed the matter fully. OG had denied that the university had communicated the allegation of collusion to him, but the Court found the university had done so. They further found that OG knew that GL was disclosing the matter to the Board of Examiners. OG’s admission to practice was revoked.

There are a few lessons to be learned for young players from this case. If you’ve had allegations of plagiarism or collusion against you during your university studies, make sure you disclose it. And make sure your disclosure really is full and frank. Don’t compound one misdeed (plagiarism/collusion) with another (failure to be honest about the circumstances).  GL would probably have been better off being totally frank about the collusion; it seems that he did not want to “rat on” a mate, and tried to protect OG, and that this in part contributed to his own failure to be admitted.

I read an interesting piece by Gino Dal Pont in the Law Institute Journal a few months back about the requirement that a lawyer be of  “good fame and character” ((2007) 81(10) LIJ 76). It outlined the malleable nature of this concept, and showed that the boundaries are always changing. Previously, tax evasion was not a bar to practice, but now it is according to ss 2.4.26 and 2.4.27 of the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic). And as the case above indicates, plagiarism and collusion may provide bars to practice, depending on the circumstances: see also Re AJG [2004] QCA 88.

I think the Court made the right decision in regard to OG. In some ways, he was very unlucky that GL was also a law student, and was honest enough to disclose the matter. If GL had written a letter which was similar to OG’s, perhaps they would have gotten away with it. And if GL had not been a law student at all, the matter would never have come to light. It’s a little scary. I don’t like the idea of people like OG practising. Does the disclosure process work? Insofar as it requires good faith on the part of the applicant, there is a problem, highlighted by OG’s case. If a person is dishonest, they will make a dishonest disclosure in an attempt to gain admission. At least by striking this guy off the roll, the Court has given a message that this kind of conduct will not be tolerated.

Another question: does this requirement of good fame and character make people trust lawyers more? Or think that we are ethical? Excuse me while I go into hysterics here. Despite all these requirements, lawyers are distrusted and widely regarded as unethical. (I keep thinking of the line from the Tom Waits song: “Killers, thieves and lawyers, God’s away, God’s away, God’s away on business, business.”) I wonder if it’s a bit like highly religious people. The highly religious proclaim high moral standards for themselves (and sometimes try to impose them on others). It’s quite easy, therefore, to find examples of hypocrisy amongst religious zealots because the standards are so high, and so it is with lawyers too. Perhaps we lawyers would be better off admitting that we are human, and that some of us are not good or ethical people. But then, on the other hand, I think it’s important to keep in mind that as lawyers, we hold a good deal of power and responsibility, and that we purport to uphold and advance the law. And I also think that it’s important to aspire to honesty and to get rid of lawyers who have shown a tendency to be dishonest. What do others think?


Filed under academia, courts, Guilt, law, legal education, morality, universities

Childcare, guilt and the working parent

After we moved to our new house, I bit the bullet and put our daughter in creche. I reasoned that she’s almost 2 years old, so she should be able to cope with it.

The first time was awful. I stayed with her for three quarters of an hour before I left. She was very nervous and clingy, and when she realised that I was going to leave her with these people, she started to cry, and gave me a look which indicated I had committed absolute betrayal, calling out “Mummy, Mummy, Mu-u-u-u-mmy!” and stretching her arms out. She wasn’t the only one crying. I am afraid I sobbed the whole way into work. The second time was much better, but then she got sick, and had a week off. We’ve had her in childcare for a little over a month now, and of that time, she’s only been there half of the time because she keeps getting sick (colds, bronchitis, ear infections). I’m lucky that my Mum lives close by and has been able to come over at the last minute. I hope that the bubba will get more resistant to disease as time goes on; if she’s still getting sick like this in a few months time, I don’t know what I’ll do.

I wouldn’t mind putting her in for a morning twice a week, but from 8am to 6pm seems like an awfully long time. The carers there are lovely, and being a social little thing, she seem to enjoy interacting with other babies and doing little activities. But she’s always so glad to see me when I pick her up, and when we get home, she has to cuddle me for at least 15 minutes straight. We have a love-fest and tell each other how much we love each other. In fact, she says “I lubboo Mummy”. It’s adorable.

When politicians talk about the problems of childcare, they generally mention availability as the key concern. Yes, that is a problem, and the waiting lists at some childcare centres are insane. I was just lucky this one recently opened up and had some vacancies. However, in such debates, it’s just assumed that mothers are champing at the bit to get their kids into childcare and get their noses back to the grindstone. I would suggest that the reality is a little more complex, at least from my point of view. I’ve noticed that the debate falls into two camps – the staunchly pro-childcare and the staunchly stay-at-home advocates. I don’t fall into either. I’m a little more ambivalent. I think if someone occupies one or the other, that’s okay, but most mothers (and fathers) are probably more like me, they just don’t want to admit it.

I like my job, and even if I didn’t have to work, I wouldn’t want to stop working altogether. It’s good to have my own time, where I can do adult things, and have adult conversations. It’s also good to keep one’s brain going. But the whole time I’m at work, I miss my baby. On the way home, I’m impatient to see her. I treasure our days at home together (well, mostly…she wouldn’t have her afternoon nap and let me do marking yesterday, and she wouldn’t take her antibiotics either for some reason…grr).

Financially speaking, I have to keep working, because I have a mortgage and it has to be paid. I’m saving for all I’m worth just in case interest rates go up a substantial amount, or something else happens. That’s the problem of being an ex-banking lawyer; I can imagine the worst case scenarios all too well.

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know how to make myself feel less guilty. I don’t want to make my parents have to look after my daughter all the time (they’ve already done enough with my sister and I – they should enjoy their freedom/retirement). For the moment, I’ll just keep going, and keep juggling all those balls in the air (mother, wife, academic, student, blogger…you name it).

P.S. Only 14 more papers to go out of 100. This post is my reward to myself for having marked 6 papers this morning. At this rate, perhaps I’ll finish today? In fact, perhaps I should stay up tonight just to get them out of the way? Hmm, tempting…


Filed under childcare, children, feminism, Guilt, jobs, motherhood, parenthood, society

Damn them with faint praise

I couldn’t help being fascinated by the New York Times article about praising your kids. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my schooling lately (not just because the question of sex ed at school got raised recently…) Perhaps it’s because I’m already nervous about sending my darling precious daughter to school.

One girl I know was told from a very early age that she was gifted. She refused to admit she ever got anything wrong. I remember her telling me when we were 14 years old: “Don’t ever admit that you don’t know anything!” She was shocked that I expressed ignorance about a topic. As I tell my students in my class, one should never ever feel guilty about asking a question if one does not understand. In fact, it’s the intelligent thing to do – to seek clarification, and to be open to learning new things! She still never admits it when she gets things wrong. And she is a very lonely, unhappy person to this day: she has alienated so many people.

I’ve written a post on feeling guilty, in which I expressed some doubts about labelling a child as “gifted”, no matter how gifted they may be. It seems that this doubt was justified.

I suppose my own views on this matter come from being labelled as “gifted”, not by my parents, but by my Australian high school. What did it do for my self esteem? S.F.A. What did it do for my results at school? I seem to recall that I actually did worse the semester after I was labelled as “gifted”. The best thing for me was to go to the UK, and to find out that I had to work bloody hard to keep my head above water and achieve results.

Doing “well” in an exam when I was doing O-Levels and A-Levels meant getting 60% – 70%. One did not always succeed. There were many answers one got wrong. And one only exceeded by working extremely hard. Before, I had been used to getting great results in tests without studying. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever had to study before. I was motivated by a sense of pride (How dare they think Australians are inferior?) and I pushed myself hard. For the first time in my life, I really worked, and it paid off.

I don’t like this modern tendency to try to “eliminate” failure. I seem to recall that when the VCE was introduced in this State, my mother received a bulletin saying “The concept of failure has been abolished.” Well, that’s stupid. Because real life isn’t like that. The fact is that some people are better at things than others. Full stop. It really gives me the irrits, particularly as this mindset doesn’t extend towards sport in the Australian schooling system. So one can be humiliated in all sorts of ways because of one’s sporting ineptitude, but woe betide anyone who says that maybe little Betty can spell “acrobat” and little Bill cannot. (You can guess from this that I was always one of the people who was left until last when teams were chosen at school. In primary school, only myself, the two overweight girls and the girl with the mental age of 7 were the only four people in our year not chosen for a netball team.) I’m never going to be a sporting genius. I’ve dealt with it. However, I now know that I can play and enjoy sport (with some effort and practice). Before I became a mother, I was in a soccer team and enjoyed it immensely. We even won some tournaments, to my immense pride and delight.

So, I won’t be telling my daughter that she’s “gifted” or “intelligent”, although I do think she’s a fabulous, clever and lovely little critter. I will tell her that I love her heaps, just for being her: in fact, I already do so repeatedly. But, after reading that article, I will feel justified in treating her like an ordinary human being, just as my parents treated my sister and I. The truth of the matter is, that to achieve results, one has to work hard and do “boring” stuff. It seems to be unpopular these days to emphasise this. Everything has to be “interesting” and palatable for easily-bored students. But once you get out into the real world, there’s lots of boring stuff. Just because you’re a lawyer doesn’t mean that you can escape this: in fact, it may mean you resign yourself to a life of boring stuff (discovery, due diligence etc). And one is constantly judged in the real world – who gets pay rises, who doesn’t etc. The best way of preparing children for the real world is to let them know that life isn’t always interesting, and native intelligence or talent alone does not get you anywhere without practice and hard work.

But when you do work hard and do well, it is immensely satisfying. And for me, at least, the world is an infinitely interesting place.

(Via Backwards City and Crikey)


Filed under education, Guilt, motherhood, soccer, society

Feeling guilty

Does anyone else have the problem with guilt? Sometimes I feel guilty for just existing, or for being me. I think I’m a “guilt generator”. I have incredibly high standards for myself, and if I don’t meet them, I am very disappointed. This Friday I couldn’t make it to friend’s a wedding. I was going to detail the various disasters which caused my non-attendance, but it’s not worth recounting. I’ve spent the last three weeks feeling more and more guilty as it became more and more probable that I wouldn’t be able to make it. By Friday morning, I was almost in tears at the breakfast table because I felt so bad. I wish I wasn’t such a big softie.

One of my old bosses used to try to stop me from tying myself up in knots with guilt. He was good at noticing it starting and then nipping it in the bud. He’d make me sit down, stare at me, and say: “Listen to me: IT’S NOT YOUR PROBLEM! You’re not responsible for the rest of the world.”

Sometimes, I feel I have to be able to do it all: be a mother, be a wife, do the career thing, publish multiple brilliant academic articles, save the world into the bargain, cook delicious meals every night, make every social function, be the life of the party, be there for everyone, always be patient and tolerant… Of course, I can’t do it all, and I shouldn’t really be so hard on myself when I can’t manage it.

I was thinking on these things when I read this great blog post about a book entitled Britain On The Couch – Treating a Low-Serotonin Society. The question the book asks is: If we have so much in terms of material wealth and health, why aren’t we happier? I haven’t read the book, but if I understand the post correctly, the message is that we are affluent enough that we have moved beyond “survival mode”. We therefore have the “luxury” to aspire to be the best (rather than just survive). We are given a message that we have to achieve academically and we have to be the best in the highly competitive workforce. We compare ourselves with others all the time, and find ourselves wanting.

My sister and I were talking about an acquaintance of mine, a Rhodes Scholar. We agreed that her list of academic, sporting and charitable achievements was simply amazing. Added to this, she is a nice person. We felt severely inadequate next to her. But we were wondering if she ever gets time to just exist as a normal human being? Can she just laze on the couch in tracksuit pants? Is she able to be there for family and friends, or is she too busy out saving the world?

This leads me on to think about another friend of mine. I know from personal experience that my friend has time to chat, discuss ideas, and just be a normal friendly human being. That’s part of what is so great about her. She is also intelligent and generous. Despite all these great qualities, she told me she was feeling very depressed because she hadn’t “achieved” more by this point in her life. As a child, she was told she had immense potential and she could achieve anything she wanted. She felt very bad that she hadn’t “lived up to that potential”. What is “living up to your potential” anyway? I’d rather have this girl as a friend a million times over than the Rhodes Scholar girl.

It’s important that people encourage children and not shut down their potential, but I think you have to be careful. Calling children “gifted” could put pressure on them, which may stay with them for life. Even worse, there’s a crazy tendency to try and “hothouse” children these days. Little Sally shows a liking for the piano, so immediately Mum and Dad start to train her up as a concert pianist. I felt bad because I haven’t bought any educational DVDs for my child yet. I haven’t taken her to swimming lessons or to gymbaroo. Guilt! But as my Mum pointed out, Albert Einstein wouldn’t have had the advantage of Baby Einstein, but he still got a Nobel Prize. And my baby is very alert, coordinated and friendly despite the lack of gymbaroo and Baby Einstein. I think we’ll stick with reading The Hungry Caterpillar over and over and climbing up the stairs.

I read a comment in a Stephen Fry book about gifted children which resonated with me. The protagonist said something like “When I was 7, I could read like a 14 year old. When I was 14, I could read like a 21 year old. When I was 21, I could read like a 21 year old.” This is essentially what happened to me. Yes, I was a very gifted reader as a child. I read Lord of the Rings when I was 6 or 7 years old. But by the time I was an adult, everyone else had caught up. Who cared that I was a very good reader by that point? (Of course, I had had an opportunity to read Lord of the Rings over 40 times, so there were some advantages.)

I think that having very high expectations of oneself is a problem for many lawyers. At law school there are many very intelligent people with lots of potential. There’s a natural tendency to compare oneself with people like that Rhodes Scholar girl and find oneself wanting. The thing is that we can’t all be the next Chief Justice of the High Court. And you know what? That’s okay.

Have I lived up to my potential? I don’t know. Does it matter, as long as I try my best? I don’t think so. What I do know is that I have a great family and friends. That’s something to be proud of. I also manage pretty well with juggling everything. And if I drop the my bundle occasionally? Well, that proves I’m charmingly fallible and human, doesn’t it? New Years’ Resolution: less guilt, less high expectations of myself. And I’ll try not to be too much of a “high need achiever” if I occasionally slip up and fail to keep my resolution…getting guilty for feeling guilty is just ridiculous…!


Filed under Guilt, society