If you've done nothing wrong

If you've done nothing wrong

The title of my turnitin post was "honest students have nothing to worry about" - it's a phrase the company actually uses in their marketing material. I'd like to discuss it because it's very similar to another you see used a lot these days:

If you've done nothing wrong then you have nothing to worry about.

This phrase is a masterpiece. It's a show-stopper. Worried about domestic spying, about loss of privacy, about the gradual erosion of your personal freedoms, the arming of police, the Christian-right, neo-fascism, dollars and cents, pounds and pence, press dishonesty, and the sucking of young blood? Well, if you're not doing anything wrong....

I was, today, trying to pinpoint the source of this phrase's illegitimate magical power. I think that it's a case of unexpressed premises, as many of these things are. But the amount of compression here is stunning. Here's what I consider to be the fully expressed argument:

  1. X only affects people that have done something wrong
  2. If something doesn't affect you, then you shouldn't worry about it
  3. You haven't done something wrong

  4. You have nothing to worry about

1 and 2 are unexpressed. Both are terribly controversial, for pretty much any value, X, selected from the list two paragraphs above.

There's another criticism of the above argument, offered by Bruce Schneider. His response to the phrase itself is, paraphrastically, 'but that depends on your definition of wrong'. His argument, I would say, differs in the following respect:

  1. X only affects people that have done Y (where Y is some arbitrary value of wrong)
  2. ...
  3. You haven't done Y

  4. ...

Bruce is making it clear that the fact that the people who should be worried are people who have done wrong is of very little value to the argument. Pointing out that wrong might be a relative concept, in a way, abstracts it out of the argument - removing the appeal to emotion (it is good thing that bad people are worried).

Any comments on my analysis?



Sounds good.
People have good reason to be worried when more and more impostions are being justified in this way. It is, as you say, "the gradual erosion of [...] personal freedoms." The size of the group who've done nothing wrong gets smaller and smaller as more criteria for wrong-doing are enforced. The justification, however, ("if you've done nothing wrong...") remains as if the wrong-doers are still the minority.
In fact, if you believe that everyone has done at least a little wrong in their time, then everyone has reason to worry; be it fear of the law, or, even in the most godless anarchists, moral worry.
I like this interpretation. The antecedent is contradictory, so you're justified in being either as paranoid or as laid back as you like. What do you think?

t r a v

I'd interpret this as saying that premise 3 is in doubt along with the others.
good posts dom & trav. i should have eased off the dew before reading them. with contempt for those who throw around pseudo-credible/relevant quotes, "just because you're paranoid don't mean they're not after you."