Interesting interview with the Ghanaian journalist Anas Anas on "Tell Me More" yesterday. President Obama had recently praised Anas to the Ghanaian parliament, in recognition of the undercover work he'd done to expose a sex-trafficking ring. So there he was basking in glory on the other end of the phone when host Michel Martin asked him to explain what he had done. So he explains: he penetrated a house of these fiends, and freed their captives, by getting a delivery girl to be his "girlfriend" and informant.
Michel immediately slams on the brakes. You did what? You got her to be your girlfriend, under false pretenses? Anas defends himself. The wrong of that is trivial, he says, compared to the great harm that was taking place inside that house. And no, the girl didn't hold his subterfuge against him when his work was done and the relationship ended.
True, the journalist's misdeed was trivial compared to the harm he prevented, but we still have mixed feelings (Michel did, I do, maybe you do). For anyone who has taken/taught Ethics 101, the first thing that comes to mind is Kant's categorical imperative. We are not to treat any person solely as a means. Anas was in violation of that principle. But I think something else is really going on here.
Our misgivings seems to stem from a distinction we make between doing and allowing. We hold ourselves to very high standards when it comes to the things we do. We shouldn't lie, steal, manipulate, enslave, etc. But we think allowing others to do all those things is OK, especially if the "others" are strangers. People who sell women into slavery are evil, but people who stand by and let them do it are innocent. Putting together these reactions to doing and allowing, we might find ourselves disapproving of Anas. Granted, he had to manipulate the girl to stop the sex traffickers. But we think he didn't really have to stop the sex traffickers, as bad as they are.
If we attached more importance to what people allow, we'd have to be a bit more tolerant about what they do. Anas couldn't have saved the women in the house without some mildly shady dealings with the girl outside the house. But I wonder...how much shadiness would have been justified? What if he'd done to that one girl exactly what the bad guys were doing inside to a large number of women? How bad can you be in the name of being good?