Monday, September 20, 2010

On double wrongs

Suppose there's a certain system in place that for whatever reasons results in something you're against. Suppose, as well, that there is a loophole in this system that allows avoiding this undesirable outcome.

Too insubstantial? I'll try a more concrete example. Suppose that you oppose a specific punishment for moral reasons(My personal choice would be the death penalty, you can fill in the blanks with whatever you like). Bob McCriminal is going to get this punishment, but at the last minute, a key piece of evidence is misplaced and now this particular punishment is out of bounds. For some reason or another, you know about this and possess a copy of the relevant records, so you consider volunteering it (no, I don't know if any real justice system would work like this, it's just a thought experiment). You know Bob is guilty and in the spirit of the system, he should be punished. But, again, you think the punishment is immoral. So, do you volunteer the evidence, thus following the spirit of the system, or keep it to yourself, thus following your own personal ethics?

Another example. You're taking a class on [whatever subject]. You don't really give a shit about [whatever subject], and will forget everything ten minutes after the final, but you need it to take another class on a subject you do care about. Because you are so terribly clever, you find out that phrasing your answers in certain ways makes the professor more likely to think that you are right. In fact, you can improve your grade by 50% by carefully choosing your words (assume [whatever subject] is the kind of subject where the correctness of each answer is somewhat fuzzy). There's no specific rule against this, but I think we can all agree it falls under the general category of "cheating". Do you phrase your answers to get an easy passing grade, knowing that you'll remember exactly the same after the end of this class whether you pass legitimately or not? Or do you not?

I specifically tailored the examples so that in one you need to act to follow the spirit of the system, and in the other you have to refuse to act. People intuitively regard the morality of "action" and "inaction" differently even when they have the exact same result. But another major reason why answers may differ between scenarios is because of the amount of respect towards the established system and the rules behind it. That is, you'll be more likely to follow the spirit of the system if you believe that system is there for a good reason. So do try to think alternative scenarios, imaginary readers.

The point of this exercise, as the title gives away, is a reflection on the phrase "Two wrongs don't make a right". I disagree. I think two wrongs, under the right circumstances, can make a right. (I have a similar relationship with the whole "the end doesn't justify the means" business). For example, the first wrong, a system that allows the death penalty is countered, in my view, by the second wrong, a system that allows guilty people to skip punishment.

That is to say, my response to the first scenario is fuck the system, Bob doesn't get killed (or tortured or castrated or whatever you chose). It may feel like a criminal is "winning", and that mingles oddly with certain parts of me, but in the end I don't want people to die. Similar answer to the second one, while I may "feel" the wrongness intuitively, intellectually I cannot find any reason not cheating is preferable. My approach is teleological, someone with deontological views is likely to disagree.

But that's me, what about you? Assuming the "you" I'm addressing exists, which sounds rather unlikely.

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