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The Butler's Dilemma
Thursday 12th April, 2007 15:24 Comments: 0
I was reading Scott Adams' blog again and came across this "moral dilemma":

Let's say you're the butler to a billionaire who lives alone. The billionaire dies in his sleep. You know he owns a large piece of jewelry that no one else has seen, and you have access to it.

If you steal the piece of jewelry, sell it, and give the money to an African charity, you can feed an entire village for a year. The village would otherwise starve. If you don't steal the jewelry, it will go to his surviving family who has so much money they won't care about it.

Obviously it is illegal to steal the jewelry and feed the starving village in Africa. But do you have a moral obligation to commit the crime for the greater good?

And if so, do you likewise have a moral obligation to steal anything else you can get your hands, from dead billionaires or living neighbors, if you can use the stolen property for the greater good?

One of the comments caught my attention, here's a snippet from it:

Your "dilemma" is a simplistic attempt to set up an either/or situation, a forced-choice decision. This is rarely the case. You yourself delight in telling how you never have enough information to decide who is a better candidate for president (or whatever elected position). Your attempt to set up a situation where people assume they do have all the necessary data is artificial and irrelevant. So to answer your question, no, there is no moral obligation to steal to do good since there is no way that you can know with certainty that YOUR "greater good" is the "greatest good", or even actually greater.

My answer would be something similar, except my first thought was to question whether anyone else had seen it. I know it says no one else has, but it must have been acquired from somewhere, you'd think someone would know about it (or am I just being paranoid?). My second thought was "why risk going for the expensive item that people might not have seen but are more likely to notice is missing if they are aware of its existence?" - which led me to the thought that you'd be far better off stealing several small and expensive items that no one would notice were missing or were easily traceable to you/the dead guy.

Without knowing how the inheritance would be spent/invested in years to come, it's hard to know for sure what the most responsible action would be (for example, the person named in the will might decided to do the same thing, but be might be able to legally sell the item for more money). Stealing off living neighbours might sound worse, but it's the same evil deed, the fact they're alive doesn't change anything (except you're perhaps more likely to be caught when they miss it). The obvious answer is that you shouldn't break the law. You also can't predict what will happen based on your action (i.e. the butterfly effect, your small action might have huge ramnifications over time), so there's no point in trying to justify whatever you decide is the greater good. So the real question is are you a selfish person that's willing to break the law? We're all human, we can't be perfect all the time. But unless we want to revert to animalistic behaviour, it's probably best to put yourself in their shoes and see how we'd feel in their position. If I was the neighbour, I'd be pretty annoyed if someone was stealing off me. But if I was dead, I wouldn't be around to care. My family might care though. Unless they were dead too.
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