Competing Concepts of Good
When I started my book research, I was most interested in exploring how the role of the citizen investigator and even our attitudes have changed – for better or worse – over the years. I was reminded of that initial goal recently when I spent some time with crime junkies in Las Vegas.
The first reminder was discovering conversations on social media where everyday citizens were cheerfully engaging with someone they believed to be a murderer who had evaded the police. The second was the story of a fairly famous true crime writer who engaged in a very public confrontation with a family member of a crime victim, bringing that family member to tears.
The final reminder came in the form of a conversation where an investigator shared something he thought I’d find interesting and prefaced it by saying, “Because ethics is your thing, right?”
The Ethics of the Citizen Investigator
I hope to provide a brief introduction of how I see ethics affecting citizen investigators, but I know it will take more than one blog post. For now, I’d just like to share what I believe are a few critical definitions and examples of how I’ve seen them show up in the world of true crime.
What is ethics?
There are a lot of definitions.
moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity (Oxford English Dictionary)
a theory or system of moral values (Merriam Webster)
Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that "involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior". (Wikipedia)
I don’t agree or disagree with any of these definitions, but what always stuck with me was hearing someone say that ethics are often “competing concepts of good” that guide the actions of the people in the world. It was the word competing that stood out to me. Understanding ethics is what helped me process how the same act could be criminal to one person and salvation to another, as in the planned murder of a known stalker. For the same act, our court system would prosecute the individual for murder while the stalker’s victim would feel a debt of gratitude.
Let’s take a look at three of the most common ethical philosophies that exist today.
Consequentialism is an ethical theory that judges whether or not something is right by what its consequences are. For instance, most people would agree that lying is wrong. But if telling a lie would help save a person’s life, consequentialism says it’s the right thing to do.
If I believe the good outweighs the bad, I am likely to support an aggressive and biased approach from law enforcement where innocent people are harmed (physically, mentally, and emotionally) to solve a crime. How do you feel about innocent people suffering? You’re probably not in favor of it, right? But what if ten innocent people had to suffer for a 24-hour period so that an abducted child could be rescued? Are you more okay with the idea of the innocent people suffering now? Would you say the good or even potential good outweighs the bad? You just might be a consequentialist.
Aristotle's criteria for the virtuous person is as follows: You must have knowledge, consciously choose the acts and choose them for their own sake, and the choice must come from a firm character, in accordance to who you are. You must consistently choose to do good acts deliberately for the right reasons.
Have you ever seen a truly horrible comment online and just let it go? Have you ever wondered why you resisted the urge to engage? In some cases, I think it’s obvious. We feel like there is no point – the person can’t be reasoned with. But in some cases, you may think that adding terrible words to an already terrible post is just going to make everyone involved feel worse. You might even realize that the unkind words came from someone who was feeling hurt and who shouldn’t be made to suffer for making the mistake of lashing out online. If that makes sense to you, it might be that virtue ethics is what resonates most with you.
Deontology is an ethical theory that says actions are good or bad according to a clear set of rules. Its name comes from the Greek word deon, meaning duty. Actions that align with these rules are ethical, while actions that don't aren't.
Consider the very famous case of Steven Avery, told in multiple books and television programs, but most famously portrayed in the Netflix series Making a Murderer. Steven was wrongfully imprisoned, and exonerated by DNA evidence. After he was released, he was accused and convicted of murder.
Some people believe he was wrongfully convicted a second time – that’s a different topic entirely.
Some people believe that he is likely guilty, but since he was previously wrongfully convicted, he should be treated differently or even released.
Deontologists are in the opposite camp: Previous details aren’t even considered. If a court finds you guilty, you go to prison. Rules are rules, and it’s the rules that keep society afloat.
No theory is perfect (and there’s a lot of overlap).
There are many situations where different beliefs will bring you to the same result. Ethical beliefs aren’t always in conflict. In fact, there’s a good amount of agreement.
It’s most important to remember that there isn’t one right belief system.
Take, for example, the consequentialist that kills an innocent person in pursuit of justice for a murder victim. Or the situation where a decision based on virtue ethics caused someone to publicize a truthful statement about a victim that only hurt the victim and their family. Or what about the rape victim who is prosecuted to the full extent of the law when she murders her attacker out of genuine fear of a second attack?
Investigations, prosecution, and the crime itself are complicated. The one thing I know is that people who are so deeply embedded in their thinking are some of the biggest risks in our justice system. No one gets it right all the time, but I truly believe that the better we understand the people around us – especially the people who are very different from us – the closer we’ll get to a world that feels safe for everyone in it.
At the beginning of this post, I shared a few examples of what I thought were shocking situations related to criminal investigations and true crime advocates. Having thought about the few ethical belief systems shared in this post, consider these questions:
What would cause a member of the public to believe that someone guilty but not convicted of a crime to believe that they had been punished enough?
What would cause a journalist to confront a crime victim in such a way that they are brought to tears? Assuming it wasn’t a PR stunt (which is always a possibility and, in this case, if that was the intent, definitely backfired), could the two parties involved have competing concepts of good?
If you know of another ethical theory that helps you understand our reaction to crime or have any other ideas to share, please drop a comment below!