February 24, 2006

· Philosophy

Raw material for a short paper in moral philosophy, to be written by someone who is actually a moral philosopher.

Case 1. A woman loses her expensive camera while on holiday in Hawaii. Some time later:

I got a call from an excited park ranger in Hawaii that “a nice Canadian couple reported that they found your camera!” … “Hello,” I said, when I reached the woman who had reported the camera found, “I got your number from the park ranger, it seems you have my camera?” We discussed the specifics of the camera, the brown pouch it was in, the spare battery and memory card, the yellow rubberband around the camera. It was clear it was my camera, and I was thrilled. “Well,” she said, “we have a bit of a situation. You see, my nine year old son found your camera, and we wanted to show him to do the right thing, so we called, but now he’s been using it for a week and he really loves it and we can’t bear to take it from him.” … “And he was recently diagnosed with diabetes, and he’s now convinced he has bad luck, and finding the camera was good luck, and so we can’t tell him that he has to give it up. Also we had to spend a lot of money to get a charger and a memory card.”

They have no intention of returning the camera. The camera owner says at least send me the memory cards plus $50 and we’ll say no more. She gets a package in the mail. A note inside reads ““Enclosed are some CDs with your images on them. We need the memory cards to operate the camera properly.” She calls the camera-thief back, angry, and is told “You’re lucky we sent you anything at all. Most people wouldn’t do that.”

Case 2. An Irishman and his Azerbaijani wife adopt an Indonensian boy. After a while, they decide that it’s not working out (apparently they had “trouble bonding”) and they dump him in an orphanage in Jakarta. This one seems to have worked out OK for the boy, as the Irish High Court just ruled that the parents must support him financially till he is 18 and he has full succession rights to their estates. I’m wondering why the people in each case thought their actions were justified. Also, we normally think that it’s better to have at least made an effort in the direction of doing the right thing than not to have bothered, or actively done the wrong thing right from the beginning. But in these cases the initially worthwhile actions (calling the camera owner; adopting the child) make the subsequent bad faith seem that much worse. We’re taken by surprise as the story veers off in the wrong direction.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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