Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It O.K. to Double-Cross a Swindler?

November 6, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It O.K. to Double-Cross a Swindler?


I manage my elderly father’s financial affairs and was unable to stop payment on a check he sent to a tech-support scammer. His bank investigated and determined, properly, that they could not intervene because he had signed the check. My phone calls to this company bore no fruit, so I offered them a choice: If they didn’t return half the money, I would report them to the consumer-affairs division of their state’s attorney general’s office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, register complaints on websites and so forth. My instructions were that they were to send me a certified check, made out to my father, by a certain date. They did send me a check, which cleared. But it was not certified, and it arrived after the due date. Do I have an obligation to uphold my end of the deal, by not registering complaints about an outfit that is clearly scamming elderly people? Charles W. Mitchell, Parkton, Md.

My response: There is no rule book in the sky that tells what obligations you have or not. Simple as that.

Personally, I choose by considering the results of my actions and how they affect others. I try to see the world from their perspective, which I call empathy, which I find guides me more effectively than questions of concepts like absolute obligation.

Will your actions help others? Will scammers figure out who complained? Will you improve the world? Probably no one can answer these questions definitively, which happens with most decisions. Still, you have to act, so you figure it out the best you can.

The New York Times response:

Because they didn’t honor the terms of the deal, you’re not bound to keep it. You can go ahead and report them. In fact, you should. Doing so may help other people they plan to exploit — people like your elderly father, who are particularly vulnerable to their wiles.

But the interesting question is what the situation would be if they had kept their part of the bargain. What — speaking morally, not legally — would you have owed them? Let’s proceed in two steps.

First, should you have made this offer to them in the first place? Let’s agree that, given the kind of people they are, they weren’t going to do the right thing without your threat to report them. You had a choice, then, between doing two worthwhile things: reporting them or trying to get something back for your exploited father. Which represented the greater obligation? In my view, it wasn’t your duty to report the company, in part because you weren’t the only person in a position to do so. On the other hand, you were the only person in a position to do something for your father, and family relationships create obligations of concern and assistance. My conclusion is that you were entitled to make the offer.

But now, Step 2: Would they have been entitled to rely on your offer? A deal made in good faith, in which both parties have mutual respect or have submitted themselves to some system of accountability, would be binding. That’s not what we have here, however. So they have no real basis for complaint if you report them. Still, that doesn’t settle the matter of whether you should uphold your end of the bargain.

Kant, who detested lying as much as any philosopher, once wrote, “If the other has cheated me, and I cheat him in return, I have certainly done this fellow no wrong; since he has cheated me, he cannot complain about it, yet I am a liar nonetheless, since I have acted contrary to the right of humanity.”

You don’t have to be a Kantian to think that breaking your word is not something to be done lightly. Let’s stipulate that you were right to threaten these grifters to get some of your father’s money back. By breaking your word to them, haven’t you made things harder for future victims who might want to do what you did? Maybe those are the people you’ve harmed.

But sometimes it’s wrong to keep your word. Suppose a kidnapper frees you after you’ve promised not to report him. Keeping your word leaves a criminal at large. Kant might say this wasn’t really a lie, because the kidnapper had no reason to think you were telling the truth and no right to demand the promise. That’s why Kant wrote that if a man takes you by the throat and demands to know where your money is kept, you don’t have to tell the truth.

You’d be within your rights, then, to betray these scammers. But you’re also degrading the institution of promising, just a little. So you might want to put the Kantian issue of duties and rights aside and consider the consequences of your decision. How will the harms of your action match up to the good you’ll accomplish by reporting the scam? How much have you hampered others who might want to make similar deals with these scammers in the future? Will reporting the scammers put them out of business or only inconvenience them? These aren’t easy issues to resolve. But I’d still come down on the side of reporting them.

I own a used-goods store. We buy a lot of stuff, and things we don’t feel we have a market for locally, we sell online. Last week, someone brought in a pile of clothes. An employee estimated their value, wrote a check, and the seller seemed satisfied. After doing a little research, I realized the employee undervalued some items. One sold immediately for many times what we paid for it. The whole thing left rather a bad taste. I would like to give the seller more money. My question is how much. Also, how hard should I look for the seller? All I have is a name. Name Withheld

My response: You say that two adults made a deal with no deception and that the other person is content with the deal.

You sound motivated more by your feelings than by the effect you’ll have on her. You may undo her contentment. Are you doing this for you or her?

Your question is specific, though: how hard should you look for her. Seeing as how you are the only person who knows what you’re doing, you’re the only person whose values matter. Do what you think it right. If you want to keep searching, keep searching. If not, don’t.

The New York Times response:

In buying these clothes, your employee made a judgment about what they were worth, and the seller accepted it. Your employee didn’t purport to be an expert and wasn’t deceiving her. Your business was accepting the risk that you might not be able to sell them at a profit. The seller was getting the certainty of a price versus the hassle of looking for a better deal. She, too, could have done some research; she could have given them to a retailer on consignment, sharing the upside and the downside possibilities. So I’d say caveat venditor, which is the corresponding principle to the better-known caveat emptor, and means “let the seller beware.” I honor your impulse to share the spoils, but any effort you make is beyond the call of duty.

Is there anything wrong with a religious doctor asking all of her patients, “May I include you in my prayers,” without knowing their religious beliefs? Name Withheld

My response: Everyone has his or her unique set of values. Obviously, the doctor doing it doesn’t think she’s wrong. Plenty of people will feel offended and consider it wrong. Instead of asking abstract questions of absolute right and wrong whose answers people will disagree on, I recommend considering how the doctor can achieve her goals without evoking unintended responses in others.

From that perspective, the relevant question is not about abstract right and wrong but the practical how do I act to achieve my goals when I know others disagree with me. We all have to handle that question with everything we do that affects others. Answering it leads to developing listening, empathy, influence, and other skills of effective leadership. I recommend developing those skills and practicing them more than coming up with labels.

The New York Times response:

In many communities, patients will be reassured that their doctor is a believer. A few will find being prayed for offensive, because it somehow involves them in a practice they don’t support or with a deity they don’t believe in. (In asking permission to pray for them, she’s acknowledging that.) But there are also patients who might worry that being included in her prayers suggests that she’s keeping some bad news from them, or that she’s not confident in her medical skills, unassisted by heavenly intervention. Far from being cheered by the offer, they might find it disconcerting. Finally, patients may find it awkward to decline the offer: People generally aren’t eager to emphasize their differences with the person charged with their care. Though I don’t think the doctor is crossing a line, exactly, it would be better, for all these reasons, if she skipped the consent part and just went ahead and prayed on her own.

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