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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.