Cui bono

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Cui bono ("Good for whom?", or "Who benefits?") is a Latin adage which means that the person or people guilty of committing a crime may be found amongst those who have something to gain, perhaps financially. Although the principle is useful in criminal investigations, the party with the most to gain may not always be obvious, or the guilty party may distract attention by diverting attention on to a scapegoat. The expression is said to have been coined by Roman consul and censor Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla, and was used by Marcus Tullius Cicero.


[edit] Example

Cui bono is still a standard rule applied in criminal investigations. Effective use of Cui bono depends on various factors, which are illustrated here using the hypothetical case of a wealthy man named "Mr. Jones", who was found beside a road with his skull smashed.

Cui bono can be applied only in cases where some act was planned with the intention of obtaining a benefit. If Mr. Jones died as the result of a random accident (e.g. a heavy object fell off a passing truck and hit him) or without a premeditated act (e.g. struck by a careless drunk driver), cui bono will not be relevant.

Cui bono requires a good understanding of all possible motives. As Mr. Jones was wealthy the police will certainly concentrate on his heirs, but others may also have benefitted from his death. Perhaps Mr. Jones was killed by his wife because he had a mistress, or Mr. Jones was killed by his mistress because he wanted to end the relationship. It is possible that Mr. Jones had a drug habit, and was killed by his dealer in an argument over payment. Jones may have been involved in other illegal activities, and his business partners killed Jones to silence him. Finally, Jones may have been the innocent victim of a mugging.

The understanding of motives requires that even motives existing only in the mind of the killer must be taken into account. Mr. Jones could have been killed by somebody who wrongly believed that he would inherit his fortune, or by a murderously jealous wife, who mistakenly believed that he had been unfaithful. The motives of supposedly insane criminals ("He was an invader from Mars! I saved Earth!") may fall into this category as well.

It is possible that several different people will benefit from the murder, or that the actual murderer would not be the one with the most to gain. Mr. Jones may have been the victim of a violent mugger who wanted the cash in his wallet, and knew nothing about his fortune.

[edit] Use in politics

The Cui bono principle is often applied to explain acts of political significance, but may not always be reliable or useful.

Accidents can happen, even in politics. There are many examples of errors and simple failings which have been re-interpreted as intentional acts. The concept of a conspiracy theory is often based on the idea that everything in politics is an intentional act by hidden forces, even accidents. The reverse is also true: Intentional acts have been presented as accidents.

Whereas the motives for crime are typically rather simple (greed, jealously, hatred and fear), politics is far more complex. Ideology, religion, customs and historical developments (such as long-standing feuds, bigotry and racism) have to be taken into account.

Political movements typically have more than one actor, and motives can vary widely: The king wants the war to gain lands and destroy a political rival, the priesthood wants the war to destroy the enemy heretics, the nobles want the war because they wish to avenge old wrongs, and the warriors want the war because they want the war booty.

Political acts are often designed to have an effect that is very different from what actually happens. The assassination of a much-hated king can be an attempt to bring down a royal house and start a revolution, but can have exactly the opposite effect: The old tyrant dies as planned, but his successor turns out to be a good ruler who manages to stabilize the monarchy. On the other hand, some act that is meant to satisfy only a minor goal can have far-reaching consequences: A petty feud between chieftains on opposite sides of a border can turn into full-scale war, repeated raids can provoke military retaliation that leads to the conquest of an entire country, a brutal act by a minor official triggers a revolution, etc.

If a conflict lasts for some time, the countries that started it may well exhaust their resources and the final winners are other states who enter the conflict later. World War II started as a conflict of European powers and in the end, the USA and the Soviet Union emerged as the new superpowers.

Even more than with crime, it is very important to judge what really is a benefit. Parties that appear victorious may find themselves in a very difficult position, while others who may not appear to be on the winning side at all can have every reason to feel satisfied. For example, imagine this scenario: two kingdoms are at war, and kingdom A conquers B. According to the history books, A wins. In reality, A has an empty treasury, too many dead knights and a huge, unruly country it cannot control. B is technically defeated, but the king of A needs the nobles of B to rule the land. So, the barons of B enjoy more privileges under the conqueror than under the old king of B, and prosper.

Sometimes, those who carry out a political act have a radical world view which makes them pursue some goal that appears nonsensical to other people. It can be very easy to overlook or misunderstand the benefit desired by such a group.

In politics, many actors may benefit from a certain event. A skilled politician who is able to advance his agenda by using (or abusing) a particular event, or a company that quickly steps in to offer a remedy to some real or perceived problem can benefit greatly from an act they never caused. Cui bono may fail completely if the persons who intended to benefit from a certain act gain nothing or only a tiny benefit, and other players obtain a huge advantage. For example, consider a mugging committed in front of a video camera. The mugger obtains just $50 and is quickly caught. His benefit is tiny. A political faction that wants to roll out surveillance cameras all over the city uses the incident skillfully to gain widespread acceptance for their plan. Their benefit is huge, and they may even be faced with a conspiracy theory accusing them of setting up the entire incident.

[edit] Issues with Analysis

The application of Cui bono in politics or other large-scale events is even more risky because many other factors have to be considered.

In retrospect, the actual outcome can appear far more logical and straightforward than at the time. Refer to the article on Historian's fallacy for more information.

It is especially difficult to judge the motives of people of different ages and cultures. A common mistake is to overlook motives which do not fit the mindset of the observer ("I would not start a war over issue X, so this war cannot have been about X" or "X is a non-issue in my age and country, so X must have been a non-issue in medieval Hungary".)

Actors may themselves distort the truth about events to gloss over their own failings. A general who loses a battle has cause to present himself as the victim of a cunning enemy plan. A general who wins a battle through sheer luck (the enemy makes a really stupid mistake, the weather changes during a naval battle, the enemy commander is killed by a stray bullet) may present a distorted story to give the impression that he was in control all the time.

Historians may themselves report only a distorted version of an event.

History books can overplay the importance of famous persons and fail to mention the effects many less famous people have on history. This may distort the perception of great historical figures because the actions and motives of many lesser players affect history as well. Did Napoleon lose the battle of Waterloo? He did, but mostly because one of his generals, Emmanuel, marquis de Grouchy, failed to neutralize the Prussian army.

An ironic pop culture use of Cui Bono appears in Grant Morrison's JLA: Earth-2, a dystopian appraisal of superheroes. In an alternate universe, it is the mantra of the villains, who themselves benefit from their power (rather than the humans that they would protect).

[edit] Use in Popular Culture

  • Qui bono (literally "who with good") is a common nonsensical Dog Latin misrendering.

[edit] See also

de:Cui bono es:Cui bono

Cui bono

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