Category Archives: 1999 Conference

On the Value of Death

Jacoby Carter, Wilberforce University

I will begin this paper by confessing that I have not as yet come to any concrete determination as to the axiology of death. Death, according to Thomas Nagel “…is the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence,…” properly understood, death, within the context of this discourse is not a transition from temporal human existence to a nonhuman, suprahuman, ephemeral etc. mode of being; consciousness does not survive death in any way. Nor is death a particular state of existence, instead, it is a constant void incapable of being conceptualized.

Evaluating Death’s Axiology: Nagel’s Shaping of the Discussion

It is Nagel’s aim, given the above qualifications to discover whether death is intrinsically good, evil or void of any axiology whatsoever. I understand Nagel to believe that if death is an evil, it is an evil only insomuch as it is an irrevocable prevention of the ability to achieve human potentialities. Conversely, if death is a good, it is because it brings about a permanent end to adversity. In subsequent argumentation Nagel drops this line of argument and goes on to contend that life is intrinsically good, that is to say human existence embodies concepts such as “…perception, desire, activity and thought, ” which are so basic that they are ” constitutive of human life .” Nagel does not intend here a complete enumeration of value laden phenomena, instead, he endeavors to show that the opportunity to achieve future possibilities is inherently good, regardless of the positive or negative content of these possibilities. Further, my comprehension of Nagel’s position is that setting aside negative or positive experiences, what remains is not value neutral ” …it is emphatically positive .” The reason being, that the mere ability to have either positive or negative experiences is paramount to the content of those experiences. Nagel goes on to further shape the discussion by positing two observations: (1) the value of life transcends mere organic existence, and (2) the value of life is increased by time.

Nagel does not attempt at all to situate the axiology of death in the manner of existence it relegates human persons to. Rather, he attempts to head off discussion of the state of death, which he regards as little more than speculation. As I understand him, the condition of death is an unimaginable phenomenon in so much as it is an unconscious abyss which necessarily lacks any content. Hence, what people respond to in expressing an aversion to death is not the state of being dead, rather, it is a response to the projection of conscious mental constructions upon an incomprehensible state.

Nagel contends that there are three problems one encounters in determining the value of death. First, one must consider whether the deprivation of potential goods is in fact harmful. Second, there are problems assigning the alleged misfortune of death to a particular subject. Last, is the reconciliation of perceptions about “…posthumous and pre-natal non-existence .”

In further clarifying the first problem, I ascertain Nagel’s contention to be that it cannot be the case that an individual must have knowledge of or even experience a phenomenon for it to be harmful. For Nagel, a crucial element of this discussion has to do with time. He asks are the simplest goods and evils a person may possess at a given time, so solely because of her condition at a given time? Nagel contends that often historical information must be known of an individual before an assessment can be made of the phenomena affecting her. Such phenomena as deterioration, deprivation, and damage, may render her experiential state inconsequential. Further, to attach a temporal component to the assigning of value to certain occurrences would require fundamental changes in “…ideas of human value .” Nagel maintains that the wrong done to an individual need not be temporally or conditionally assignable to a particular entity.

It therefore seems to me worth exploring the position that most good and ill fortune has as its subject a person identified by his history and his possibilities, rather than merely by his categorical state of the moment – and that while this subject can be exactly located in a sequence of places and times, the same is not necessarily true of the goods and ills that befall him .

Nagel’s response to the third problem; the reconciliation of the value of pre-natal and posthumous non-existence, is that the time after death is a deprivation of potentialities, whereas, the time before birth is not. A discussion of pre-natal non-existence and its relationship to posthumous non-existence seems at best to be a covering of bases which lacks any relevance to the current discourse. For this reason it will not be considered other than to clarify Nagel’s total position.

In continuing his argument, I understand Nagel to maintain that in order to properly value death, one must consider the extent to which a being can reasonably expect to experience future possibilities. The cessation of life being good or bad will hinge upon the reasonableness of the expected good or bad potentialities. Death which prohibits the realization of positive potentialities is bad. On the other hand, death which eliminates the possibility of future pain and misery is good.

Moreover, Nagel contends that the life of human persons does not take place entirely within the confines of time and space. By this I understand him to mean that phenomena of relevance to the lived experience of a person need not reveal themselves to a subject physically or mentally. Nor does he require that the subject have any experience of such phenomena to legitimize there existence. According to Nagel, one’s lived experience has value, so to does the potential to realize certain conditions, thus, the axiology prescribed to death must account for this range of possible worlds. In addition to his previous position Nagel maintains that human persons do not intrinsically appreciate the idea of natural limits. Human persons are able to conceptualize a continued existence analogous to their past experiences should they be able to live indefinitely. Nagel denies that inevitability makes death any less unfortunate, for him the fact that something is bound to happen does not effect its axiology. Here Nagel concludes his article, neglecting to make any concrete conclusions concerning the value of death.

A Response to Nagel’s Argument

The contention that life’s axiology is grounded in the opportunity to actualize future experiences, regardless of the nature of those experiences, and the elimination of this possibility being evil, seems to undermine the significance of experience. The value of life is grounded in more than impending possibilities; the substance of such possibilities is equally relevant. The value of life is fundamentally changed through the process of living. A person’s life is enriched and diminished by the nature of her experiences. The ability to pursue an individual’s developmental interest adds tremendously to the quality of their existence. Through the pursuit of the arts, education, travel, religion etc. human persons are able to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of life. Conversely, human persons can not only fail to actuate positive potentialities, but there is also the possibility of encountering phenomena which diminishes a person’s existence.

It is Nagel’s contention throughout his article, that if death is an evil, it is so because it denies human persons the opportunity to live out future potentialities. I respond first by evaluating the concept of future potentialities. Future potentialities are a necessary negation of a person’s present condition. One’s immediate circumstances being what they are, there arises an endless number of possible futures. Insomuch as, a thing which a subject is capable of doing is not being done presently, it at least has the potential of being a future endeavor. Yet, such a potentiality is void of metaphysical significance. For future possibilities – which are simply the range of conceivable phenomenon that one can possibly experience in the future – do not warrant axiological consideration. Future potentialities in this regard lack the necessary dialectical relationship to immediate experience. By this I mean that possible phenomena must synthesize with temporal experience to become actual, and thus, valuable. Of what significance is the axiology of a concept which does not exist concretely? Or put another way, if a phenomenon does not affect me directly or indirectly, why be concerned with its value? Such consideration challenges the contention that life is valuable for the possibilities that it offers and nothing more. Rather, life’s value is grounded in the nature of the lived experiences of human persons. Future potentialities then, because they lack experiential manifestation, cannot be used as the ground for life’s axiology. I argue that Nagel has failed to appreciate what I deem as the necessity of concreteness in valuing human existence. Thus, the denial of future potentialities is not sufficient to make death an evil.

Future potentialities are little more than quasi-forms situated somewhere between mere abstraction and physical manifestation. Yet, unacknowledged is the metaphysical assumption that these impending likelihoods actually exist. For these prospective occurrences in no way alter the life or understanding of the person they are attributed to, and further there is no particular assignment of some possibility or possibilities (x) to some subject (y) in the future(z). (x) has no specific value or qualities which can be known to affect (y) in (z). The only relation of (y) to (x) is the notion that at any possible point in (z) some (x) will be experientially connected to some (y). Yet, it defies reason to think possible outcomes have ontology prior to there experiential relation to some metaphysical entity.

In dealing with the second of his stated problems concerning death, Nagel continues in his failure to appreciate temporal assignability in valuing a phenomenon though in a different way. Nagel writes:

When a man dies we are left with is corpse, and while a corpse can suffer the type of mishap that may occur to an article of furniture, it is not a suitable object for pity. The man, however, is. He has lost his life, and if he had not died, he ould have continued to live it, and to posses whatever good there is in living…One must be content just to state that his life is over and there will be no more of it. That fact, rather than his past or present condition, constitutes his misfortune, if it is one.

Not wishing to deny the ontology of potential harm altogether, it must be assessed what the nature of an ill is that does not entail some temporal connection to its recipient. The urge is to argue that ills which cannot be attributed to a particular subject, at a particular time, in a particular state of mind are not harmful. That is, if I have no knowledge of an ill and if that ill has no bearing on my physical condition or state of mind can it be considered damaging? For surely to be unconscious of an ill but to have that ill effect an individual’s physical condition or state of mind is detrimental.

The problem with Nagel’s conceptualization of harm is that it lacks ontology. If a harm lacks manifestation in the lived experience of a being it cannot rightly be said to exist. While potential ills do posses a theoretical relevance that is void of any particular applicability; that is, the ability to conceptualize harmful phenomena outside of temporal, mental and physical applicability is a useful tool for understanding the abstract universality of an ill, there must be however, a grounding of detrimental occurrences in the experience of a subject, though the harm need not be known to the subject, but must merely effect her adversely.

Returning the disputation to the axiology of death, one is then faced with the argument that future potentialities lack metaphysical merit and insomuch as death is an evil because it is the “…unequivocal and permanent end of our existence…” the denial of a phenomenon which lacks ontology cannot be used as a justification for considering death an evil. Nagel displays a dialectical confusion which fails to realize that outside of an experiential manifestation in the present, future potentialities are none other than necessary negations to present realization. For it is only when potential is grounded in immediate actualization that a phenomenon enters the realm of existence.

As was previously established by Nagel, death is not a physical condition, instead, it is an unconscious void such that it lacks metaphysical conceptualization. After death the deceased individual cannot be said to exist, moreover, to speak of her as though she still exists is irrational. At best, it is the extrapolation of some possible event or events from a person’s former existence. Further, any misfortune that one wishes to attribute to a particular subject is no longer possible because that subject does not exist. Thus, death cannot be said to adversely effect any subject because a deceased subject lacks to necessary ontology to be qualitatively assessed. Persons are not resurrected from unconscious non-existence by the mental constructions of the living.


Naturally, as a human being, I embody a certain uncomfortable predisposition regarding this phenomenon, but to elevate this intuitive perception to the level of a concrete value judgement is not an ideological commitment I am as yet ready to make. I reject Nagel’s contention that the axiology of death is to be determined by the denial of future potentialities. As I have argued, future potentialities lack the necessary ontology to qualify their denial as an evil. Operating within the parameters that Nagel has instituted – that death is permanent and irrevocable, and does not represent a transformation or transcendence of ephemeral earthly existence – and denying the contention that death is evil only insomuch as it represents an ability to actualize future potentialities, it seems more appropriate to maintain that death is void of any axiology. Death is a inevitable natural phenomenon; it is neither good nor evil. The confusion about its axiology arises from a desire to elevate the natural disaffection of human persons to this phenomena to an axiological assessment. Unfortunately, a distaste for the phenomenon of death is not a sufficient justification for considering it an evil.

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Gewirth's Ethical Rationalism and Abortion: a Response

Nathan Jun, Loyola University Chicago

In the preface to his seminal work, Reason and Morality (1978), Alan Gewirth writes: “The most important and difficult problem of philosophical ethics is whether a substantial moral principle can be rationally justified.” Taking this problem as his point of departure, Gewirth proceeds to outline his own solution, one purported to rely solely on deductive and inductive logic. His approach moves from an analysis of the generic features of human action to the derivation of a universal principle of morality — the “Principle of Generic consistency” (– which must be accepted by every rational agent on pain of self-contradiction.

This approach fails on several accounts, especially in its understanding of agency and moral personhood. The deficiencies are particularly evident in Gewirth’s position on the rights of unborn children. My aim in this paper is to criticize Gewirth’s position through a careful analysis of its presuppositions. After summarizing his methodology, I demonstrate that (1) Gewirth’s attempt to quantify personhood is unrealistic; (2) that his position on abortion rests on the unintelligible notion of “comparable conflict” between mother and unborn; and (3) that he implicitly assumes that personhood is naturally, and not functionally, defined — thereby contradicting himself. Ultimately, I outline an alternate view of personhood, one which avoids the criticisms to which Gewirth’s theory is particularly susceptible — namely, that personhood is a natural component of human beings from the start, rather than a gradually acquired trait.

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Who Cares? An Investigation into the Aesthetic Epistemology of Caring

Kristin Pierce, Pacific Lutheran University

This paper developed in response to the promotion of certain “core values” by Pacific Lutheran University’s School of Nursing. It engages some of the epistemic problems raised by accepting those core values without exploring the implications of theory on practice. As a nurse, one is expected to “care”; but as a “carer,” who is left to determine the limits of that care?

In my paper I look at caring as an act of an individual; something that one does to another, also an act amenable to epistemic and aesthetic scrutiny. When we look at caring from an aesthetic (arguably ethical) perspective, we are asking the question: “How do we recognize quality in the act of caring?” I attempt to provide an answer to this question through the investigation of three prominent epistemologies of caring, attending to their distinctions and commonalties. I then turn to a critique of the (implicit) attributes of a carer, and make suggestions for revision of current epistemologies of caring. I conclude with an articulation of the links between an epistemology and an ethical system, reiterating the necessity for an ethical practice to be supported by a strong theoretical foundation.

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Is 'Forbidden Knowledge' Possible in Modern Science?

Deborah Johnson, Georgia Institute of Technology

In this paper I use the concept of forbidden knowledge to explore questions about putting limits on science. Science has generally been understood to seek and produce objective truth, and this understanding of science has grounded its claim to freedom of inquiry. What happens to decision making about science when this claim to objective, disinterested truth is rejected? There are two changes that must be made to update the idea of forbidden knowledge for modern science. The first is to shift from presuming that decisions to constrain or even forbid knowledge can be made from a position of omniscience (perfect knowledge) to recognizing that such decisions made by human beings are made from a position of limited or partial knowledge. The second is to reject the idea that knowledge is objective and disinterested and accept that knowledge (even scientific knowledge) is interested. In particular, choices about what knowledge gets created are normative, value choices. When these two changes are made to the idea of forbidden knowledge, questions about limiting or forbidding lines of inquiry are shown to distract attention from the more important matters of who makes and how decisions are made about what knowledge is produced. Much more attention should be focused on choosing directions in science, and as this is done, the matter of whether constraints should be placed on science will fall into place.

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Making Choices: Journalists and the Mean

Lee Peck, Ohio University

Many journalists rely on a “quick-and-easy” formula for making ethical decisions. Based on Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean, it involves casting out the two extremes (vices) of an ethical dilemma and acting on a middle point in the ethics spectrum. This paper explores what Aristotle intended with his doctrine of the mean and suggests ways journalists might better understand it.

Journalists are provided codes of ethics on which to model their behavior. But Aristotle cautioned that knowing the rules is not enough to ensure moral virtue. Journalists, like all people, cannot hope to understand the doctrine of the mean unless they have been brought up well by parents and early teachers. Teaching at this stage focuses on habituation — the practice of making morally correct decisions becomes second nature.

Codes of ethics cannot take the place of teachers and mentors. As Aristotle might say: it’s not enough to know the good; journalists must become good. This paper offers suggestions that might help journalists better understand what Aristotle meant by the doctrine of the mean.


Journalism Ethics & New Trends in Communication

Wayne Waters, Ohio University

The ethics of journalism and mass communications are undergoing serious reevaluation these days. Concepts derived from three major phenomena — the social responsibility theory exemplified by the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press, the developmental journalism brought out by the MacBride Commission on “Communication and Society Today and Tomorrow,” and the advent of public/civic/communitarian journalism — associated with mass communication seem most pertinent to the debate.

In all three cases there have been serious challenges to the most conservative views of the proper ethical parameters for journalistic endeavors. One can see within this debate a general broadening of ethical considerations from purely individualistic ethics to organizational ethics; from organizational to sociological and political concerns; from a negatively defined perspective of “do no evil” to a positive, proactive sensibility of facilitating public involvement; from the narrow tip of top-down reporting to the broad-based bottom-up approach.

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Good News / Bad News: Ethics Codes, Moral Codes, & Newsroom Practice

Patricia Ferrier, Ohio University

No abstract available

The Metaphysical Natural Right-State of Life-Liberty

Presented at the 1999 Ohio University Student Conference on Applied Ethics. The opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ohio University or the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics.

Bradford Short — Carnegie-Mellon University

After speaking of metaphysics and the right-state of life-liberty as viewed by Rousseau, the Socrates of Geneva, I move on to John Locke, the Socrates of London.

It will be thought that while Rousseau may have been this explicitly against suicide because it was the very essence of slavery, no other philosophe so blatantly attacked suicide as slavery, correct? No, that is not correct. The first philosophe, the very father of the Age of Enlightenment and the great attorney for the defense of the people of England in their cause of 1688, John Locke himself, condemned the ridiculous theory of legal euthanasia in language as blatant as that of the Swiss gentleman who would follow him:

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself.

John Locke has just shown us the point (Life) from which the very notion of right starts. No one can have a right to Life, but rather, his or her rights come from Life. “Me” is that assurance that “me” is neither murdered nor enslaved, (and shall remain so into perpetuity), ergo any “commonwealth” that presupposes to be able to own “me,” does not understand the very nature of “me.” What I have called caprice, Locke calls “licence.” To put one’s individual choice of the moment, to put that irrational passion and lust for getting what one wants rights now, to put that above true choosality and true Lockean liberty, that is licence. Locke says it right out: “He has not liberty to destroy himself.” What could be a more open condemnation of suicide? Furthermore, Locke himself makes the connection between slavery, suicide and murder:

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure [emphasis added]. And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses [emphasis added], as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully [emphasis added], so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind [emphasis added], and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

Now one can see where I got the idea to write in my speech that “Life is owned by Nature herself, and can be ended by no mortal, not even the one to whom Nature has loaned it.”Humans, made in the image of God in Locke’s eyes, are a piece of His “workmanship,” that is to say that they have transcendental worth. Thus, precisely because we are God’s “property,” we transcend physical property. We are, in fact, not really property. We are, as both Kant and God Himself would say, “ends in ourselves.” Furthermore, Locke links this directly to the evil that is slavery. He tells us that humans were not made “for one another’s uses,” because we are the “property” of God’s holy and transcendental use.

Locke, in effect tells us that slavery is an abomination. This is exactly what Locke did think of slavery, that it was truly evil. And what does Locke say of self-slavery? “Everyone…is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully.” He even uses the term “station,” like Thomas Aquinas or even our own John Paul II. He could not be more openly attacking suicide in the most blatant (today we would say “conservative”) ways.

Lastly, Locke does not let us get away with passively murdering people by letting them starve or die without sufficient medical treatment. We are ordered to “preserve the rest of mankind.” David Cash, for instance, certainly did not preserve that little black girl who his pedophile friend murdered in Las Vegas. Many “liberals” and “libertarians” defended that monster Cash, but Locke would not have. To withhold aid that a human needs to live is to commit murder, plain and simple. That is not Karl Marx saying that. That is John Locke, the father of democratic-capitalism saying that. I believe in free markets, only so long as they do not demand that a sick person be euthanized. What is more important is that is what Locke believed Madison wrote into the Fifth Amendment itself. The Fifth Amendment has in its very lines Locke’s “life, liberty” and property (as opposed to the “goods of another”). Locke through Madison ordered the Constitution to protect life howsoever unprofitable it gets in a hospital bed. No cost cutting villain on a hospital ethics board has the authority to remove the life support of any human being. To do so is to violate the Metaphysical Natural Right-State of Life-Liberty that Locke and Madison themselves believed in. The Constitution orders such doctors of death to be punished as slavers, and it is time for the United States Department of Justice to start exercising its rights.

Locke, however, is not through with condemning the slavery that is suicide. He writes later:

For nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other, to destroy his own life [emphasis added], or take away the life or property of another. A man, as has been proved, cannot subject himself to the arbitrary power of another [emphasis added]; and having, in the state of Nature, no arbitrary power over the life, liberty, or possession of another, but only so much as the law of Nature gave him for the preservation of himself and the rest of mankind [emphasis added], this is all he doth, or can give up to the commonwealth [emphasis added], and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. Their power in the utmost bounds of it is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave [emphasis added], or designedly to impoverish the subjects; the obligations of the law of Nature cease not in society, but only in many cases are drawn closer, and have, by human laws, known penalties annexed to them to enforce their observation [emphasis added].

Locke sees Hobbes’ world of absolute and arbitrary rule exactly for what it is. It is a world of slaves. Thus, he links the evil of absolute tyranny to slavery and then to suicide. And rightly so, for they all, as Rousseau would say, do their utmost to “annul” our very being, and are an affront to all human dignity and any just state. Precisely because I cannot have the right to “destroy myself,” so too I cannot give myself to someone else who may destroy me. This is exactly the “arbitrary power” James II, in his evil arrogance, wanted. Furthermore, the power we do in fact give up to the “commonwealth” is that which is only legitimate when it “preserves…mankind.” When a doctor murders his patient under the vile laws of Oregon, does he “preserve mankind?” Yet every time the law allows people to destroy other people or to destroy other people passively by letting them die, the law makes those victims the property of the victimizers. David Cash would have risked his life to save himself! Yet he would not do so for $5.00 in his wallet, nor would he do so for a little black girl. That girl was enslaved and then murdered by her oppressors and the state had an obligation to stop that conspiracy to commit slavery. Locke prescribes the answer to this evil culture of death that is taking over the United States and destroying it from the inside out. Natural Law can, by “known penalties annexed to” the violation of those Natural Laws, “enforce” Natural Law’s “observation.” The observation of Natural Law and the positive laws made in the pursuit thereof is the sole duty of any government on earth. This is the axiom that our Department of Justice should be following. They have been told by the Constitution itself that suicide is slavery and they not only have a right to stop it, they have an obligation to stop it.


The Ethics of Police Deception

Presented at the 1999 Ohio University Student Conference on Applied Ethics. The opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ohio University or the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics.

Matthew Ciske – Ohio University

The central question of my research this year is “Are police officers and other criminal investigators ethically permitted to employ deception or lie during the course of a case and, if so, what are the moral boundaries they must remain within?” My answer to the first part is strongly affirmative. Further, I believe there to be cases where a police officer is morally obligated to lie. In this paper, I will present a discussion of why philosophers should be interested in law enforcement ethics, what the role of police is in society, particular sorts of police lies, how police officers justify deception, and the consequences of police deception. Please note, though, this is a work-in-progress.

Everyone, from prostitutes to philosophers, is affected by the conduct or misconduct of police officers. Philosophers can assist by calling into question standard ethical precepts and providing tests or methods for evaluating options, though what is easily understood in the classroom may become clouded or more complicated in the field. Some goals of philosophers who deal with law enforcement ethics are to:

  • sensitize personnel to the moral dimensions of their work
  • to teach moral language
  • to identify and appraise moral arguments and articulate principles for moral reasoning
  • to apply the end results more generally to broader ethical theory (Elliston & Feldberg, p.3)

Whether motivated by self-interest or a desire to contribute to general ethical understanding, the philosopher may come to appreciate the drama of police work, the tensions between concrete moral decisions and commonly held principles of conduct. The nature of police training and work requires police officers to use both intellectual and moral abilities. Ethics instruction builds moral character in officers and on-the-job use of moral reasoning enables police administrators to identify fundamental problems and balance often conflicting laws, community expectations, and their own consciences (p.2).

While it has been traditional to describe the role of police in the context of social contract theory with police officers as agents charged with the enforcement of law such a definition here is not sufficient. Instead, this paper will be framed in the context of the definition presented by Bittner in The Capacity to Use Force as the Core of the Police Role:

“The role of the police is best understood as a mechanism for the distribution of non-negotiable coercive force employed in accordance with the dictates of an intuitive grasp of situational emergencies.” (p.23)

He notes that by “non-negotiable coercive force” it is meant that when a deputized police officer decides that force is necessary he [the cop] is not accountable to anyone–so long as he acts within the boundaries of the situation.

Peace by peaceful means is a trait of modern society–it is evidenced by the establishment of international diplomacy with the task of controlling outbreaks of war, the virtual elimination of force from the administration of justice, and the social condemnation of using violence as being of a low-class mentality. This is not to say, however, that society is blind to the frequent occurrence of violence within it. The use of force is tightly restricted in modern society, limiting its use to three general categories. Self-defense is generally permissible when used as an absolute last resort–all other methods must have been considered, including retreat, and either attempted or determined to be impossible. Caretakers like prison guards and hospital orderlies are also permitted to use force for self-defense and to enforce a court order for confinement or restricted freedom. Police authority to use force, though, is significantly different from the previous two examples. Of these three categories, only one is granted near limitless authority to use force–the police. The only explicit restrictions placed on police use of force are limits on the use of deadly force, that the officer must be performing his legitimate duties, and that the force must not be applied in a frivolous or malicious manner.

Defining the police role as strict law enforcement becomes obviously too narrow when one considers that approximately one-third of a police agency’s time and resources is devoted to investigating crimes and pursuing fugitives. If only a portion of a cop’s work load is devoted to performing ‘law enforcement’ tasks, what is he doing with the remaining time? Among other tasks, police officers are called on to obtain and maintain order in large crowds, remove drunk patrons from bars, mediate domestic disputes, and deal with medical and psychiatric emergencies–taken together, situations that require the use of force without invoking law (Bittner, p. 19). Some might argue that these chores are the responsibilities of other professionals–doctors, EMTs, tavern owners, and counselors–even though those practitioners are the ones who may have summoned police assistance. And for what reason? By the rules society has established, the practitioner lacks the authority to evict a patron or family member by force or to compel a critically ill person to check into a hospital or clinic. Police work, then, requires the overcoming of actual or potential resistance.

Four types of domination and control are available to cops: authority, power, persuasion, and physical force (Klockars, p.228). Authority is marked by unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey, neither coercion nor persuasion is needed. Those who obey do so because they understand the command to be right and necessary and they understand the person or institution to be rightly entitled to issue the command (p. 228). It is impossible to know what proportion of encounters between police and citizens are marked by relations of authority.

Power is the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action (p. 228). This form of domination is similar to authority in that it is a social thing, but can be distinguished from authority in two ways–power calculates the cost of resistance, must deal with the idea of if resistance is made that it will be overcome–police are subject to extreme restrictions on action when reacting to the provocative practices of others.

Persuasion involves seeking to overcome resistance through the use of words and arguments that induce in the mind of the person persuaded the belief that he or she ought to comply (Klockars, p. 229). This form of domination and control removes the probability factor in the power definition while maintaining the officer’s claim to authority or power. A person is not considered persuaded until he believes he ought to do or behave in a certain manner. Lying or deceiving is a subset of this type of domination. The lie communicates a message the sender knows to be false with the intention of taking from the mind of the person receiving it the capacity to draw its own conclusion. Errors are excused on the ground they lack the intent to deceive.

Physical force differs from the previous three in that the will of the person being coerced is irrelevant to the means used to obtain compliance. Like lying, it affects a person’s right to determine how to behave, though lying simply presents a false reality while force disregards will completely. Force is rarely approved of by those to whom it is applied, as is demonstrated by a general unwillingness of society to give approval or legitimacy to its use (p.229).

Brooks suggests the decision to lie involves a utilitarian calculus–a belief that the truth will cause a greater evil than the deception and that individuals, including cops, find themselves in these situations frequently (p.5). Common areas of deception in law enforcement include the use of wiretaps, informants, stings, and undercover operations. These common deceptive practices involve lying to individuals believed to be involved in criminal activity (p.5). Four major assumptions are necessary on the part of the police officer. The first is the operative assumption of guilt–guilt is assumed as a necessary working premise in searches and interrogations. The officer is often not in a position to alter this assumption until some action results in disconfirmation. Secondly, the officer is obliged to assume that the suspect is dangerously guilty–the ‘worst of all possible guilt’ assumption. The cop must be prepared for danger and understand the one who has the most to hide will try the hardest to evade responsibility. Cops deal frequently with the worst of people, places, and situations and must view them in a context of guilt–the ‘great guilty place’ assumption. In this ‘great guilty place’ the officer knows that people have commited many crimes for which they were not caught, obligating the officer to the ‘not guilty, this time’ assumption (Klockars, p.60).

Deception can occur in any or all three stages of the detecting process–investigation, interrogation, and court testimony. According to Skolnick, each stage is subject to increasingly stringent normative constraints (p. 77). In the investigation phase of a case police are permitted by the courts to engage in deception and are trained to do so (p. 80). Methods may include the use of wiretaps, informants, undercover agents, and the possession and sale of illegal materials or substances. The line between what is acceptable and what is not is that of entrapment–the deception may be employed to up to the point that an ‘…agent of the government initiates a course of action that induces an otherwise innocent person to commit a crime in order that the government may then prosecute (Kleinig, p.152).’ The rule of thumb then being that the police may use deception to capture wolves and not lambs. Courts recognize that police deal mostly with wolves provide at least tacit approval of deceptive strategies and techniques (Skolnick, p. 82). It is being recognized that these deceptive practices will be used against those who are reasonably suspected of engaging in criminal behavior or otherwise acting in an unjust manner–people who are willing to do anything they can to avoid being detected and made accountable for their crimes (Kleinig, p. 132). Criminals have every reason to expect that force and deception will be used against them, as they employ it in their own escape (p.133). The police officer in this situation must take several things into account including what sorts of methods are permissible and what the costs are. Skolnik suggests that judicial acceptance of deception in the investigative process has a positive affect on the moral acceptance of the same methods by detectives in the interrogation and testimony phases, as well (p. 83).

Interrogation tactics employing deception vary widely, though they all represent the adversarial nature of this phase of a case (Kleinig, p. 143). The goal of an interrogation or criminal interview is to obtain factual information about a crime and the confession of the person responsible for it. Some methods seem clearly illegal, like those that deny or distort the meanings of the Miranda rules that guarantee at least certain minimum conditions of conduct (p. 142). Others may take the form of distorting the seriousness of the crime–engaging in victim blame or suggesting to a murder suspect that, for example, the victim is still alive. Threats or promises may also be opportunities for deception–telling a suspect that confessing will result in less jail time or engaging in the good cop/bad cop method of questioning. Fabricating claims of evidence, like appealing to a suspect’s conscience, are perfectly legal methods of deception (Hansen, p. 51).

Testimonial deception may be undertaken for any number of reasons, including cases where the motivation is to conceal criminal behavior on the part of the investigator or cover up investigative incompetence (Kleinig, p. 146). There are, though, a significant number of cases where the motivation is a desire to secure the conviction of those who are factually or morally guilty and circumventing apparent deficiencies in the criminal justice system (p. 146). The task of police officers is to deal with factual guilt–not legal culpability–and many officers are frustrated by the exclusion of evidence on the basis of a technicality or a lost case on the grounds of unreasonable doubt on the part of the jury. The police believe they have done their job and desire it concluded appropriately–criminals get what’s coming to them, society is protected from a predator and probable liar, and liberty is secured (p. 149).

This account of when police officers have the opportunity to employ deception may be misleading–we have only explored lying in the context of a criminal case. Since the early 1900s Supreme Court and other judicial rulings have created the impression that the judiciary exercises control over police, even though those rulings are not binding norms for police work (Bittner, p.23). The rulings merely provide that if police are to set a criminal case in motion then there are certain legally restricted ways in which they must work. Outside of these cases, judges typically only take notice of police deception or other practices if a citizen makes a claim in civil court. Two categories of deception–police placebos and blue-lies are worth examining, even though they occur outside of a strict application of law. For the legitimacy of these lies the officer must rely on their experiences, their values, and the occupational culture of police work.

Police placebos are lies commonly told by police officers for the benefit of the person being lied to. Examples of placebos can be as simple as telling a homeowner who was burglarized that the burglary was probably committed by a small-time crook who picked the house at random when the officer can clearly see that the crime was effected by a professional housebreaker who likely scouted it out ahead of time or telling the family of a car accident fatality that their relative died instantly and painlessly when his experience as a highway patrolmen indicates otherwise. Others may be more elaborate–Klockars presents a case where a police sergeant tells two brothers, who are likely schizophrenic that he has called Washington, D.C. and requested a team of highly trained invisible agents who deal exclusively with the sorts of invisible attackers that are bothering them (Klockars, p.231). These placebos are told for the purpose of easing a person’s fears and work only so long as the credibility of the deceiver is intact. To be morally justifiable the placebo must be given partly for the benefit of the person being lied to. It sponsors the impression of a meaningful response to the problem as it is understood by the victim–though in most cases the perception of the deceived is wrong–whether it be caused by mental illness or someone who believes that police have the resources to investigate every radio theft or bicycle-snatching. Before employing a placebo the officer must determine or at least assume the person will not be better served by some other non-deceptive treatment (p. 231).

Blue-lies are told to control a person, not offer comfort or help, as was the case with police placebos. Officers derive the legitimacy of this deceptive practice from a general right to take control of an emergency situation. Blue-lies are always risky–both legally and situationally–if there is another more efficient method available, lying may simply be a stupid choice. Occasionally police may feel compelled to lie and pursue non-legal intervention when the legal legitimacy required to do the work is somehow lacking (p.232). In other cases, though, employing deception is preferred to using physical force An example of a blue-lie from Klockars involves a police officer telling an abortion clinic protester that he is recovering from surgery and would be caused great pain if he were to have to pick her up and carry her from the building, prompting the woman to agree to walk out with them (p.232). Brooks offers a scenario in which the police falsely tell a newspaper that they have disrupted a major drug supplier in an effort to use the resulting news report to complete an undercover sting operation (p. ???). So blue-lies may exert control directly or indirectly over a suspect.

It appears that opportunities to lie abound in police work and those opportunities are often seized. What follows here is an account of how police officers might approach situations where deception seems called for. Police officers have a duty to uphold the law of the jurisdiction in which they work, AND they have an obligation to maintain order and a myriad of other duties, as were outlined earlier. The question now is when and to what extent a morally good end justifies the use of morally or legally dangerous means. In these situations the police officer finds himself in a position of having to choose between two wrongs, as illustrated by Klockars as the Dirty Harry problem, though street stops and suspect interrogations can fit the same framework (p. 58). In these situations the officer cannot be both just and innocent.

It must be proven, or reasonably assumed, that an officer is, in fact, in a situation where there exists a morally good end to be attained and a morally dirty (in a universal sense) means to be employed. The second condition is an empirical or epistemological one that creates a connection between the dirty act and the good end (p. 57). It must be known that the deception will result in the good end. In some cases, lying is not only ineffective, it is a stupid thing to do (Klockars, p. 232). As absolute certainty is generally held to be impossible we may think here in terms of probabilities. One must follow with the additional question of ‘Are there any non-dirty methods that are more likely to achieve the good end?’ The ability of a cop to know in advance whether a and only a dirty means will work rests on the professional competence of the officer and the range of legitimate options available to him (p. 62). It follows that the better a cop is at using legal means, the less likely he is to use dirty ones.

The final question an officer must consider is whether the effort will be in vain (Klockars, p. 58). Again, this requires a high degree of professional competence. The officer must realize that constantly forcing an assumption of guilt on any and everyone will lead him astray as often as it confirms his suspicions (p. 61). If a cop is still willing to use dirty means to achieve an unquestionably good end and risk becoming guilty himself, then he knows he has behaved justly in that situation.

Police find prevention and punishment of criminal behavior to be a good thing and are intimately aware of the availability of dirty means to achieve that end. The cultural norm of reciprocity implies a direct and natural relation between wrongful acts and their punishment (p. 65). Failure of cops to recognize that deception applied outside of the conditions just discussed are of the same class as lies told by criminals is reinforced by an occupational culture that simply denies the dirtiness of its means. It is unlikely that a moral cop could fit this mold–to do so would require him to regard his actions as substantively no different from anyone else. Prospects for punishing a cop for dirty means is unlikely, and when confronted with the prospect of jury condemnation the officer will rely on the subcultural assertion that ordinary citizens cannot appreciate the same moral and technical distinctions they face (p. 69).

What, then, are the consequences of police deception? Law enforcement officers are not obligated to tell everyone about everything and a suspected criminal may not have any expectation of truthfullness (Brooks, p.6). A ‘no comment’ is not a lie–disagreements over public disclosure is a matter for the courts, but the public does have a right to expect truthfullness. Deception erodes public confidence and may create a perception of law enforcement as being of the same sort as felons and fugitives, even if the deception is publically acknowledged later, as Bok would demand (p.11). Lying is effective only as long as the person being deceived believes and the deceiver’s credibility remains intact–public disclosure of previous deception puts that at risk.


Bittner, Egon.
“The Capacity to Use Force as the Core of the Police Role” in Moral Issues in Police Work, Elliston and Feldberg, eds. Rowman & Littlefield: Savage, MD, 1985, pp. 15-26.
Brooks, Michael E.
“The Ethics of Intentionally Deceiving the Media.” Unpublished Article. 1999 Elliston, Frederick A. and Michael Feldberg. Moral Issues in Police Work. Rowman & Littlefield: Savage, MD, 1985.
Hansen, Mark.
“Untrue Confessions’ in ABA Journal. July 1999, pp. 50-53.
Kleinig, John.
The Ethics of Policing. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1996.
Klockars, Carl B.
‘Blue Lies and Police Placebos: The Moralities of Police Lying” in Morality in Criminal Justice, Close and Meier, eds. Wadsworth Publishing:Belmont, 1995, pp.227-237.
Klockars, Carl B.
“The Dirty Harry Problem” in Moral Issues in Police Work, Elliston and Feldberg, eds. Rowman & Littlefield: Savage, MD, 1985, pp. 55-74.
Skolnick, Jerome H..
“Deception by Police” in Moral Issues in Police Work, Elliston and Feldberg, eds. Rowman & Littlefield: Savage, MD, 1985, pp. 75-98

The Truth on the Morality of Lying

Jessica Kapusta, Mercyhurst College

This paper deals with the kind of lying that every individual commits every day — the “little white lie.” Since there is very little material on this subject, I conducted some research of my own, asking about 15 subjects to define lying for me and to list any circumstance in which they felt lying would be necessary. I then asked them not to lie for three consecutive days and to record their thoughts and feelings. Based on my results and on the work of David Nyberd and Sissela Bok, I conclude that lying as an unavoidable part of human nature.