Sunday, 18 December 2011

Is It Ethical To Call The Cops?

Here's an interesting idea that I've been wrestling with for a while: is it right to call the cops on somebody?  Let's say your house gets broken into and some of your property stolen.  In response, you call the State's law enforcement apparatus into effect, which hunts down the perpetrators and locks them up for years in terrible conditions (imprisonment, forced labor, prison rape and so on).  This does not seem like a proportionate response to losing a few hundred dollars' worth of belongings.  Would you trace down the burglars yourself and lock them in your basement for a year; or would you consider that a gross moral wrong, much worse than the original burglary?  If you consider that wrong, how can you justify having the State do it for you?

One preliminary point: I'm only talking about minor crimes here, and I'm only talking about cases where your life isn't actually in danger.  (Victims of impending assault, serial killers, or domestic violence have more iron-clad justifications for calling the police.)  Now I'm going to lay out a few counter-arguments that might justify calling the cops to investigate a minor crime, and give a brief rebuttal to them in italics.

Let's start with the strongest: the concept of State justice.  Individuals hunting down criminals and imprisoning them is obviously wrong, but not because imprisonment itself is wrong.  Imprisonment is ethical when it's delivered as fair recompense for a criminal act.  If we let individuals hunt down and punish criminals in any way they wanted, we would not have a fair system.  Therefore it's ethical to call in the State to do terrible things to criminals which you could never do yourself.

But are prisons fair recompense?  If forcing someone to live in current prison conditions counts as a disproportionate response, then it can't be justice.  This argument would work if prison conditions were much better than they are; currently, I don't think it does.

There's also a utilitarian argument for calling the cops that revolves around deterrence.  Locking up a thief in prisons (and prisons are goddamn awful) is clearly a disproportionate response - and it would be unjustifiable if it were done for its own sake.  However, imprisonment deters other crimes and lessens the overall level of suffering in society.  Deterrence works best when everybody knows about it, so the State is far better suited than the individual to punish in a flashy way.

However, do prisons deter crimes?  If we are to believe Foucault, prisons created organized crime (and it's very plausible that locking up petty criminals with worse criminals for months and years is going to create a breed of even worse criminals.)

You could justify calling the police by arguing that criminals forfeit their rights.  On this view, our rights are respected insofar as we respect the rights of others.  Once we disrespect another person's rights, our own rights are forfeit and others are ethically permitted to do what they like with us.  Thus, once a criminal steals your property, it's no longer wrong to lock him up in prison.

On the other hand, it's hard to condemn hunting down a criminal yourself on this view.  Moreover, who hasn't disrespected someone's rights at some point?  Who here would 'scape a whipping?

There's a response to my question - is it ethical to call the cops - that isn't quite a counter-argument.  It goes like this: "prison conditions aren't perfect, but we have to work with what we have.  Let's call the cops, and let the justice system run smoothly, and at the same time work for improved prison conditions."  I'm not going to argue against this at length, but I want to point out that this argument is not going to be much comfort for those who are actually imprisoned.  You could also argue that prison conditions (in Australia at least) aren't as bad as all that.  My research here isn't exactly bulletproof, so I'm prepared to be convinced.  However, if you accept that prisons are terrible, terrible places that nobody deserves to be in, my question stands: if you are burgled, how can you ethically justify calling the cops?


  1. If someone burgles my house the first thing I'm going to do is call the cops. If I'm inside the house while they're burgling me I might even shoot the burglar if I get the opportunity.

    Calling the cops doesn't mean I'm the cops' friend or that I like prisons. It simply means that I don't want my house burgled and I don't want my family put at grave risk.

  2. I can't really comment, not having been in the position of discovering a burglar in my house, but I hope that if such a thing were to happen I'd be less cavalier about killing a man.

  3. My place was burgled just a few months ago. They took my (expensive!) laptop on which I had a lot of personal correspondence from the last few years, so I was equally upset about the letters I'd lost, and the cost of replacement.

    I did call the police, primarily in the vain hope that there was some remote possibility they could find my property. I had no interest in punishing the culprit, as I assumed they must already be in a sorry state to commit such a crime.

    I must be a Stoic, after all! Ha.

    PS: In response to Cow and Philboyd: If I was present while the burgler was climbing in the window, he/she would certainly regret their actions. I would not be acting in a cavalier manner. Every life is a fragile and precious thing, but I would guess that, if attacked and our backs were against the wall, even the most Stoic amongst us would value their own life over that of a burgler's.