What is the Right Thing to Do in the Following Cases?

[The following list of Moral Dilemmas I discoverd on the Internet. Unfortunately, I was not able to determine the author of the page I found on the Net. I recognize several of these scenarios has originating from various Philosophers. However, I have not attributed any of these examples to their original author. I will do so, if anyone can point me to the source.]


1) The sheriff in a small southern (say Louisiana) town is guarding the courthouse against a mob that is about to storm it by force, in order to capture a prisoner just arrested for a particularly heinous crime. The mob wants to lynch him without a proper trial. If the mob is frustrated, many people may be killed in the ensuing riot. There is a real possibility that should the mob storm the courthouse, the sheriff and his deputy might be killed. Should the sheriff deliver the prisoner to the mob?

  1. I will assume that the sheriff and his deputy do not have convenient access to a fortified position, such as the jail area with solid walls and a defensible single entrance. And I will assume that the sheriff does not have convenient access to overwhelming fire-power, such as an automatic weapon or grenades or such. I am assuming that if either of these options were available, the sheriff and his deputy would be under no physical threat themselves.
  2. I will assume that the sheriff does have access to some weapons of some sort. For a sheriff to be caught in such a scenario without any preparation what so ever, would indicate a criminal degree of stupidity or incompetence, or a pre-existing cooperation with the attempt at murder.
  3. I will assume that the sheriff will not be unduly penalized for injuring or killing members of the attacking mob.
  1. The sheriff and his deputy have undertaken a particular job, and with it a particular moral commitment - to keep their word and fulfill their promise to perform their job. The job they have accepted - to protect the safety and welfare of the citizens under their charge from the illegal threat or employment of force - is inherently dangerous. To have accepted the job, and the associated moral commitment, the sheriff and the deputy would (or at the very least should) have evaluated the long term risks and rewards of the job. To have accepted the job implies an evaluation that the long term rewards are greater than the risks. To back out in the face of this particular risk, is to admit that the initial evaluation was ill considered, and the job accepted under false pretences.
  2. The mob is threatening an illegal (and an immoral) use of force. The sheriff is therefore bound by his commitment to his job to protect the prisoner. If the sheriff breaks his word by delivering the prisoner to the mob, then the sheriff is in breach of contract. Not only can the sheriff then be sued for the consequences of this breach, he can also be convicted for conspiracy to commit murder. So if the sheriff is to determine that his best interests are better served by giving up the prisoner, he must weigh in his calculations the probable costs he will be required to pay. Ceterus paribus, it is more likely that the better alternative would have the sheriff defend the prisoner even to the extent of killing as many of the attacking mob as he can, before he runs out of ammunition. Mobs are notoriously emotional in their responses. When faced by the noisy and bloody death of their leading edge, it may deter a further advance. Of course, it may not. His actions may not result in saving the prisoner. But at least he will have kept his word - the prisoner may be taken, but he will not have been delivered. And as many of the attackers as possible will have paid a high price for their immoral actions.
  3. The long term interests of the sheriff's genes will probably not be well served by delivering up the prisoner. If the sheriff himself is childless, he is not likely to sire children after his conviction for conspiracy to commit murder. If he has children, or if he has relatives with children, then the future social environment in which those children will be raised, will be better served by protecting the legal rights of the prisoner, than by abrogating those rights.
  4. Note that the possible deaths, injuries, or property damage resulting from any riot, do not enter directly into the above calculations. Assume, first, that the sheriff does not have an immediate personal interest in any of those potential consequences. Then any resulting costs to the rioters themselves is well earned and of no immediate concern to the sheriff. The sheriff is not obliged to protect employers of illegal (and immoral) force from the consequences of their actions. The resulting costs to "innocent bystanders", including the material property of the town itself, is of some concern. But balanced against this concern is the probability that a reasonable portion of those "innocent victims" have friends or relatives amongst the rioters. Since they are not cooperating with the sheriff in quelling the riot, they are abdicating their own responsibility for self-defense, and for defense of the cooperative social environment. If, instead, you assume that the sheriff does have a personal interest in some of the potential consequences (family members in the line of fire, say, or a family business in the likely damage zone) then the situation is rendered much more difficult. And the moral prescription must rest on the sheriff's commitment to his job, and his self-confidence that he can sway the morale of the attacking mob by gunfire, if it comes to that.


2) Should the wealthier members of society be forced to pay through taxation, for the poorer members?


3) A man has been sentenced to prison for armed robbery, and admits guilt for the deed. "But", he argues, "I'll never do anything of the kind again. I'm not insane or a danger to society. I would be happier out of jail than in. My wife and children depend on me for support, and they would be much happier if I were able to be the family breadwinner again. As to the influence on others, almost no one would ever know about it; you can keep the matter out of the newspapers and no one except you will ever know that you have released me. Therefore, you should release me." Assuming his statements of fact are correct, should he be released?


4) A rich man and a poor man commit the same type of crime. The rich man is fined $10,000 while the poor man is sent to jail for one year. Is this fair?


5) You are on a country road and see two neighboring farm houses on fire. One is yours and the other belongs to a new couple who has just moved in. Your wife and child are at home, as are your neighbors. You can only save one house. Which one do you save?


6) You run an orphanage and have had a hard time making ends meet. A car dealership offers you a new van worth $15,000 for free if you will falsely report to the government that the dealership donated a van worth $30,000. You really need the van and it will give you an opportunity to make the children happy. Do you agree to take the van and make the false report?

  1. First lets assume that there will be no consequences from making a false report to the government. This is not a realistic assumption, of course. But the scenario description makes no mention of consequences, so we'll start here. With this assumption, then the answer is "Yes!" Take the van and make the false report. The government's rules of taxation are arbitrary and coercively enforced. There is nothing in the tax rules themselves that invite obedience. Since, given the scenario, the value to you of the van is worth far more than any possible damage to your reputation from the lie, the intelligent choice is to make the lie and take the van.
  2. Now lets add back in the reality of the likely consequences of lying to the tax collector. Because the tax rules are arbitrary, and almost entirely lacking in any moral justification, they have to be enforced through coercion. And the laws reflect that by enabling stringent coercive measures against those violating the tax rules. None of these background facts are mentioned in the stated scenario. They have to be assumed - by assuming a real-world tax environment within which the choice is to be made. And on this basis, the probability is that if the dealership is willing to make this sort of deal in the first place, it is not the first or last of its sort. Which increases the probability of the lie being detected. And it is also likely that the lie will be detected if the orphanage goes bankrupt, as the scenario suggests is possible. If the lie is discovered, it is likely you will go to jail or at least personally pay a hefty fine. The orphanage will not held liable, you will, both as the one who "runs" the orphanage and as the one who commits the lie. So it would seem that the probable risks out weight the potential benefits.


7) You are shopping and notice a woman stuffing a pair of stockings into her purse. Do you report her?

  1. The larger the store, the less likely I would be to report the observed theft. Firstly, because the larger the store, the more insignificant the value of the stockings in the overall sales balance. Which means that the greater the value of the observed theft, the more likely I will be to report it. Secondly, because the larger the store the more likely that the store has implemented anti-theft measures and I will not be the only observer of the woman. Which means that I would be more likely to report a theft that was less likely to be observed by such measures. Thirdly, because the larger the store the more formal and time-consuming will be the red-tape resulting from reporting the woman. Which means that I would be more likely to report the theft if I could do so in a casual manner not involving red-tape consequences.
  2. The busier I am, the less likely I would be to report the theft. Not withstanding the considerations itemized above, the greater hurry I am in to get to the next item on my "To-Do" list, the less likely I am to invest the time and effort necessary to find a staff member and report the witnessed theft.
  3. Any reporting would have to be quiet and unobtrusive, since the witnessed event is not a de facto theft until the woman departs the store without paying. And I have not yet observed that. Any reporting would also have to be anonymous. Otherwise there is a risk of retaliation (with no counterbalancing benefits). Both of these requirements would make it more difficult and time consuming to report the event, unless a sales staff member is conveniently at hand.


8) You are waiting with a few other people to board a bus. The bus pulls up and before you can board the driver gets our and goes into the convenience store to get a coffee. You are the last to get on the bus. Do you pay your fare?


9) You discover Bill Gates' wallet lying on the street. It contains $1000.00 Do you send it back to him?


10) It is 3 am and you are late getting home. As you approach the intersection you notice that no one is around. Do you drive through the red light?

11) In Dostoyevsky's novel "Crime and Punishment", the main character plots and carries out the murder of an old woman who has a considerable amount of money in her apartment. After killing her, he steals the money. He argues that (a) she is a malicious old woman, petty, cantankerous and scheming, useless to herself and society, and her life causes no happiness to herself or others (which happens to be true); and (b) her money if found after her death would only fall into the hands of cheats and chisellers who had no more right than he does to it (which also happens to be true). Whereas he would use it for his education. Is his action justified?

  1. Within a social environment, murder is declared illegal because it is generally detrimental to the interests of the members of the society to permit its members to go around killing each other off. On average, it is in the best interests of each member of a society to proscribe murder. There is no question that Dostoyevsky's character does engage in illegal behavior. There are no acceptable legally justifying reasons beyond those specified by law. And in this case, the law does not permit the justifications provided. Therefore the character must pay the costs demanded by society for indulging in proscribed behaviors.
  2. The one argument that Dostoyevsky's character might have offered that would have morally justified his actions would be his declaration that in his evaluation, his long run best interests were better served by murdering the old lady and taking the money. Assuming, of course, that he is telling the truth about making the evaluation and reaching that conclusion. And assuming that he did not adopt an irrational assumption of ignorance towards the probable consequences of his actions. None of which, of course, affects the social necessity of ensuring that he pays the prescribed costs for his behavior. Moral justification does not equate to a "Get Out of Jail Free" pass.


12) As a nurse, you are the last person to see Mr. Doe alive before he dies in the hospital. You believe that he has become mentally incompetent in the last few hours, and in that time he has rewritten his will. In the new will he viciously attacks each member of his adopted family and reveals that he was actually born a woman. He then cuts every family member out of the will, leaving his fortune to a Psychic Chat-line. Mr. Doe asks you to make sure that the new will gets to his lawyer. You are sure that the document will most likely be thrown out of court, but will in the interim cause considerable damage to Mr. Doe's family. Do you carry our Mr. Doe's last request?


13) Would it be justifiable to whip pigs to death if more succulent pork resulted from this process, giving consumers of pork more pleasure?


14) Why punish the theft of $1000 more than the theft of $100?

On moral principle, one should not necessarily punish the theft of $1000 more than the theft of $100. One should punish any theft on the basis of the proportion of the owner's wealth that has been stolen. It is quiet reasonable to suppose that $100 could be a much greater portion of a poor man's wealth, than the $1000 is of a rich man's wealth. And on this basis, the theft of $100 should be punished more. But practical considerations in the administration of jurisprudence results in the generalization that $100 is on average a smaller proportion of the average person's wealth than $1000. As a generalization, it is reasonable. But it is not in accord with moral principle.


15) Why punish attempted murder less than murder?

On moral principle, one should not punish attempted murder any less than successful murder. The socially undesirable disruptive behavior is the attempt. On principle, it should be socially irrelevant whether the attempt is successful or not. But practical considerations in the administration of jurisprudence results in the acknowledgement that a successful murder costs society more than an unsuccessful attempt. So the penalties are set commensurate with the costs. But this is not in accord with moral principle.


16) You are on a boat. Nearby are two large rocks filled with people waiting be to rescued. There are five people on one rock and four on the other. The tide is coming in and threatening to drown everyone. Your boat cannot rescue both groups. If you try, your boat will swamp, and you will drown with the rest. You can rescue one of the groups, but by the time that you return the other group will have drowned. Which group do you rescue?

In the described scenario, there is no information that can be used to make a decision between the two groups other than their absolute numbers. So, on that basis alone, I would rescue the greater number of people.

But other information about the two groups would normally be available. If the information were available, I would choose to rescue children over adults, women over men, the young over the old, the healthy over the ill, the more intelligent over the less intelligent, the industrious over parasites, the rich over the poor (on the usually valid assumption that the rich are more likely, on average, to be healthier more intelligent and more industrious than the poor).


17) Is it acceptable to employ physical torture if it is the only means available to find out where in New York City a large bomb has been hidden?


The implied assumption is that the "victim" of the intended torture is reasonably expected to have information on the location of that bomb, and is not voluntarily cooperating. If the assumption is correct, then the "victim" is voluntarily placing himself outside the social group, and voluntarily giving up any protection offered by cooperation with the group. As such, the "victim" is due no moral regard as a member of the group. If the implied assumption is correct, then the social group has no moral constraints (other than intelligent self-interest) on its efforts to protect itself. In just exactly the same way that any individual who is violently attacked has no moral constraint (other than intelligent self-interest) on the nature of his response to that attack. The intended victim of a violent attack may have to consider legal constraints on the nature of any response, but on the basis of moral principle the initiator of violence has no basis on which to complain about the nature or magnitude of the intended victim's reaction.

The other consideration, of course, is that the implied assumption may be erroneous. The intended target of the torture may, in actual fact, not be involved and may not have the information he is expected to have. In which case, any employment of coercive force against the "victim" is morally unjustified. This consideration translates the stated scenario considerably. Instead of the question asked, it must be re-phrased as - "Is it acceptable to employ coercive force against anyone if there is any doubt that the person in question is not in fact guilty of the crime charged?"

On moral principle, the answer to this re-phrased question is No!

The practical difficulties faced by the social structures empowered to enforce society's laws result from the combination of doubt and self-defense. On the one hand, it is morally unjustifiable to employ coercive force against the innocent. On the other hand, it is impossible to ensure that it is only employed against the guilty, since it is impossible in most cases to know before-hand whether the accused is in fact guilty. Combine with this the very real threat that errors of judgment can often result in personal injury or death to the individual members of the police organizations. Much of criminal jurisprudence is the attempt to balance the impacts of these two factors.

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