Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Would you break the law to save a loved one?

Recently, I stumbled upon this question.

It instantly made me remember a workshop at university concerning cultural differences. The teacher, a woman from England, who has already been travelling to a lot of countries doing her workshops, asked us the following question: If you knew your friend was driving way too fast with his car and the police asked you about it, would you lie and not reveal your friend’s fault? We all agreed we would in order to protect our friend, although he has been doing something wrong. Then she changed the question. It’s the same situation as before, but this time your friend killed someone because of driving too fast. This time, no one wanted to lie to the police.
Apparently, this is typical for Germans. The woman told us that whenever she asks this question in another country, there are usually a few people that would still cover up for their friends. In Germany, rules and laws are usually more important. In my opinion, you can’t reduce it all to cultural differences, but I think there is a tendency due to cultural backgrounds.

Anyway, should we put laws or allegiance to a friend on the first place? If you knew your friend was doing something wrong, would you cover up for him? And does it make a difference whether there are any bad consequences due to his behaviour?

So far to this question which isn’t exactly the same as the one in the headline.

Would you break the law to save a loved one? This is also a question we discussed at university and I remember the following problem. I think there is even a popular theory behind it, but I don’t really remember the name of it. It was about stages of moral development.
So, let’s say your wife/your husband is deathly sick and there is exactly one medicament that can save him/her. There is also only one pharmacist that sells this drug, BUT to a price that is absolutely exorbitant and way more than you can afford. There is no chance you will get this money soon enough. The only way to get the drug would be to steal it. Would you do it and why/why not?

Let me give you a few hints.
On a very easy basis, should you not steal it because you might get into prison or should you steal it because your wife/husband is an important person to you? Should you steal it regardless of the importance of this person to you, because we should always try to help others? Should you steal it because the right to life is more important than property right? Or should you act according to law, because after all it secures our all individual rights against those who disobey them? Or should you steal the drug because the dignity of human life is above all other values? Should you not steal it because theft should never be the basis for any universal rule of action (as in the categorical imperative according to Kant)?

Finally, in your opinion, is there a difference between what you should do and what you actually would do?

I would love to hear some opinions, thoughts, ideas or answers to any or all of these questions.


  1. Anonymous19/9/12 03:06

    It is very interesting to find these situations presented to all of us when we were young corporate employee, used in a college workshop .

    The reason counsellors give for presenting this "small" dilemmas were always the need to open our mind preparing us to face difficult situations when (and if) we were selected to rule the corporation.

    I can remember very tough situation presented to us, in similar fashion you describe here, the one that most shocked me was the need to kill my wife in order to keep my position in the pyramid, since she was not a "good" influence to my future. And I insist, it was not accepted divorce because it was a permanent risk and weakness for my performance, it was necessary to eliminate all possibility of recurrence of problems.

    In the case of a friend, we found a similar answer you had in university. But it changed a bit when you change the audience, so it might show that rules and laws are something subject to a context.

    Even one of our guides tried to made us find out the difference between ethic and moral, in an effort to show us why we react the way we do. When I explained that I thought that ethic is the ordinance, and mores is the way we apply the ordinance, he asked for an example, in that moment I only thought to say: Ethic is the order not to eat the fruit of a tree; and Moral is the personal decision to eat it if need be (I wrote a tale about that).

    As we all know, my friend Cicero was who said "O tempora, o mores" which lets us free to interpret Moral as the definer of the times we live in. So there is no way we could know how we will react to a shocking situation until it hit us. Maybe we can develop a belief about what our reaction will be, but I would not be too trustful to our response.

    I small mark in my experience is that the hotter the blood, the easier the moral. :)

    1. These dilemmas were indeed given to us in order to open our mind, but in our case it wasn't yet about ruling a corporation, but at the very beginning of our studies. As my major is actually not psychology or philosophy or something similar, we haven't covered these issues again.

      The situation you are discribing is really very shocking and I do hope that no one would have killed his wife in order to keep his position.

      I like your explanation of ethic and moral.
      I can imagine you being one of those really smart students that was likely to surprise the profs with his answers. :))(Just a guess though, I have no idea.) :)

      It is true that we can only develop a believe about our reaction to such a situation, but we will never know until we experience it.

      Thank you for your comment!

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  3. I think the story of Jean Valjean sets the same dillema. I would choose to brake the law in order to save my loved ones. Perhaps there is a gap here. I believe that the law should be modified. The law gives the right to a mother to evaluate her own child in school exams if she is a teacher? There are many similar examples.