Undercover Ethics

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?


Faust said...

Isn't it one of the Very Interesting things about utilitarianism that you ARE accountable for what you allow? Isn't that why Singer wants us to give up our Flat Screen TVs etc and give the money to aid organizations? Or is this preciesely parallel to what you discuss here?

The collision between the deontological categorical imperative and the teleological results of "doing nothing" collide here. For surely he violated all sorts of imperatives but ultimately brought about a total consequential value that was quite good. Is there a way to sythesize these two kinds of moral thinking or are they fundamentally incompatable?

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, if I'm a utilitarian, then I get to ignore the doing/allowing distinction, and I can probably approve whole-heartedly of this journalist. The thing is, if I go over to the utilitarian side (the dark side?), then I have to approve of him even if he does to the informant outside the house exactly the sort of thing the bad guys are doing inside the house. As long as he does it to one, to prevent harm to far more than one, he's doing well. Which I'm not quite ready to say. So...yes...one want to synthesize. There's a duty to do good, prevent harm, etc., but also a duty not to exploit, manipulate harm. Somehow they must be juggled.

Faust said...

I suppose on the large scale this is what war is all about. All the babies and children and innocents that get bombs accidentaly dropped on their houses are justified in the name of the greater good. It's probably better to focus on these smaller scale examples, however, as thinking in terms of war gets too diffuse to really comprehend, or gets mixed up in left/right ideology or political fights that make it hard to talk about the underlying philosophical issues (maybe they can't be seperated).

I have to admit this is the kind of thing that makes me think there will be no final account of moral realism that everyone could accept, or, even more importantly, even agree is reasonable.

Nevertheless I'm totally sympathetic to the urge to try to get these things to fit together. I just have trouble seeing how it's going to work.