the deception perpetrated in the case of "balloon boy"? Millions of people seem to have been through the same sequence of reactions. First, horror that a six year old boy might be floating away in a balloon. The stuff of bad dreams! Awful! Then the boy turned out to have been hiding in the family's attic the whole time--he was safe! When I read this I told my whole family and we all had a bout of merriment and delight. Next day--I read it all might be a hoax. You've got to be kidding me! Yet more moments of sheer entertainment. The next day--it was a hoax perpetrated by the father, Richard Heene! What an intriguing human interest story--still a lot of fun.
Now picture this sequence of emotions multiplied millions and milliions of times over. The hoax resulted in an awful lot of enjoyment for an awful lot of people. Of course we do have to factor in the experience of people who were at the eye of the storm. Hundreds of people devoted hours and hours to finding this little boy. There was stress, pressure, fear...but of course there was also relief and elation when the whole thing was over. They may have even enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame.
So what's the problem? This strikes me as a very hard case for a utilitarian. On this view, we are to assess an action based on whether it maximizes the balance of happiness over misery. What counts is the aggregate, not just the feelings of individuals, or the individuals closest to "the action." And what counts is feelings, and nothing else. If that's how you view morality, you're going to have a very hard time saying that Richard Heene did something very wrong. At least now, with 20/20 hindsight, it's hard to assess the act as objectively wrong on utilitarian grounds.
But even if you don't put yourself in a utilitarian straightjacket before trying to explain what was wrong with this hoax, it's not that easy to explain. For example, take just the impact on the people most directly affected, like the sheriff who was responsible for finding the boy. This may not have been a terrible day for him, subjectively. He was in the limelight, he was a hero, there was a lot of excitement. So if he was harmed, we're going to have to look beyond "feelings."
We could say the harm consisted simply in being put in a position of having false beliefs. Maybe that's inherently bad, period. But surely there's more to it. They say that knowledge is power. Conversely, ignorance is loss of power. The real problem with the sheriff's false belief is that it left him in a position of running after an empty balloon all day. He couldn't avoid that absurdity, because he didn't know the balloon was empty. If we want to be the authors of our lives, and pen reasonable lives for ourselves, we need to have the facts. So: deceiving someone takes away not just the rather abstract good of having true beliefs, but the more palpable good of autonomy.
But a puzzle remains. OK, so the hoax had important autonomy costs for the people close up. Because of the deception, they spent their day in an absurd pursuit of an empty balloon. That's bad. But still, there's that huge quantity of fun enjoyed by people all over the country. Surely some amount of happiness is enough to outweigh the damage done to the first responders' autonomy, and the actual amount generated (for them, and for all) was enormous.
So it remains puzzling why Richard Heene today should be regarded as a very bad man. In fact, there's the flavor here of paradox. We have a firm and non-negotiable conviction that he did do something very wrong, yet it's hard to come up with an explanation that takes account of the total picture.