Illegal or immoral?

Scott Adams got a record number of comments today on his moral dilemma:

Let’s say you’re the butler to a billionaire who lives alone. The billionaire dies in his sleep. You know he owns a large piece of jewelry that no one else has seen, and you have access to it.

If you steal the piece of jewelry, sell it, and give the money to an African charity, you can feed an entire village for a year. The village would otherwise starve. If you don’t steal the jewelry, it will go to his surviving family who has so much money they won’t care about it.

Obviously it is illegal to steal the jewelry and feed the starving village in Africa. But do you have a moral obligation to commit the crime for the greater good?

But they were all wrong.

I hope my commenters do better.

Published by

Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

10 thoughts on “Illegal or immoral?”

  1. Don’t steal the jewel. If you want to feed the villagers, use your own money, take out a loan, move there and help them dig wells, etc.

    If you are going to be looking over your shoulder the rest of your life to see if you get caught for something, you probably made a mistake. Not true in all cases, but it is in this one.

    If stealing the jewel is justified, so is hacking credit card company computers and stealing $.01 from ever 100th account, and if that’s the right thing to do….

  2. Laws and morals are are created and enforced by the rich and powerful, but most of the rich and powerful got to be that way by breaking these laws and morals in the first place. Steal the jewelry and become rich and powerful yourself and then re-coup your conscious by being philanthropic with the results of investing the money.

    Regardless of if this is what I would do or not, I am guessing this is the answer you are looking for.

  3. The correct answer is:

    Don’t steal the jewel. Even though the laws and morals were created by the rich and powerful, society still works best if most people follow most of the laws most of the time.

    If there is a truly an immoral law then you are morally obliged to break it – but the law against stealing from dead people is not immoral.

    As members of society, we should endeavour to find the most efficient means of maximizing happiness. Breaking laws is not efficient (neither, incidentally, is moving to Africa and digging holes). A more effective way to transfer wealth from rich, dead people is with a realistic inheritance tax. That is, a tax that takes all the wealth beyond the amount needed by heirs to succeed in society. Say, one million dollars.

    Unfortunately, the laws are still created by the rich and powerful (read: those likely to inherit large diamonds from dead uncles) and the most efficient means to replace the rich and powerful is by outspending them in presidential elections which is why a large injection of cash by a rich plutocrat like George Soros is a moral act. Sorry that it took me 3 years to answer that question, Matt. It was a hard one.

  4. The hypothetical situation doesn’t make any value judgments about the billionaire, his relatives or the African village for that matter. The assumption is that the billionaire made his money honestly, and was a moral person. It can also be assumed that the relatives are moral people, just as the assumption is that the African village is comprised of moral people. The ambiguity is in the choice that you are making. In this hypothetical situation, the billionaire has earned his diamond, and it’s his choice to do what he wants with its value. It would be immoral of you to usurp control of his earned diamond. Outside of the details given in the conundrum, you would hope that the billionaire, being a moral man, would provide for charity with some of his inheritance. You would also hope that money that went to his relatives would also eventually provide for more charity through this group of moral people. So, I think I’m basically in agreement with Kevin (and probably Einstein). Although, I haven’t thought through the problem assuming that all other actors are immoral.

  5. What was the 3yo question?

    Money spent by Soros et al on a candidate that puts a $1M cap on inheritances is wasted. They won’t get elected, unless the cap is easily subverted with trust funds, etc. If that’s the case – what’s the point (other than to benefit http://www.easytrustfund.com).

    People generally support maximizing the greater happiness as long as their personal sacrifices aren’t too extreme.

    If a $1M cap, why not have an involuntary national lottery to get enough kidney donors so those needing them need not fear dying before a voluntary donor is found? Surely with one person with 2 healthy kidneys and one dying person, there’s a net happiness increase by yanking one out… It’s fair (though less valid IMHO) to use the same argument against progressive taxes, which I support, so – I’m being inconsistent.

    I hadn’t noticed previously your complimentary spell checking in your blog-works. Thank you.

  6. What percentage of Americans inherits more than $1m? The majority does not.

    Most people vote against the greater good (and their self-interest) because they have been bamboozled by the rich and powerful who, beside making all the laws, control the airwaves.

    Maximising happiness is not the only rule. First do no harm. Taking kidneys from healthy people is harmful. Limiting a rich person’s inheritance to $1m causes them no harm.

    You seem to be suggesting that taxation is equivalent to taking kidneys?

  7. A small percentage, including George Soros, whose children (or whoever) would lose 8.499 out of his 8.5 billion dollar estate. Certainly there are other plutocrats in that percentage that fund political campaigns.

    Dunno what you mean that taking peoples money causes them no harm. Of course it could.

    I’m not suggesting equivalence. I’m saying that if you cite solving for the greater good to justify confiscating 8.498B from Soros’ heirs by some sort of eminent domain argument, then a kidney is similar. In both cases the victim will be involuntarily lose something significant. What percentage of the population, who stand to inherit $1M would give up a kidney for another $8.498B – that is – would consider the kidney the less onerous violation?

    A finger? A patch of skin? One pint of blood? Is there a difference?

    At least if The Gov’t siezes your house, you’re paid “fair market value”.

    I think saying “all money > $1M” is qualitatively different than taxing some percentage of it, in a way that makes it both wrong and politically untenable.

    To your earlier point, I don’t quite get having the rich and powerful see to the banishing of their kind from office makes sense. You can’t have those without money outspend the rich on a campaign. Particularly when they have little to gain and the rich have lots to lose.

    Perhaps Soros was an ill-advised example. I had read “Obama raised almost as much money as Hillary, through twice as many donors”, though I don’t know the numbers. Perhaps it points to the rise of grass roots small donation power. Still – lets say candidate A takes your view and candidate B does not. Lets say that there are 1M people who feel strongly about this enough to donate $100 to A’s campaign. Team Big Estate spends that annually on lear jet polish. At the limit, how much wealth do the wealthy have? How much of it would they spend to leave the balance to their heirs? Enough to defeat such a scheme.

    If you win the lottery tomorrow, and died the next day, would you want all the money > $1M to be donated to the US General Fund? Doesn’t harm your heirs, they’ll have all they need to succeed, and won’t miss it? They’ll miss it, but you’ll leave some text in your will about the greater good of society that will make it ok?

    I certainly wouldn’t. I’d be ok with them paying some tax on it, though. I’d be pissed that it’s money I already paid taxes on when I earned it, that is – if I were alive to be pissed.

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