The Philosophy of Bank-Robbing


I saw Ben Affleck’s new flick, The Town, this week, about a group of Boston-Irish heist experts, and the ‘one last job’ which – guess what – goes wrong.

I noticed while I was watching the film that, as with other heist movies like Heat or Point Break, you find yourself identifying with the bank robbers. You are nervous that the heist will go wrong, and really hope they get away with it – or you do in The Town, anyway.
What is it we like about bank robbers? Partly it’s their outsider-ness. They don’t obey the rules the rest of us obey. They don’t hold down boring jobs, they don’t have to sit at desks all day, sucking up to their bosses. We admire their entrepreneurialism, their freelance, unhooked lives. Robbers are pure capitalists, smashing through social rules and conventions in their pitilessly efficient pursuit of new markets. (Of course, this idea of bank-robbers being somehow ‘more free’ is a myth – we’re all stuck in systems, we all have to obey somebody, as The Wire showed so well).
And we also admire their efficiency, their competence, their cool. We root for the bank-robbers who are really good at what they do, really cool under pressure, really skilled at cracking codes, vaulting through security systems, using their charm to blag their way through systems, or their guns to shoot their way out.
We admire the Stoic emotional control of a bank robber like Robert De Niro’s character in Heat, or Al Pacino’s mobster in The Godfather. We admire their cool, their detachment, their self-containment, their reasoning ability, their ability to ‘never get so attached to something you cannot walk away from it if the Heat is around the corner’. They’re like secular monks.
That means we also recognize the ‘bad bank robber’ – the robber who cannot control their emotions, like Sonny in The Godfather, who loses their cool, who uses unnecessary force, like Bosko, the psychopath in Heat, or Mr Blonde in Reservoir Dogs. We’re OK with bank-robbers killing people, even innocent people, but not unnecessarily, not gratuitously.
Now what do these attitudes say about us?
They show that we live in a technocratic society which no longer believes in ‘ends’, only ‘means’. We may not agree with the end which bank-robbers set for themselves (robbing a bank and getting rich), but we still admire their means. We admire the skills they use to seek this end, including their skills of emotional self-management. We admire their technocratic efficacy.
In such a society, we can actually compare a cop, like Al Pacino’s character in Heat, with a robber, like Robert De Niro’s character. We can say they are similar characters, two sides of the same coin, because they possess the same skills. It doesn’t matter what end they serve, it is the skills they employ in the pursuit of that end.
This discussion is relevant to our wider interests, because there is a debate over whether we can teach the skills of emotional self-control if we don’t also teach the ‘end’ of virtue.
Modern cognitive therapy today teaches the techniques of ancient philosophy, particularly of Stoicism, but without the overt moral context of Stoicism. CBT teaches people how to examine their thoughts, how to detach themselves from their emotions, how to think more rationally and effectively. It doesn’t, however, try to tell people what they should pursue in life. It teaches the means of life, not the end of life. It is not a moral philosophy. It is a technocratic science.
But some philosophers have criticised this teaching of Stoic skills outside of the explicit moral context of Stoicism. They say: if you teach the skills of self-management without the end of virtue, what is to stop someone becoming a highly rational bank-robber?
This is not purely an academic question. Four years ago, a CBT anger management course taught in UK prisons, called CALM, attracted controversy when a prisoner graduated from the course, was granted parole, and then went out to commit another violent armed robbery – a robbery which was executed with admirable rationality and efficacy.
A Home Office report concluded that such CBT courses ‘have the potential to equip the offender with additional control mechanisms and increase his / her capacity to manipulate a situation to their advantage and power’.
In fact, you can use the bank-robber argument to criticise the whole Socratic project of ethical rationalism. The foundation of this project is Socrates’ argument that, as people become more rational, self-aware and self-controlled, they will also become more virtuous. Self-knowledge = virtue and happiness. That’s Socrates’ magic formula.
But the philosopher Bernard Williams made the rejoinder: couldn’t a bank robber be highly rational, self-aware and self-controlled, and still be a bank robber? In other words, couldn’t one be highly rational, and not necessarily ethical in a conventional or socially approved way?
What would a defender of Socrates, Aristotle and the Stoics say to this argument?
First of all, they could make an attachment argument. Part of becoming rational and self-aware is the ability to question one’s goals. We learn to become more detached, to step back from our animal programming, so that, in the words of Heat, there is nothing we cannot walk away from in five minutes if the heat is around the corner.
But a bank robber is obviously still attached to the good of money, excessively attached, to the point where they are willing to risk their and other people’s lives for it. Why is Robert De Niro so attached to money? What does he want to do with it? What’s the point of it? He collects coins. Does he need so many millions to add to his coin collection?
In other words, part of being detached is the ability to subject one’s goals to critical examination, and to try and decide if the goal is really worthwhile. Does it cultivate what is higher in me, what is best in me, or what is lower in me. Does it help my society and other people?
The bank-robber might reply to this: why is it rational to help other people? Why should I?
This takes us to the second argument: the importance of society, and of our duty to our fellow humans. A person trained in Socratic, Stoic or Aristotelian ethics has a sense of the importance of serving their society, and of abiding by their society’s laws wherever possible. If you’re going to break your society’s laws, you have to have a very good reason for doing so. You should be able to defend that decision rationally to others.
Part of that idea of belonging to society is that we are connected to other people, they are part of the family of human beings. If we abuse other people, we cut ourselves off from our own family. We become outcasts, aliens, runaways – this is what the bank-robber eventually becomes, an outcast, rootless, lopped off from the community.
A Good Life is a life of meaningful relationships, spent pursuing a higher good together. A bank robber’s lifestyle condemns them to be on the margins of society, lying, cheating, hiding, never sure if they can trust those they work with.
Yes, there is the idea of the ‘code of thieves’, like the Mafia code. But how strong is this moral code in practice? I once interviewed a former heist expert, Louis Ferrante, who had worked for the John Gotti family in New York. He told me that, in his early years, he had been very impressed with the Mafia code of honour.
But when he went to prison, he came across many other Mafiosi inside, and found they were often imprisoned for killing other people for money, including other Mafiosi. He realized how empty their moral code was in practice.
Finally, I suppose one could argue that I would rather a self-controlled bank-robber than a wildly impulsive and uncontrolled one. But can’t one be a very self-controlled psychopath? Isn’t that what Mr Blonde is, in Reservoir Dogs? He’s the sort of person whose pulse doesn’t even rise, when he’s cutting off someone’s ear with a razor.
To this, one just has to shrug and say, OK, philosophical training won’t always make a person better. Aristotle, in fact, thought philosophical training was only appropriate for a very few people, who had been raised in a loving environment and in whom the seeds of virtuous behaviour had been planted.
He declared that philosophy could never be for the masses, because “these do not by nature obey the sense of shame, but only fear, and do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness but through fear of punishment; living by passion they pursue the pleasures appropriate to their character and the means to them…What argument could remould such people? It is hard, if not impossible, to remove by argument the traits that have long since been incorporated in the character”.
Aristotle was, of course, incredibly elitist, and thought philosophy was only appropriate for rich, free Greek men over 30. CBT, by contrast, has tried to take the Socratic project to the masses. No doubt some of the people it reaches are inappropriate students. But I don’t think CBT will make them worse.

Comments:

  • Ed Dowding says:

    Good writing.

    You say "a bank robber is obviously still attached to the good of money, excessively attached, to the point where they are willing to risk their and other people's lives for it."

    Is this different from the majority of investment bankers? They're on the same side, just one group outnumbers the other.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hey Ed,

    Well, bankers do at least abide by the rules of their society. And they also sometimes give a lot of money to charitable organizations and to the arts, as well as paying a lot of taxes, so they would argue they contribute to the wider good of their society.

    I think you could criticize many bankers as lacking in virtue, including the virtues of self-control and self-awareness.

    In fact, bankers were criticized in just these terms in the 18th century by civic humanists, who claimed they were hysterical, swinging from violent greed to violent panic. And they also served their own selfish and partial interest rather than the interests of the Whole.

    The defence against that argument is that, while a bad banker would certainly be hysterical and driven by their 'animal spirits', a good banker would learn to discipline their emotions in order to invest as rationally and dispassionately as possible.

    Adam Smith pointed out that we have to be self-disciplined, agreeable, polite and self-controlled in order to win the sympathy of the market. Businessmen who can't control themselves lose the confidence of the market – look what happened when Jeff Skilling, the CEO of Enron, called an analyst an 'asshole' in a conference call.

    Of course, one could be a rational, dispassionate investor, and also utterly pitiless and cruel. You could stop up your ears to the cries of the unemployed and hungry, telling yourself that market logic is on your side, that your actions serve the wider good of market efficiency.

    Likewise, one could be a rational, dispassionate Stoic, and also utterly pitiless. Stoicism is, after all, part of the 'anti-pity' tradition, as Martha Nussbaum put it.

    I would say that the rational pursuit of the Good has to be tempered with a sense of human frailty, human suffering, and how difficult many people find it to change and adapt. You can't just tell people 'this is the most efficient way of doing things, now adapt to it', as neo-liberals tend to do.

    Rather a long answer, you've caught me in the middle of a caffeine buzz.

    All best

    Jules

  • invalidated says:

    This discussion is relevant to our wider interests, because there is a debate over whether we can teach the skills of emotional self-control if we don't also teach the 'end' of virtue.
    Modern cognitive therapy today teaches the techniques of ancient philosophy, particularly of Stoicism, but without the overt moral context of Stoicism. CBT teaches people how to examine their thoughts, how to detach themselves from their emotions, how to think more rationally and effectively. It doesn't, however, try to tell people what they should pursue in life. It teaches the means of life, not the end of life. It is not a moral philosophy. It is a technocratic science.
    But some philosophers have criticised this teaching of Stoic skills outside of the explicit moral context of Stoicism. They say: if you teach the skills of self-management without the end of virtue, what is to stop someone becoming a highly rational bank-robber?

    good point

    This is not purely an academic question. Four years ago, a CBT anger management course taught in UK prisons, called CALM, attracted controversy when a prisoner graduated from the course, was granted parole, and then went out to commit another violent armed robbery – a robbery which was executed with admirable rationality and efficacy.
    A Home Office report concluded that such CBT courses 'have the potential to equip the offender with additional control mechanisms and increase his / her capacity to manipulate a situation to their advantage and power'.

  • invalidated says:

    well i never … think cbt should have been taught in conjunction with, say, social/assertiveness skills to enable offenders to enter the mainstream.

    In fact, you can use the bank-robber argument to criticise the whole Socratic project of ethical rationalism. The foundation of this project is Socrates' argument that, as people become more rational, self-aware and self-controlled, they will also become more virtuous. Self-knowledge = virtue and happiness. That's Socrates' magic formula.
    But the philosopher Bernard Williams made the rejoinder: couldn't a bank robber be highly rational, self-aware and self-controlled, and still be a bank robber? In other words, couldn't one be highly rational, and not necessarily ethical in a conventional or socially approved way?
    What would a defender of Socrates, Aristotle and the Stoics say to this argument?
    First of all, they could make an attachment argument. Part of becoming rational and self-aware is the ability to question one's goals. We learn to become more detached, to step back from our animal programming, so that, in the words of Heat, there is nothing we cannot walk away from in five minutes if the heat is around the corner.
    But a bank robber is obviously still attached to the good of money, excessively attached, to the point where they are willing to risk their and other people's lives for it. Why is Robert De Niro so attached to money? What does he want to do with it? What's the point of it? He collects coins. Does he need so many millions to add to his coin collection?
    In other words, part of being detached is the ability to subject one's goals to critical examination, and to try and decide if the goal is really worthwhile. Does it cultivate what is higher in me, what is best in me, or what is lower in me. Does it help my society and other people?
    The bank-robber might reply to this: why is it rational to help other people? Why should I?
    This takes us to the second argument: the importance of society, and of our duty to our fellow humans. A person trained in Socratic, Stoic or Aristotelian ethics has a sense of the importance of serving their society, and of abiding by their society's laws wherever possible. If you're going to break your society's laws, you have to have a very good reason for doing so. You should be able to defend that decision rationally to others.

    some people may arrive at criminality due to bitterness, at having, for example, tried to follow society's laws, but just not been able to do so and stay above water.

    Part of that idea of belonging to society is that we are connected to other people, they are part of the family of human beings. If we abuse other people, we cut ourselves off from our own family. We become outcasts, aliens, runaways – this is what the bank-robber eventually becomes, an outcast, rootless, lopped off from the community.

    this is why i dont like bank robber films …

  • jargonelle says:

    something's gone wrong here …

  • invalidated says:

    A Good Life is a life of meaningful relationships, spent pursuing a higher good together. A bank robber's lifestyle condemns them to be on the margins of society, lying, cheating, hiding, never sure if they can trust those they work with.
    Yes, there is the idea of the 'code of thieves', like the Mafia code. But how strong is this moral code in practice? I once interviewed a former heist expert, Louis Ferrante, who had worked for the John Gotti family in New York. He told me that, in his early years, he had been very impressed with the Mafia code of honour.
    But when he went to prison, he came across many other Mafiosi inside, and found they were often imprisoned for killing other people for money, including other Mafiosi. He realized how empty their moral code was in practice.

    i, personally, find their are limits to how 'good' you can be without becoming so bored and so robotlike that life ceases to be worth living – not that im that good, just that when i try that's how things become for me …

    Finally, I suppose one could argue that I would rather a self-controlled bank-robber than a wildly impulsive and uncontrolled one. But can't one be a very self-controlled psychopath? Isn't that what Mr Blonde is, in Reservoir Dogs? He's the sort of person whose pulse doesn't even rise, when he's cutting off someone's ear with a razor.
    To this, one just has to shrug and say, OK, philosophical training won't always make a person better. Aristotle, in fact, thought philosophical training was only appropriate for a very few people, who had been raised in a loving environment and in whom the seeds of virtuous behaviour had been planted.
    He declared that philosophy could never be for the masses, because "these do not by nature obey the sense of shame, but only fear, and do not abstain from bad acts because of their baseness but through fear of punishment; living by passion they pursue the pleasures appropriate to their character and the means to them…What argument could remould such people? It is hard, if not impossible, to remove by argument the traits that have long since been incorporated in the character".
    Aristotle was, of course, incredibly elitist, and thought philosophy was only appropriate for rich, free Greek men over 30. CBT, by contrast, has tried to take the Socratic project to the masses. No doubt some of the people it reaches are inappropriate students. But I don't think CBT will make them worse.

    what you say about how people from a loving environment behave differently from those from an environment governed by fear does resonate a bit with me. however, i agree with you, i think aristotle was being elitist. in my opinion, people have to get some rewards in life to survive, and if they can't get any through legitimate means, they will get them through illegitimate ways …

    it would be great to know how to put words into italics …

    how do you blow up the nice photo of you?

    the first part of this comment has gone astray …

  • Ollie says:

    Carlos Castanda's Don Juan felt that conquering fear brought clarity, and acknowledging this clarity for what it was brought power. Few people could get past this stage to the final stage of a "man of knowledge" where this power is not abused.

    The creations of the movies are perhaps almost impossible super humans. Capable of a range of contradictory and incompatible behaviour that would be tricky to find in real people.
    Psychopathic tendencies in criminals; a lifetime in a community of 'them and us';

    The vipassana meditation technique starts with unbreakable rules – to abstain from killing any being;
    to abstain from stealing;
    to abstain from all sexual activity;
    to abstain from telling lies;
    to abstain from all intoxicants.
    this is of course to help in the technique, but I suspected at the time that it was to make sure that once you had opened the doors to the nature of the world, you had to make sure that there were some limits to what you could do…

    http://www.3piece.dreamhosters.com/wordpress/?p=520

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