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Is Every Bad Deed Also an Unethical One?

Even Hillel the elder in the first century B.C.E as well as Emanuel Kant in the 18th century developed a tool to help people realize whether their actions were ethical or not.  However if the most ethical action is chosen it is not always the wisest one.


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Dr Ushi Shoham Krausz  / By Dr. Ushi Shoham-Krausz /


In this column I wish to present (very briefly) a theory of fair and pleasant ethics, which may be at times difficult to understand but it is the theory of the great philosopher, Emanuel Kant.


However the column is not about Kant alone.  In effect Kant’s point is, in the theory of games, in what is known as the “prisoner’s dilemma”.  A dilemma that may (or maybe not) destroy Kant’s theory or at least, places before someone who wishes to act in accordance with it with challenges and temptations.

Let us begin.


What is hateful to you.

When the president of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court in biblical times), Hillel the Elder, was asked to explain the entire Torah (the Pentateuch) to a petitioner while he was standing on one leg, he replied “what is hateful to you do not unto your fellow man”.

Many years passed, from the first century B.C.E until we reach Koenigsburg in Eastern Prussia (today Slovakia) of the 18th century.  The great Emanuel Kant resides in Koenigsburg at this time and develops a theory of ethics that is rigid but pleasant. A theory that could be equated with that of Hillel the elder.

“What is an ethical deed?”, asks Kant.  What are ethics? And in effect who are we humans?  His answer is interesting.  Human beings, he says are not just tools for me but purposes by themselves.

We will explain.  Almost every person I meet is for me a tool. I am a tool for them to learn Kant and they are tools for me to reach an audience to hear my views.  The green grocer is the tool enabling me to obtain fruit and the waiter is the tool used to bring me coffee to my table, perhaps like any implement that I may use.


So what?  What else may be added to these facts of life? And so, Kant tells us, it is natural and even required that we be the tools of one another but this is not enough.


In order to be an ethical person, one must understand that the person standing before him is not just a tool but he is also a man of his own with needs and desires.  He is a real and complete person and not just an implement designed to meet my needs.  The ethical question is “how to behave?” or “what to do?”


Two prisoners are gossiping

And so, according to Kant, if you wish to perform a certain action, you must ask yourself, if you would wish that the same thing be done to you.  In other learned words, we ask ourselves if we would wish that the act we are going to perform be performed on us.  If you have no problem with this then it is an ethical act.

We will explain.


Let us assume that you wish to steal a fruit from a fruit stand.  In order to know if this is an ethical act or not you must imagine if it is acceptable to steal fruit from fruit stands? Now, according to Kant, this is a rule that you do not wish to exist.

Why? Because if you are a vendor at the fruit stand you would not want your wares to be stolen. That is, Kant tells us, use the vender only as a tool.  You are not able to use yourself.  As we have said it reminds us of the words of Hillel the Elder.


To this point, we have discussed what is necessary in order to be ethical according to Kant.  And now let us travel to the mid 20th century and see how difficult it is to perform a deed in the spirit of Kant.

The story I am about to tell is very well known.  It is called “the prisoner’s dilemma”. And this is the story: two partners in a crime are incarcerated in a police station where they are held separately.  Each of them receives a proposal individually from the police.  You have two alternatives, the police tell them you can either snitch on your friend or you may remain silent.


And what will happen, asks the first prisoner if I snitch on him?  That depends on his behavior answer the officers. How is that, asks the prisoner? Yes, answers the officer if he also snitches on you, the two of you will sit in jail for two years.  And if he remains silent asks the prisoner?   If he remains silent after you have implicated him he will sit in jail for 3 years and you will be released immediately.

And what will happen the prisoner asked if I remain silent?  That also depends on him the officer answered.  If he also remains silent you’ve done it, both of you will be released within a year.  But if I remain silent, asks the prisoner and he talks?  Then, answers the officer, he will be released immediately and you will sit in jail for 3 years.  Complicated. How does one decide what to do in such a situation?


The most successful, the most ethical and the most wise.


The prisoner sits and thinks  Perhaps he makes a table as is the acceptable practice in Game Theory.  After he has thought over the matter for a long time, he understands that the most successful course of action is that both he and his colleague remain silent.  In this manner both will be freed immediately.  No problem, he says to himself I will remain silent, they won’t get a word from me.


But then he thinks.  One moment.  What will happen if my partner panics and betrays me?  Then the following situation will take place: I remain silent and he talks.  Then he is freed after a year and I get five years. No, the prisoner says to himself, this cannot happen.  He must also understand that the best course of action is for both of us to remain silent.

But one moment, thinks our prisoner.  Like me he must also fear that I will talk.  He must say to himself what I said to myself.  That is it is dangerous for me to remain silent because I certainly will talk.  And so our prisoner thinks to himself, he most certainly will talk. If this is the case, he says heatedly I will talk also.


So what does this teach us?  In interesting situation: If Kant were to analyze this situation (and Kant will forgive us for applying his ethical theory to criminals), each prisioner should think in the following way: would I want there to be a rule in society that says “If you are caught betray your friend and snitch”?  The answer that every person should give himself is, “No! because I may be the one who will be snitched on.”  That is, it is forbidden to snitch.

And so, thinks our prisoner I want to behave ethically and to the right think.  But wait a moment he says to himself, what if my friend does not wish to be ethical.  And here the Kantian course of action collapses due to the fear of the actions of the second prisoner.

So here we reach the sad solution which just might the most logical one for this dilemma: the most certain course of action for me says our prisoner is to snitch.  If my friend also snitches then we both sit in jail for two years which is less than the three I would have received had I remained silent and he snitched.  And if I snitch and he remains silent I go free immediately.

Thus is it possible that what is the most wise is not always the best? Is this truly the wisest decision? The most ethical? In my next column we will continue to get confused.





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