Not the ethicist, part 4

September 29, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is a take on an earlier post, “Campus Police: Precrime Division“.

I study computer science at a midsize university, and my school has cameras that cover almost every part of campus. The development of video-processing algorithms that can discern race, height and approximate age is ongoing in the field. Already, some modern video systems can alert owners of loitering, abnormal behavior and other common precursors to crime. Would it be ethical to hone the university security system to calculate and publicize the real-time probability of impending crime based on live video processing and existing statistics on criminal demographics? D. D.

My answer: If it happens, the people who do it will consider it ethical and the people who oppose it won’t. Neither group will likely be able to change the other’s views. Asking about ethics is just asking about opinions since if there were an objective standard everyone would have used it and agreed on the answer.

I suggest that you may find it more valuable to consider for yourself your values and how you feel about this issue independent of anyone else’s views. It may feel like a bigger challenge to think for yourself, but you’ll probably feel more confident about your conclusions and develop skills to help guide you through future challenges. You’ll probably develop frameworks to understand your world without looking for people to tell you right and wrong.

Another question is how you respond and act. After you’ve figured things out for yourself, I expect you’ll develop an idea of how you’ll act. You might support the trend, help contribute to it, and maybe benefit from it, say by getting a job in the area or starting a company to provide products or services. You might oppose it and organize others to slow or stop the trend’s growth. You might consider the issue not important enough to take your time. You can imagine countless alternatives. Most importantly, you would act based on your beliefs, not someone else’s.

The New York Times Answer: If you had only asked if it was ethical to collect and calculate this data, my answer would be “absolutely.” Any time credible information can be employed in research that improves our understanding of how the world operates, the work is valuable. But you added the idea of publicizing the uncontextualized findings in real time, and that’s very different.

Basically, statistics only tell us about what has happened in the past — they are not necessarily predictive. This type of program would routinely identify innocent people as possible criminals, simply because they share demographic details with strangers who have committed crimes in the past. It is morally unfair to make assumptions about an individual’s future behavior solely due to his superficial similarity to someone with whom he has no real relationship.

Now, I suspect you would assert that such a data-driven security system would look at these people as flat, mathematical composites and would predict nothing more than the mere likelihood of crime (without classifying anyone as innocent or guilty). You could also argue: “This is just raw numeric material. It’s not dictating behavior. We can’t help it if people misinterpret the data.” And that’s all true. But part of ethical responsibility is considering the potential for reasonable misinterpretation. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine how such a system, even in a best-case scenario, is a practical solution to a societal problem. Would law enforcement be automatically dispatched to any location where the statistical probability of a crime temporarily spiked? That’s not quite an automated police state, but it’s close.


I recently went fishing with a group of people from my school. One person found a key ring on a bench, and when he thought nobody was watching, threw it into the lake. A few minutes later, I told him that I had seen him do this. He took $50 out of his wallet and gave it to me as a bribe. Later in the day, a man came by looking for his keys. Because I had accepted (but not requested) the bribe, was I obligated to not tell the man what had happened? NAME WITHHELD

My answer: What do you mean by obligation? The person who threw the keys wants you not to tell. Do you respect that person’s interest? The key’s owner would likely prefer you tell. Do you respect that person’s interests more? What do you want to do? You could ask a lawyer what the law says, but I imagine the law would consider the bribe illegal, not a legal contract, and therefore irrelevant.

What you mean by obligation seems a matter of opinion, with different people feeling you should behave differently. Since each will respond differently based on your actions, as will others who become involved.

It seems the relevant questions are how can you act, what are the consequences of your actions, and how will you act. After all, everything you described happened in the past, which you can’t change. Whatever choice you make, you can take responsibility for your actions or try to claim some abstract obligation should determine your action. Whatever others say you should do, ultimately you choose your behavior.

Do you want to take responsibility for your actions? If so, I recommend considering your options, acting on them how you think best, and dealing with the consequences. I’d help you with those things, but you didn’t ask about concrete actions. You asked about abstract concepts.

The New York Times Answer: I assume this letter is from a child, but I’m going to answer it in adult terms: You have entered into a corrupt, clandestine relationship. You did not ask for the $50, but you did accept it, and you understood what that $50 represented. Your degenerate peer was paying for your silence. It was wrong to accept this bribe; by doing so, you became complicit in the crime. Yet this immoral commitment is still a commitment. You have agreed not to expose the person who threw the keys, and you have entered into an unspoken contract that represents this promise. You should have confronted the victim and said: “Your keys were thrown into the lake. I did not throw them, but I’m assuming responsibility for the person who did. Here is $50 to compensate you for the loss.”

It’s possible this response would not have satisfied the man. Perhaps $50 would mean nothing to him. Maybe he would call the police. And if that happened, you might be legally compelled to explain exactly what happened. In which case, you would be unethical twice: once for accepting the bribe, and once for failing to live up to its conditions.


Twelve years ago, I was on a business trip with a colleague, and I put in an expense report for both of us, writing him a check for around $400. He never cashed it. Last week I received a note from him — he was moving and found the check while cleaning up, and he could really use the money. It feels like I am paying him for his carelessness. Can I say no? J. S., BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y.

My answer: You can say whatever you want. I suggest the more important question is what are the consequences of your actions.

What do you think will happen if you don’t pay him? He sounds like he believes you’re still paying him for the expenses your company paid you to pay him twelve years ago. If so, he’ll probably think you’re a jerk who is keeping his money. He may try to deposit the check, which could bounce and hit you with fees or affect your credit report. Maybe he’ll take you to small claims court. I expect he’ll tell your mutual contacts about it, which will affect your credibility among people close to you. Only you know your network, but I imagine many of them will agree with him and his assessment of you.

Maybe he won’t care, but it doesn’t sound like it since he said he needs money.

If you pay him, he’ll probably gain respect for you or at least not lose it. He may appreciate you for helping him when he needs it.

Personally, I would use the occasion to talk to him about it instead of writing third parties for their opinions. Why not use the occasion to build a relationship instead of writing the newspaper columnist who has nothing to do with situation?

The New York Times Answer: It’s possible the bank wouldn’t even accept this ancient check. But there is no ethical statute of limitations here. There is no “you snooze, you lose” doctrine. In theory, your colleague could have cashed the ancient check without contacting you at all (and I assume he wrote simply to make sure the bank account was still active). Yes, he was careless (and sounds a bit desperate). But you are not rewarding his carelessness. You are returning money that belongs to him. And technically, inflation has decreased the value of that $400. You’re still coming out ahead.

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