Thieves are not responsible for their actions?

Every few days when I am in my house in France I receive a telephone call from India claiming to be from the technical department of Microsoft. The first time I received such a call a young woman informed me that my computer was on the verge of implosion and that if I did not follow her instructions, give her all the details of my computer and internet accounts, etc, my computer would shortly be closed down.

I suppose this kind of fraud must work from time to time – sufficient times to make I profitable, in fact – otherwise it would hardly continue.

The callers know my name (which is sinister in itself) and ask me how I’m doing today. This question alone infuriates me; there is something so relentlessly cheery about it that it utterly depresses my spirits.

I have learned to be polite to the people who make these calls. I imagine that for them it is just a job like any other. Some of their contemporaries went into sales, others into the bank, yet others into insurance; they went into fraud (only a relative, not an absolute, distinction). Moreover, they are almost certainly not the principal beneficiaries of any successful call that they make. The fraud neither starts nor ends with them.

Presumably they, like almost everyone else these days, are given targets to meet, failing to meet which their jobs are in peril. They must know that they are party to fraud, and yet I cannot help but sympathise with them a little. We are enjoined to put ourselves in other people’s shoes before judging them too harshly. Which of us would really like to be in a situation in which ill-paid telephone fraud would seem like a good job, better than many alternatives? To be regularly shouted at, insulted, despised, even down a telephone at a distance of six thousand miles, can hardly be pleasant. So I control myself, and politely tell them that I have no computer.

Is such politeness humanity or pusillanimity? We often think that to make excuses for others is kindness, to make excuses for ourselves dishonesty. But to make excuses for others but not for ourselves easily becomes condescension or a sense of superiority moral and even existential. We are responsible for what we do, but they are not. We act, they only react. This is the characteristic deformation of the liberal conscience.

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