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The Ethics of Calling the Police, according to the NY Times

Randy Cohen, The Ethicist, for the New York Times Magazine caught my Google wandering eye recently when he answered the question, “When to Call the Police.” I was interested in what the ethical issue could be, so I checked out the column. I came to find out that Mr. Cohen is the Dear Abby of ethics. This could be good, maybe something I should bookmark and check out regularly. The letter on calling the police went like this…

As the general manager of a local eatery, I discovered that a server was defrauding us. When I confronted him, he didn’t actually confess but did offer to repay his ill-gotten gains. I fired him. Must I also report him to the police? Some people have said losing this job is punishment enough, but I think he will steal again at his next restaurant job. Your thoughts? P.S., COLUMBIA, MD.

I think I can take a crack at that one. Must you call the police? No. Should you? Yes. Maybe this guy already has a criminal history and needs to be dealt with strongly. Or, maybe this is the first time he’s gotten caught and a legal slap on the wrist, a misdemeanor or local ordinance charge, will help him back on the right path. Either way, it would seem that police, prosecutors and judges are better equipped to sort that kind of thing out than the general manager of a local eatery. The alternative is simply getting your money back, or hoping you have gotten it all back, and asking him to move along to a restaurant in another part of town, which doesn’t solve anything in the long run.

The Ethicist did not see it that way at all…

Calling the cops is something you may do but not something you must, and I do not think you should. It’s not a matter of calibrating this thief’s punishment; the criminal-justice system is simply too crude an instrument to gently accomplish what you admirably seek to do: protect others from harm. If this miscreant were convicted and imprisoned, he would be out of action for a while, a useful thing, yet little other good would result for him, his family or the community. He is apt to emerge from prison more damaged, more bitter and less employable. Neither rehabilitation nor job training nor psychological counseling are prominent features of our penal system. And while such rough handling might deter others from similar perfidy, it comes at a high social cost. (And in any case, you can’t be sure that potential victims will be spared: not every employer performs an assiduous criminal-background check on each new employee.) This is not to minimize his transgression but to lament the effects of the penal system.

Oh boy, I may not make it as an ethicist after all. I didn’t even know what ‘perfidy’ meant. Although Mr. Cohen did say it is sometimes okay, even necessary to call the police:

Despite those ill effects, sometimes you have a duty to call the cops — when someone is an imminent, serious physical threat to others, for example. The challenge is to gain the maximum protection with the minimum harm. Here that means handling this privately. Make the guy repay the money and be candid with anyone who seeks a reference so that an employer can either decline to hire him or keep an eye on him.

Despite the ill effects sometimes you just have to call 911? Huh? I was pretty sure I could not disagree more strongly until I read the next piece of ethical guidance Cohen had to offer. If it wasn’t in the New York Times I probably would not spend the energy, but since it is ‘News that’s Fit to Print,’ I will do another post on Mr. Cohen’s view on ethics. Please stay tuned…

PS. In case I am not the only one.

per·fi·dy [pur-fi-dee]
1. deliberate breach of faith or trust; faithlessness; treachery: perfidy that goes unpunished.
2. an act or instance of faithlessness or treachery.


Add a Comment
  1. Interesting perspective… I’m looking forward to reading the next piece of ethical guidance from Mr. Cohen. PS – You are not the only one!

  2. Is that the Tardis in the picture?

  3. Nice catch, Mitch

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