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Suppose there are some criminals who have no respect for ethics and will lie/cheat/steal/kill whenever they perceive it could gain them some advantage. Suppose that to treat these people with fairness and decency—refusing to lie to them, obeying the law in regard to them, refusing to cheat or steal from them—increases the amount of wealth and power they wield, and therefore increases the amount of harm they may cause. Is it right to treat them with fairness and decency anyway?

On the one hand, we should not take actions that lead to a less just society, and increasing the power of the criminals would lead to a less just society. On the other hand, to abandon ethics in relation to the criminals makes you almost as bad. If two groups are unethical towards each other, perhaps there is no true difference between them even if one group "started it." Once the "initially good" group starts acting unethically towards the other group, it will attract more people who are comfortable with unethical behavior in general, corrupting it.

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    Didn't Aristotle say, "One good turn deserves another. So does a bad turn." This is just the Tit For Tat strategy from Game Theory, proven to be the most effective.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24 at 0:14
  • From my point of view, ethics means beginning or birth and morality means end or death. Therefore, everything has a beginning and an end, that is the meaning of ethics and morality from my point of view. Therefore, every action has a beginning and an end, ethics and morality, no matter what kind of action, bad or good. Some actions we agree, some actions are condemned. Because of that, fairy tales and fables describe these actions, and show the beginning and the end, ethics and morality. beginning and end. We may think also words have a beginning and an end. No one escape ethics and morality.
    – user71091
    Jan 24 at 7:53
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  • Being ethical is ethical, by definition. Not lying to a scammer, not punching someone who attacks you, hurting others by allowing them to continue their behaviour, is not ethical.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 24 at 10:32
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    Different ethical systems will reach different answers, about how one behaves ethically towards others. Perhaps one "turns the other cheek". Perhaps one considers the utter destruction of those who flout the law to be a great good. Perhaps you're questioning the value of a specific ethical system -- one which does not see nuance or bigger pictures and deals in absolutes. But the answer remains "it is always ethical to behave ethically"; for wildly different and contractory meanings of what it is to "behave ethically" across different ethics systems. Jan 24 at 13:08

12 Answers 12

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Am I allowed to quote from an old classic play? (emphasis mine):

William Roper: “So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!”
Sir Thomas More: “Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?”
William Roper: “Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!”
Sir Thomas More: “Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!”

― Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts

We keep the laws for the same reason we don't just sink a ship when pirates come aboard: so we can survive long enough to defeat them. This is why some people are not suited for public office.

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    It seems Thomas Morus' reply is based on grounds of utility - not on ethical considerations.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 23 at 13:20
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    You have to be around in order to be ethical. W. Edwards Deming: "Learning is not compulsory. Neither is survival."
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 23 at 13:23
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    @JoWehler I understand your comment but I'm not sure how to separate ethics from utility in this case. Jan 24 at 0:58
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    @JoWehler: On the one hand, most ethical systems take pragmatic utility into account one way or another. On the other, OP’s original question is explicitly presenting a rather utilitarian/consequentialist argument, and suggesting it should override other notions of ethicality (“Suppose that to treat these people with fairness and decency […] increases the amount of wealth and power they wield, and therefore increases the amount of harm they may cause”) — so it’s reasonable to confront it on similar terms with a utilitarian/consequentialist counter-argument. Jan 25 at 0:38
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Public judicature is a great achievement and serves to defend oneself against criminals. To

cheat/steal/kill

is a case for the law court. There is no necessity to counter illegal behaviour by one’s own unethical reply.

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    While I agree with you, I also put "lie" in there, and the law doesn't do too much about that. Also there are many situations where the law is toothless, either because the evil group has control over it or because they are canny enough to not get caught.
    – causative
    Jan 23 at 19:02
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    @causative If the law is toothless - like often the international law against powerful nations – it should be the job of diplomacy to reinforce the validity of international contracts. It is necessary to strengthen the position of the international law court. – To lie is not a good strategy because it suspends the institution of promise and contract. To lie destabilizes every moral system.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 23 at 20:31
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    Ethics and morality are subjective. Just because you believe someone to be less ethical than yourself does not make it so.
    – Xavier
    Jan 24 at 0:36
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    We could still ask as to why that we have a public judiciary, then. I would suggest that is for one, precisely the OP's question: to reciprocate the unethics with more unethics would still be just that - unethical, with negative ramifications. Thus we turn it to a third party who has the power to handle it better (at least ideally, and though admittedly, at least for criminal law, the "third party" tends to kinda "swoop in on its own", which is perhaps one of the biggest ways to controversialize the specific system at present, though not the very broad idea of having a 3rd party). Jan 24 at 2:09
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    (More rigorously, vengeance has the empirical tendency to run in cycles, thus piling up unethical behavior and the associated wreckage massively. By diverting the back-and-forth, then, we prevent the pileup.) Jan 24 at 2:10
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This is one of the great perennial questions of philosophy, and--Machiavelli aside--the answer is almost always the same. Here's a relevant quote from Confucius:

Chi K'ang Tzu asked Confucius about government, saying, "What would you think if, in order to move closer to those who possess the Way (dao), I were to kill those who do not follow the Way?"

Confucius answered, "In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill? Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good. The virtue (de) of the gentleman (junzi) is like wind; the virtue of the small man is like grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it will surely bend."

Plato says something similar as well (The Republic) as does Jesus (Matthew 5:44, 26:52). If you view there as being two sides, for and against ethics, you can't help the ethical side win by violating ethics. That's a win for the non-ethical side, even if you're getting rid of a given person who seems to be the avatar of the non-ethical side. You're just replacing them with yourself.

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  • What if the non-ethical side is a tornado? Become the jet stream?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 23 at 17:16
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    Evil is a privation, it doesn't exist in itself. No matter how strong it may seem, you can't defeat it by becoming more evil. If evil is winning it's because the good isn't strong enough. If the good were stronger, the evil would melt away, Psalm 73:20, "like a bad dream melting away in the night." Jan 23 at 19:05
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    Right, if we improve the conditions that people live in, they will be less likely to go outside the rules to get what they need or want.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24 at 1:08
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Your question contains a false assumption, namely that there is no ethical way to stop the criminals.

And yet every moral codex, every culture, every law book ever written has such ways.

The ethical answer to criminals is not to step down to their level, it is to prosecute them according to the law, or to shun them according to your culture's norms or your ethical considerations.

The foundation of the whole "rule of law" thing is that we can stop criminal behaviour while remaining entirely within the law ourselves.

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Your question implies that treating a criminal ethically effectively means to ignore their crimes, but this is not so. The ethical way to treat a criminal is to first stop them (As ethically as possible, protect yourself and others from them. Usually via police/jail/prison), and then, since unethicalness is often (but not always) caused by desperation or greed, to then heal them.

Right now, due to systemic failures to help the poor in the USA, poor become desparate, and do whatever it takes to survive, legally or otherwise. Sometimes that's robbery, but sometimes that's just using drugs to escape. (Some people claim that Nixon criminalized cannabis specifically because it allowed him to throw African Americans, and anti-war protesting hippies in jail, but this is disputed). Then they are thrown in prison, where they do not have the ability to grow, learn, adapt, or earn notable money, and are also charged for their time in prison. Then months or years later, they are thrown out back into society, with no contacts, skills, or money, and are more desparate than before, thus causing a high recidivism rate.

Meanwhile, Portugal is leading a change of decriminalizing drug use. In 1999, Portugal had the highest rate of HIV amongst injecting drug users in the European Union. They then passed a law decriminalizing drug use, established a program for drug addicts to freely exchange used needles for clean needles, and also funded a program for social workers to treat drug use like a suicide attempt. You don't imprison people for suicide attempts, you help them.

From this point, where Portugal started treating these drug users ethically by helping, instead of unethically by imprisoning, Portugal's drug related HIV infections dropped 90%, heroin usage dropped 75%, HIV cases dropped dramatically, drug-related deaths dropped 80%, and Drug use among adolescents dropped. The rate of drug-use did not increase notably relative to countries that did not pass similar laws. They have an estimated 40% fewer people in prison. Financially, it cost them a mere $10/citizen/year, as opposed to the US spending $30/citizen/year to throw them in prison. And in addition, the estimated total societal cost savings (e.g., health costs, legal costs, lost individual income) came to 18%.

Alternatively, for cases not caused by desperation, but instead by greed, can often by assisted by similar models. Getting them psychological help can sometimes be a far more ethical and cost-effective solution than prisons.

Do we still need prisons? Almost certainly. But they should be used as the most ethical way to protect people from each other, not as a punishment. They should be effectively turned into psychological wards. That is the ethical way to heal unethical people. Do we still need police? Absolutely. When emergencies occur, people need immediate protection. That's the ethical thing to do.

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  • To the point and sensible: treat causes first, and symptoms will go down or disappear.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24 at 22:16
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Yes, that’s the only way for good to prevail against evil — to love our enemies.

“Love” here means compassion.1 It means recognizing a human being, someone just like you, in every person, good or bad; and trying to understand the circumstances that made them this way.

And, consequently, it means treating everyone with compassion, respect, and dignity. For many of us this is not going to be easy. It might take dealing with our own traumatic experience, unlearning many wrong lessons and unhealthy coping strategies that came from it. Still, this is the work that we want to do for our own benefit, as well as for everyone else's.

1 In the Ancient Greek there was no equivalent for the word “love”. There were only specifics, like eros (infatuation), or agape (compassion, empathy), or pragma (attachment). This way, Greek forced the speaker to be specific about the kind of love that they were talking about.

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  • If you can beat 'em, don't join 'em, I guess. I think there are people who are unempathetic enough that they can only be stopped, not related to. For example, if people believe that "this world" is nothing compared to a supposed afterlife, you aren't going to be able to convince them of anything.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24 at 0:07
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    "That's how we're gonna win. Not by fighting what we hate. But saving what we love." ;-)
    – armand
    Jan 24 at 1:05
  • @armand but whom are we saving it from, and why do they have to be at odds with us?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 24 at 1:14
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    @ScottRowe -- You're asking why they have to be at odds with us. Well, the simple answer is this: because "they" are not there yet. They are the people who sentenced Socrates. Who then made Jesus drink from the same cup. Who voted for Hitler and died for him, by millions. They don't know what they are doing, but they think they do. They don't mean to be evil, but they mistake it for happiness, for the good they seek. They are the darkness that didn't comprehend the light. They are yet to find the Way (dao, or logos in Greek). I can go on, but maybe you get the idea: they are not there yet. Jan 24 at 18:06
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    @Mutoh -- I see. Unfortunately, English doesn't have the exact word for the concept I was trying to describe. I choose "compassion" as the closest substitute. Maybe I should have gone straight for "understanding" because this is what it is about -- this is what takes effort and the will to make that effort. Jan 26 at 18:24
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I agree with earlier comments that the ends do not justify the means, and that even criminals should be treated with fairness and decency. But I would like to additionally clarify that everybody has right to self-defense [you do not have to lie to criminal if you do not wish to - but you can wield truth to gather support against the criminal or unethical person or corporation, like activists do when they ask people to sign petitions], and that society has law enforcement agencies to pursue criminals - and members of such agencies can use additional powers [eavesdropping/arresting/whatever else], to defend the citizens from the criminals.

Sir Thomas More had, unfortunately, no legal pathway to defend himself, given the King's power, and the machinations involved. But in most other cases, criminals are not above the law - and unethical but technically legal actions are likely to be ceased once publicly scrutinised, once public disapproves of them.

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  • Well, Amazon has broken many, many laws in many countries, and repeatedly, but they are so big that they get away with it. So apparently some criminals are above the law and some illegal actions are not likely to be ceased even after public scrutiny.
    – Stef
    Jan 24 at 15:24
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    Fair enough. I do not know any specific examples of Amazon's disregard for laws, but I cannot be surprised if a large corporation underpays workers or does not respect their rights. Still, I do not sell items on Amazon, and I prefer to buy items elsewhere - eBay, if I cannot find the item elsewhere - not on Amazon.
    – Wikiwide
    Jan 26 at 5:43
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Life is not "black and white". Most religions and quasi religions (Nietzsche, whatever) acknowledge virtues like forgiveness, forgetting, non-violence, etc.. An eye for an eye is not a serious ethical principle, though I am fond of some liberal forms of control.

[When] is it ethical to be ethical towards the unethical?

Always; even just desserts theory of retributive justice is meant, as far as I know, to be an ethical, i.e. just, response. When should you offer friendship to dangerous criminals? Rarely.

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I’ll respond from a consequentialist perspective.

The things you list should be treated individually.

Lying: There’s nothing inherently unethical in lying. Not lying is good because it allows people to build trust and rely on each other. If you see a chance to build a trusting relationship with the criminals, it might make sense not to lie to them. If not, lie to your heart’s content.

Obeying the law: This is more a question about how the law should be designed rather than about how you should behave. The law should ideally take into account this sort of situation and allow you to act appropriately, and then the question of whether you should obey the law doesn’t arise. In many respects the law does exactly that. For instance, it allows you to kill the criminals if that’s necessary to prevent them from killing someone. It also allows the state to “steal” from them, either to disgorge their ill-gotten gains, or to punish them with a fine.

The only remaining question is what you should do if you think the law isn’t optimally designed and you should be allowed to act towards the criminals in a manner that the law forbids. This is a far more general question not restricted to actions towards criminals. My answer would be that it depends: Generally, if the law has been enacted in a legitimate way with legitimate intent, you should obey the law even if you disagree with it because if everyone acted on the general principle of obeying the law only if they agree with it that would have very negative consequences. But there will be cases where the disagreement is so strong and the consequences of obeying the law so bad that you shouldn’t obey it (and of course also cases where it wasn’t enacted in a legitimate way with legitimate intent).

Stealing: That’s pretty much covered above: If the law is optimally designed, it will allow you take the criminals’ property if that would have good consequences, and then it wouldn’t be “stealing”.

Another question that you didn’t explicitly pose (perhaps because you’re not a consequentialist?) but that’s relevant in this context from a consequentialist perspective is: Should you disregard the welfare of the criminals? Do they forfeit their claim to having the consequences of your acts for them be taken into account? Here I would emphatically say that you shouldn’t and they don’t. Just because they’re criminals doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter whether they live, whether they can enjoy their property, etc. These things matter, and an optimal design of the law would take this into account and infringe on the criminals’ welfare only as far as is necessary to protect the welfare of others.

And that, I think, answers your question about what difference remains between you and the criminals other than “who started it”. You still treat the criminals with due regard for their welfare, whereas what makes the criminals’ actions bad is that they act without regard for the welfare of others.

Another interesting aspect here is the distinction between actions within a more-or-less ethically constituted and effective state and on the international level. If the state is ethical and effective, you can rely on it to deal with the criminals appropriately and there’s rarely a reason to break the law. On the international level, there is obviously unfortunately no such thing (yet). States and non-state actors regularly literally get away with murder, and the question whether you should be allowed to break international law in order to counter them arises much more poignantly. In this case, the main reason not to do so is a different one – not because the law is optimally designed and enforced, but because in this context the question of ”who started it” is much more difficult, and if everyone broke international law if they believed that the other side ”started it”, international law would quickly deteriorate even further than it already has. Whereas within an ethically constituted state it’s pretty clear that the criminals “started it”, in an international context often one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist, with both sides typically strongly believing that the other side “started it”, and the only way to at least try to uphold international law is to prevent people from disregarding it on that basis.

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  • how did you pass the captcha?
    – user71226
    Jan 25 at 10:08
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There are two things that need addressing.

The first is that justice, that is, giving each one his due, is never unethical. Sometimes it just so happens that what is due to someone is to harm him. This is only controversial in modern, consequentialist theories of punishment, which disregard wholly the retributive aspect of justice. If someone's will becomes disordered towards evil, a reordering is in need even after the punishment already ensures restitution (ensuring what is due to the victim) and prevention (ensuring what is due to common society), at least if justice is to be complete. This is invariably painful, as the will does not like to be frustrated.

The second is that the common good is more important the private good. One reason among many being that the individual needs the collective more than the collective needs him, so the part can't be more important than the whole. If this is accepted, the examples you give are clearly cases of individuals prioritizing their private good to the detriment of the common good. It is a matter of justice to deal with their actions in a way that reestablishes order even if they may perceive it as "unfair" from their own perspective. Of course, it's not a matter of anything goes. Not only because the principle of proportionality is intrinsic to justice, there's still a hierarchy of authority which has to be followed. An example is that you can't simply assassinate them, as it doesn't belong to private individuals to pass such a judgement. But in this hierarchy positive law isn't in the topmost place, which also means that laws can be unfair, in which case they aren't binding. However, that's only if we presume objective morality, a natural law. Otherwise, positive law is indeed your greatest authority - good luck.

It's no wonder that you find the situation so puzzling: in the modern age, objective morality is denied and individuality is prioritized over the common good (in words, at least; in practice, people are happy to enforce their "subjective" morality as if it were objective, and more often than not a distorted idea of common good is still prioritized over the individuals, and in the name of individualism at that). Under these presuppositions, indeed you can only deal with such people by being "unethical". But if you ask me, the modern presuppositions aren't ethical at all, and can be done away with.

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I would suggest the conditions in the question don't warrant an abandonment of ethics towards the unethical offenders.

There are two twists in this question that might mask this conclusion.

Twist #1

Is it right to treat them with fairness and decency anyway?

The first twist is that it is possible to treat criminals ethically (and with fairness and decency). This doesn't mean being nice to them or shielding them from bad consequences. It seems the OP (though it could be interpreted different ways I think) equates "treating these people ethically" with "rolling over and letting them do whatever they want". But this just isn't correct. Treating them ethically would include treating them in a way appropriate given their actions.

Twist #2

Suppose that to treat these people with fairness and decency—refusing to lie to them, obeying the law in regard to them, refusing to cheat or steal from them—increases the amount of wealth and power they wield, and therefore increases the amount of harm they may cause.

The second twist is that, if taken seriously, the question stipulates that the only possible ways to curb the power of these unethical individuals include things like lying to them, breaking the law, or cheating or stealing from them. There must be some twistedness to the society these individuals are in if these are the only means available. Note, importantly, that each of these actions may or may not be ethical in different situations depending on a lot of context. Nonetheless, a just society would anyways have legal means to ethically deal with such individuals.

Without such legal means then, yes, the ethical track may include breaking the law, or lying or stealing from these people. This is a (mythological) Robin Hood type situation.

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Generally, no. It is your duty to apply yourself so that you can make your world better. If you are wrong you will learn something about the human condition, and if you are right you will have help correct the course of events.

In the Bible, this is called "subduing the Earth" (Gen 1:27,28), and you are commanded to do so.

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