I’ve enjoyed participating in these moral discussions so I thought I’d post one that I’ve been thinking about.


Let’s say your neighbor is the local chief of police. The only other resident of the house is his 13-year-old daughter. She goes to school with your daughter.


Eventually your daughter becomes friends with her and starts to tell you terrible stories about her new friend. One day you discover that the chief of police is raping his daughter. When she finally discusses it with you she admits that it’s been going on since she was 11 and begs you not to say anything.


You know you can’t sit on something so devastating so you go to the District Attorney’s office to report what you know.


A week later you notice that the girl has been beaten. She tells you that she hates you and that she knows you told on her. After calling the DA’s office you discover that the office determined that there wasn’t enough information to prosecute. Further research shows that the District Attorney and the chief of police are brothers.


Moving forward you have two choices: If you do nothing the girl will be sexually abused for five additional years. additionally, there's a 60 percent chance that she will commit suicide.  If she dies the chief of police will adopt another girl and sexually abuse her for more than a decade; 

If you choose to act your only option—because the authorities won’t help—is to kill the cheif of police. If you kill him you will never be caught and the girl will be adopted by her loving aunt and uncle.


Which option would you choose? How would your answer change if there was a 50 percent chance you’d be prosecuted for the murder? Would the decision be different if you knew that if you were prosecuted extenuating circumstances would be considered and you’d only be charged with manslaughter which carries a maximum sentence of four years in jail?  

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You are talking about being a vigilante. I will have to think about this one.

I had to make a correction. That's what I get for multitasking and posting with my iPhone.



by Angus Whitton

I've been reading to get a background on this topic.

After reading the article I would not want to be a vigilante.
"Vigilantism represents a serious threat to democracy and the rule of law. It is deserving of more study."

Good post Jonathan. I do not go in for vigilante justice either, but there is another way I would reason/weasel my way out of this one. :-) Being that one of my overriding goals in life is to make this world a more just place (and I attempt to achieve this goal mainly through writing of philosophy, particularly ethics, though to what degree this will be successful is anyone's guess), putting my life's work at risk to save only one person from some serious injustice might not make a whole lot of sense, even if the chances of me being caught were low or the punishment were light (the commission of the act alone might be enough to discredit my reputation as a moral philosopher). If, however, in the very hypothetical case that I knew there was absolutely no chance of me being caught and the result would be such a dramatic shift in the amount of justice for the people involved, yeah, I could see myself capable of taking the SOB out. I've wanted to kill people for a lot less than that (full disclosure!), so I think my conscience would be pretty clean knowing that I put an end to such a gross injustice and saved at least one and possibly two girls from so much suffering.


So how about you Jonathan? Care to answer your own question?

Good response Jonathan! I'm glad to see we are pretty much in agreement. In an ideal society we wouldn't have to consider these kinds of situations, but with our society being so far from the ideal as it is, exempting oneself from its norms is potentially justified, and this case certainly seems to be one of those cases which would definitely be justified. I even agree with you that, given the right circumstances (that is, depending on how my life is currently going, for example, I have children right now that I also have to consider), I could offer myself up in that way if the punishment weren't too severe. If I stood to suffer in someone else's place, though, no, I almost certainly wouldn't do it (but even then, it might depend on still other factors). I'm going to have to post another discussion along these lines I see, since they have been so crowd-pleasing!

"It is significant that one of the first things that a vigilante does is stake out their target, stalk their victim, and engage is a whole lot of brooding and premeditation. This is what separates vigilantism from self-defense. Vigilante behavior is premeditated, while self-defense is spontaneous. The Bernhard Goetz subway shooting incident in 1984 was not a case of vigilantism for this reason. The planned intent to do harm is what makes vigilantism criminal behavior since the vigilante's very reason for being is to do serious bodily harm or kill (which is conspiracy to commit aggravated assault, murder, or other felonies)."

My answer remains the same. No to all three instances.

Steph, I'm going to have to push your intuitions on this a little more strongly. In Jonathan's scenario, you do not consider this self-defense because you are not the one being raped, nor do you feel tied to, or morally-responsible for, the girl(s) in question. But what if it was your own daughter? Suppose, for example, your daughter was a grown woman of, say, 23, and decided to move in with a man whom you know nothing about. And then you find out that he has locked her inside their basement and only goes down there to rape her. But nobody knows of this, and (given some concocted story a la Jonathan's where the police are either complicit or in some other way the standing system of justice has failed her) the only way to rescue your daughter is to premeditate how to go in, murder the SOB, and rescue your daughter. Is this vigilante justice, or self-defense? Are you still incapable of action?

Objection leading.

Suggestive questioning.

"A suggestive question is one that implies that a certain answer should be given in response,[1][2] or falsely presents a presupposition in the question as accepted fact. Such a question distorts the memory thereby tricking the person into answering in a specific way that might or might not be true or consistent with their actual feelings, and can be deliberate or unintentional. For example, the phrasing "Don't you think this was wrong?" is more suggestive than "Do you think this was wrong?" despite the difference of only one word. The former may subtly pressure the respondent into responding "yes," whereas the latter is far more direct.[1] Repeated questions can make people think their first answer is wrong and lead them to change their answer, or it can cause people to continuously answer until the interrogator gets the exact response that they desire. The diction used by the interviewer can also be an influencing factor to the response given by the interrogated individual."


My answer remains the same. No to all three instances.

I'm OK Jonathan!

No worries!

Hey guys. Just got home from work, and found this really interesting discussion. I will stipulate that I know I am capable of taking someones life, but would I? As a human, we all are. Not speaking specifically to the scenario, but generally, to protect me and mine. I would still try to preserve other life, but if push came to shove, most of humanity is capable of this act.  Doesn't make me proud, somewhat nauseous, in fact. Might even make me consider harming myself after the fact. Because in this scenario, it is up close, personal. You are looking at another human, eye to eye, and having to kill them. One on one. No equivocation.

But in this case, I believe there are other options, higher levels one can appeal to than just the D.A. And not all will be related to this person. I know this isn't exactly what you asked, Jonathan, but I always seem to have the tendency to look "outside the box", as it were. Thanks guys. It's always a blast with ya.

You know, Jonathan, when I was younger, in my 20's, most things were black & white. I really had it figured out, secure in my opinions. Male bovine feces! Man, was I insufferable. I would have had a ready answer. But as I've aged (not always for the better, lol), most things have gotten grey.I mean really grey. I'm not trying to equivocate on this, but it is stating a scenario in a narrow sense. My worlview has expanded. Speaking for myself at this stage in my life, without a direct threat to me or my loved ones, I would have to stand put.

But my inner 20 y.o.says, fry the bastard.

Let me start this way. First the information should be reported to authorities; second, you didn't know the relationship of the father and District Attorney so more investigation to find help is necessary. . 

If your goal is the health and safety of the girl, start with finding a way to get her away from her father. 

If your goal is vengeance, then go after the dad, with a pair of castrating clamps to start. 

If your goal is justice, then go after the dad and his brother. 

Here is the rub, you offer a false dichotomy. There are other options:

1. do nothing. 

2. go to the state attorney or some other official you know not to be corrupt (risky). 

3. go to the loving aunt and uncle. 

4. seek the advice of your attorney. 

5. express your experience and concern to a mental or physical health professional. They are obliged by law to report the incident and if they know the cop and district attorney are brothers, the should be able to find safe resources for the girl. 

6. Hope the father isn't related to all these people. 

7. go to the school where the girl attends. 

8. Is the father or any of his family involved with a church? Seek out who might be a resource. (I know this one could be a dead end because I had to deal with this and battered women.)

9. Vigilante justice (which isn't justice at all because you put your future at risk and if you have family to support, a great injustice with your life could result. 

Great question!


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