The gym that I have been working out at near my parents’ house, unlike my gym back at home, has a bunch of TVs constantly tuned to cable news. I have been amazed, horrified, and disturbingly fascinated by the almost-constant coverage dedicated to Casey Anthony, the Florida woman on trial for killing her daughter. Even when there are no updates on the trial, the media talking heads spend their time speculating on what might happen next, to the total neglect of any other news.
An excellent post over at Huffington Post points to the moral problem with this public fascination:
It’s like the compulsion of watching a train wreck — you’re horrified but fascinated at the same time and can’t seem to pull your eyes away. Above all, you’re curious — what does death really look like, how did it happen and who is responsible? It’s a real-life “whodunit.” The Casey Anthony trial is a never-ending trail of duct tape and decomposing tissue, wild parties and dysfunctional family dynamics, suicide attempts and sexual allegations. In all of those compelling bread crumbs, it’s hard to remember that you’re being taken down a path that, ultimately, ends in the murder of a small child, a child whose life was taken from her, stuffed into a garbage bag and dumped in the woods. That’s not a destination most people want to arrive at. They’d rather enjoy the spectacle along the way. The outcome becomes not a way to evaluate justice for a toddler but as a reason to throw a “Verdict Watch Party.”
Today, such curiosity is thought morally irrelevant—perhaps distasteful, but not harmful. In the classical Christian tradition, however, curiosity (curiositas) is a big problem. St. Augustine regarded curiosity as “concupiscence of the eyes” (De vera religione), essentially an inordinate desire for knowledge of sensible things. St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the Augustinian definition, identifies curiosity as a vice against temperance. He specifies four ways in which the desire to know might become inordinate:
1. When the desire for knowledge is accidentally evil, such as “those who study to know the truth that they may take pride in their knowledge.
2. When the desire for knowledge is itself inordinate, by withdrawing a person from less profitable study, for example, or desiring to learn about evil things like demons.
3. When the desire for knowledge is not directed toward its due end, which is the knowledge of God. Aquinas quotes Augustine here that “in studying creatures, we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiosity; but we should ever mount towards immortal and abiding things.” (II-II 167.1).
4. When the desire for knowledge aims at things that are too high for human intellect, that is, things that belong properly to revelation.
Note that for both Augustine and Aquinas, it is not the knowledge, nor the desire to know in themselves which are properly considered evil. Both knowledge and the desire to know are good, but like other desires we have (for food or drink or sex, for example) our desire to know can become excessive or inordinate.
Our collective desire to know about Casey Anthony and her trial have clearly become excessive and inordinate, for primarily the second and third reasons Aquinas identifies. By focusing so much on Casey Anthony, we are neglecting other, more profitable knowledge. A lot of important things have happened this week that we could be thinking and talking about—elections in Thailand, an oil spill in Montana (my soon-to-be home state), a national debate about the debt ceiling, and renewed attention to the role of human behavior on global warming. To watch the news this week, you would hardly know anything else was happening in the world (except Kate and William touring Canada and getting some boos). Even the desire to know about these more important events can become excessive, but when people know more about Casey Anthony’s personal life than they do about the debt ceiling, we have a problem.
More importantly, our desire to know about Casey Anthony is vicious because of the end to which it is directed. For both Augustine and Aquinas, the goodness of the desire to know depends on its end or purpose, its telos. Desire should never be purposeless or “vain,” but should rather be oriented towards the highest goods. Thus Aquinas says,
One may watch other people’s actions or inquire into them, with a good intent, either for one’s own good–that is in order to be encouraged to better deeds by the deeds of our neighbor–or for our neighbor’s good–that is in order to correct him, if he do anything wrong, according to the rule of charity and the duty of one’s position. This is praiseworthy, according to Hebrews 10:24, “Consider one another to provoke unto charity and to good works.” But to observe our neighbor’s faults with the intention of looking down upon them, or of detracting them, or even with no further purpose than that of disturbing them, is sinful: hence it is written (Proverbs 24:15), “Lie not in wait, nor seek after wickedness in the house of the just, nor spoil his rest.” (II-II, 167.2, ad. 3).
This week, we have been flaying Casey Anthony alive, picking over every detail of her life with no regard for her privacy, her feelings, and most importantly, her dignity. Our desire to know about her is not directed toward compassion or charity, as suits a child of God. Even if Casey Anthony is guilty, she is still a human being and she deserves from us a level of respect totally absent from the voyeuristic spectacle we have created over this trial (a spectacle I hope I am not perpetuating by writing about her here). Dr. Gregory Jantz at the Huffington Post says it well: “Casey Anthony will be judged by how she responds in her trial. We will be judged by how we respond to her trial.” I would say the verdict in our case is guilty.