The thing that impresses me most about Randy Cohen’s The Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine is his willingness to tell the people who ask him for advice not to follow the rules or adhere to standard protocols. In this week’s column, Cohen had a boss who discovered his employee’s theft and wants to know whether or not to call the cops. He writes in response, “Calling the cops is something you may do but not something you must, and I do not think you should. It’s not a matter of calibrating this thief’s punishment; the criminal-justice system is simply too crude an instrument to gently accomplish what you admirably seek to do: protect others from harm.” Damn right.

The question here is whether society is made better or worse off by sending a non-violent offender through the justice system. The ethical decision is based on the amount of harm done, and with regard to the U.S. prison system, Cohen figures it does more harm than it prevents in this case. The logic by which he derives his answer is, however, broad. I don’t see any reason why this same logic couldn’t be applied to all but a very few crimes. Our ethicist does write that we have a duty to call the cops in the case of an imminent, serious threat to others, but he that’s the only example he gives. What is clear is that he doesn’t think the criminal justice system does anyone (prison guards?) much good, with any deterrent value heavily outweighed by the social cost of a system that knows only how to punish and not how to reform. If we go by Cohen’s “maximum protection with the minimal harm” standard, there are not a lot of situations I can imagine where calling the cops becomes the ethical thing to do.

In fact, I wonder if we don’t have an ethical obligation not to call the police when we consider the overwhelming harms of the penal system. If I were to drop a dime on some kids selling drugs, I wouldn’t be protecting the neighborhood or committing a morally neutral act. I would be putting young people at the mercy of a dehumanizing, arbitrary and cruel system without alleviating nearly enough misery to compensate ethically. Think of it this way: I would rather take a pretty bad beating than be charged with a crime, convicted, and sent to jail for a month. Not only because jail – at least from what I’ve seen in OZ – involves some beatings, but because a criminal record causes serious damage to someone’s life chances. I figure most people would probably agree with me in this calculation. In terms of pain or misery inflicted I can try and imagine some physical equivalent to going through the criminal justice system, and I imagine it would be pretty bad. Now weigh that against the harm reduction of sending someone to jail. In a situation where the crime is assault with a deadly weapon, I’m okay beating the equivalent of a jail sentence out of the assailant if it could save someone’s life. A drug dealer or a thief? The ethical math doesn’t seem to come out right on anything that does not involve a life in peril. The “He brought it on himself” line doesn’t work here, we always have the choice to not call the cops and we have to take that seriously as an ethical decision.

Cam’ron takes it one step further in the ultimate stop snitching statement:

Note: I don’t mention sexual assault because calling the cops in that situation is not my decision and I don’t pretend to know what being a rape victim is like. I’ve heard good arguments for either sides from both women and men and I’m curious what people think about that as a complicating factor.