Bryan Caplan  

Fiduciary Excuses

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"I was just following orders."  "I was only doing my job."  "I had a legal obligation to act."  The most self-righteous criminals often invoke fiduciary obligations to explain why their actions were morally required rather than morally forbidden.

Mike Huemer, guest blogging at Open Borders, offers a succinct general refutation:
[H]aving special duties to A does not cancel your ordinary duties to B. Let's say you have special duties to your daughter. You have to provide for her needs in a way that you don't have to provide for a stranger's needs. This doesn't mean that, when you have children, somehow your obligations to everyone else (or everyone to whom you don't have some special relationship) are canceled. You can't now abuse strangers to your heart's content, just because they're not your daughter. For example: if your daughter is cold, you should buy a jacket for her, before buying one for your neighbor's daughter. But you may not steal a jacket from your neighbor's daughter to give it to your own daughter. Similarly, the state's special duties to promote its own citizens' interests, even if we believe there are such duties, do not negate the rights of non-citizens, nor do they mean that the state may abuse foreigners to its heart's content as long as doing so serves the interests of citizens.
Bottom line: You shouldn't enter agreements to perform morally impermissible acts - and if you ever reach a point where a prior agreement requires you to perform a morally impermissible act, you should break your agreement.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Suppose you are the executor of an estate, and while reviewing the will you decide that it would be immoral to carry out one of its terms; say, one commanding you to convey nearly all the testator's property to the Communist Party instead of to the poor-but-deserving Libertarian daughter whom the testator cut off with $1. Should you resign your post (knowing that the Probate Court will likely appoint another executor who does not share your scruples), or should you embezzle the inheritance by giving it to the daughter (or anyone else) instead of the Commies?

Chris H writes:

Good question, is it better to deceive and undermine immoral actions or be honest and simply avoid them? I think this depends on the action in question. There is a moral presumption against deceiving people but if there is greater evil to be avoided then sure. But due to the threat of being caught and punished in situations like this I think such undermining should be considered supererogatory rather than obligatory. Oscar Schindler for instance was a great man for risking life and limb to save thousands of people from the Nazis, but that very risk makes his actions something I wouldn't feel comfortable saying other people are obligated to do rather than avoiding committing any acts that knowingly help this system.

So yea, I think undermining an immoral system from the inside (so long as the immorality outweighs the immorality of the deception) can be considered praiseworthy, if not obligatory if there are serious potential consequences for doing so.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

It seems likely that this post is a re-hash of previous arguments over Obama announcing that he would actively violate the US immigration laws that he was elected (and swore an oath) to uphold.

It may be morally right to refuse to perform an immoral act, even at the cost of breaking an agreement. But unlike four lefts, "two wrongs don't make a right." An office-holder who decides his official duty is immoral may resign to save his conscience-- but he may not just abuse his office to actively injure his principals. Betraying a public trust even for "moral" reasons destroys support for peaceful, deliberative government and promotes destructive faction-fighting.

Prof. Caplan, you like to write about how war is so horrible that even surrender and humiliation is better than fighting. Why then are you so eager to provoke civil war by telling politicians to betray their offices? Is giving a few poor foreigners access to the bounty of American welfare programs really more important than averting civil war in America?

(If a morally-troubled holder of a public office thinks a successor is likely to see the moral problem differently, that should make him less willing to abuse his office instead of resigning it, not more-- because the fact other folks don't agree with his moral calculation suggests it may be wrong.)

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Oops! Three lefts! Arghh.

Tracy W writes:

You shouldn't enter agreements to perform morally impermissible acts - and if you ever reach a point where a prior agreement requires you to perform a morally impermissible act, you should break your agreement.

This doesn't answer the question though of what is a morally impermissible act.
Say you borrow a large quantity of money. Can you decide ex post that it would be morally impermissible to repay that money, and thus break your agreement?

Or the Ghost of Christmas Past's decision, to what extent should someone carry out the wishes of a dead person, even if they conflict with the executor's own conscience?

And the dangers in the police or judges deciding on an ad-hoc basis about which laws they're going to enforce should be obvious.

Nick writes:

What if you could save New York from destruction only at the cost of killing someone in California? And so on and so forth.

egd writes:

I've always been somewhat leery of lesson of Nuremburg, specifically "I was just following orders."

A number of the guards who were "just following orders" could not have resigned their posts without serious consequences - corporal punishment, imprisonment, or possibly death.

When the choice is between committing an immoral act and suffering personal injury, is the choice really so simple?

Jeff writes:

A good post, but I would just point out that exigent circumstances need to be considered. "I was just following orders" is a legitimate excuse given that disobeying a direct order in combat can get a soldier shot on the spot. If the choice is between bayoneting a village of innocent Vietnamese or me taking a bullet in the dome from my lieutenant and the rest of the platoon falling into line and bayonneting them, anyway...well, what's the right thing to do there?

a pretty libertarian guy writes:

I am very suspicious of the phrase, "the rights of non-citizens." Non-citizens do not, for instance, have a "right" to cross a political boundary into another country unless that country permits it. If you deny this, you are denying the validity of law. You may think that they SHOULD have that right, but they don't.

And please--I know that all laws are not "just," but you don't get very far with most people if you tell them that border restraints are unjust laws. Most people, even most "educated" people, simply smile at the simplicity of folks who say such things.

Andre Mouton writes:

And if someone's morality dictates murder, theft or genocide? Flying a plane into a building? Pogroms and crusades? Disregarding Consitutions, oaths, rights? What if the only thing standing between you and evil is the rule of law?

A cynic, or a historian, might say that morality is a condition in which men do bad things, but with greater conviction.

Ted Levy writes:

Are you defining "morally impermissible" to be equivalent to "rights violating"?

Handle writes:

Might I suggest another interpretation of "I was just following orders," or "I had a legal obligation to act"?

Whose orders? Whose laws? The general public (having, theoretically, put their own moral-optimization analytical stamp on the structure of social rules), and the same group of individuals who would be condemning and punishing you were you to have chosen the alternative counterfactual course of action. Or if the population is bimodally distributed, you'll have half hate you no matter what you decide (immigration enforcement is a decent example). "Damned if you do, damned if you don't."

People aren't always "hiding behind" the rules as a cover for what is, coincidentally, the personally convenient thing to do.

The point is it's not always just "Easy wrong vs. hard right," or "My personal welfare vs. the appropriate moral choice." Often times it is the nature of the situation that one will face opprobrium and negative consequences no matter which way one turns. In those circumstances, all else being equal, why not err on the side of law or contract?

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