Ethical Dilemma

One of my favorite British mysteries is “New Tricks” which is both engrossing and, at times, funny. One of the episodes also provides considerable food for thought — which I want to share with you.

The chief detective, call her Sasha (because that’s her name) has a grudge against a criminal who is at present in jail — call him Jack (which is not his name). He is in jail, however, for a crime he has not committed despite the fact that he had, in fact, killed Sasha’s partner years before and is a thoroughly bad man. But he is not guilty of the crime he has been punished for.

During the course of the investigation into the basis for the prosecution of Jack for this particular crime it becomes apparent that he is not guilty and has been set up by a detective years before who simply wanted to get him behind bars.

The young woman who is, in fact, guilty for the crime that he is being punished for killed a man who had abused her cruelly many years before. She killed him with an empty bottle of wine during an altercation in a hallway at a party.

Sasha’s dilemma is whether or not to let things stand as they are — since Jack is not only willing but eager to take the rap for the young woman for whom he has a special bond (we won’t go into that) — or prosecute the young woman and let Jack go free. And to make things even more interesting, Jack tells her that he will plead guilty of the murder of her former partner and thus that crime will have been resolved.

But Sasha decides to prosecute the young woman, who is guilty (in some sense of that word) and let Jack go free. My question is: did she do the right thing?

From a Kantian perspective she did. Kant tells us that we are to respect all persons and the truth is a paramount value in any system in which the moral person stands at the center. The strict Christian would agree with Kant.

But the Utilitarian would argue that the consequences of letting Jack go free and prosecuting a young woman who has turned her life around and is guilty of nothing more that manslaughter of a known predator is the wrong thing to do. The greater good in this case is to keep Jack in jail where he clearly belongs and let the young woman go on with her life.

But Sasha took the former option. Dud she do the right thing? What do you think?


7 thoughts on “Ethical Dilemma

  1. We saw that episode and agree with you, yes it is a Kant issue and it seems the Brits are aware that this type of situation makes for very good drama..and utilise it quite a lot

  2. A real dilemma Hugh but I’d have to say Sasha did the right thing for her conscience. The young woman may go on trial but is unlikely to suffer a jail sentence for the manslaughter of an abuser and Jack can go free until caught for a crime he has committed.
    Jack’s sacrifice for the young woman leads me to wonder if he isn’t perhaps her father from an affair with her mother that young woman never knew about. Given Jack’s reputation it’s the only explanation I can come up with.

  3. A dilemma indeed, but I think I would have to agree with David that Sasha did the right thing. The young woman will surely not serve prison time, for hers was an act of self-defense. I think it’s important that the truth, the facts, be the basis for the decisions that are made in the name of ‘justice’. If Jack killed Sasha’s partner years before, he could be convicted on that charge, but not for a crime he didn’t commit.

    • She will almost certainly not serve jail time, but her career will be severely compromised. But I think I agree with you — and with Jerry. It’s not the policeman’s duty to try the criminal. It is the system that does that. Sasha’s duty is to simply tell her superiors what she knows and let them take over.

  4. Dr. Curtler,

    I. too, enjoy the series, “New Tricks.”

    From my perspective, the ethical dilemma of which you speak, though significant, is not insoluble. One need not refer to Kantian philosophy or to Christian theology for guidance, either — at least, in my estimation.

    I refer here to a very clear principle of what a police officer’s duty is, namely to build crime-specific cases against those who have committed those crimes.

    It is not a police officer’s duty to act as judge and jury to convict someone of Crime A (which they did not commit) even if they are presumably guilty of Crime B (for which they were not convicted). Indeed, it goes against the sworn duties, ethics, and protocols of police work to do such a thing.

    Emile Durkheim, the famed French sociologist (who actually held a chair of philosophy) argued that, in the modern world, as culture-wide moral and ethical norms recede into the background, traditional morality would tend to be displaced by equally powerful but profession-specific codes of conduct and ethical standards.

    One need not accept Durkheim’s argument at full face value to accept the notion that professional codes of conduct can be quite consequential in the day-to-day duties of those pledged to uphold them. Such binding codes of conduct, if violated, can result in very severe penalties. If they violate professional codes of conduct, attorneys face disbarment, doctors face loss of either hospital privileges or medical licensure, and members of the military face courts martial. Police, too, have codes of conduct and protocols which, if violated, can result in severe sanctions — when they are enforced, that is.

    Setting aside the matter of actual enforcement of police codes of conduct, the policy officer has a professionally-specific duty to uphold the law and adhere to established procedures when building cases, handling evidence, seeking warrants, and making arrests, etc.

    None of these laws and procedures include “balancing the scales of justice” or “serving just desserts” to bad people or “easing one’s conscience”.

    So, the police officer in question, Sasha, is limited by her own professional standards of ethics to address the crime in front of her and to deal with the person who committed it. Period. She has little choice at all.

    This may seem morally unsatisfying to some, but I see no alternative whatsoever if we wish to live in a society governed by laws rather than by the whims of the police — at least in principle.

    Again, thanks for a thoughtful post.

    Regards, respects, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

    • I agree. Those shows lead us to believe that it is the police who try the “perp,” whereas their duty is to simply turn them over to those who decide what charges to bring — if any. But it is an interesting case and seems to make a strong argument for utilitarianism on the face of it!

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