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It is a common moral conviction that it is better to let many guilty people go free than to wrongly imprison a single innocent person. My understanding is that this principle underlies the presumption of innocence in criminal trials. I can see that this strikes us as profoundly right, but I'm not sure why. I mean, off the top of my head it seems fairly easy to refute it along a crudely utilitarian line: all we need is to suppose that the guilty parties are liable to do harm enough to outweigh the suffering of the wrongly imprisoned innocent party.

Setting aside the question of whether the principle 'better to let many guilty go free than to wrongly imprison a single innocent person' is the rationale for the presumption of innocence, that utilitarians would reject the principle is not as clearcut as you appear to assume. We seem to be considering two possibilities: (a) letting some number of guilty persons (you say 'many') go free but thereby ensuring that an innocent person is not punished (b) punishing an innocent person but ensuring that 'many' guilty persons are also punished For utilitarians, the question of whether (a) or (b) is morally preferable will turn on empirical facts or tendencies. You suggest that utilitarians will opt for punishing the guilty even at the cost of punishing the innocent "if the guilty parties are liable to do harm enough to outweigh the suffering of the wrongly imprisoned innocent party." I suspect this move overlooks two factors that might tilt the balance of costs and benefits (happiness and unhappiness) in...

How can a person retain property rights after their death, given that they can no longer be said to actually possess property?

In denying that the dead can "possess" property, you might be understanding 'possession' in a very literal way, one that doesn't conform to how we understand property. A property right is a moral claim, not a physical relation. If some property of mine is stolen and carried to the far side of the globe, it's still my property, despite my not 'possessing' it. Similarly, every time I park my car and walk away, I don't physically possess the car -- but I retain a property right in it. (Note, also, that there any entities with respect to which people have property rights that can't be possessed in any physical sense -- a copyright, for example, or even the money in a bank account, which (in most cases) doesn't reflect ownership of any physical object and is nothing more than some digits in a computer program.) So I don't see any barrier to the dead having property rights due to their being unable to be physically proximate to their property. Maybe your concern is captured by the slogan 'no ownership without...

One important trait of moral principles is that they should be impartial. They should not favor one person over the other simply because they are two different individuals. But in my country, we have laws giving special considerations to senior citizens and persons with disabilities and pregnant women. These groups of people are given special lanes at fastfood restaurants, cinemas and bank lanes. I sometimes feel unjustly treated when I spent an hour waiting in line while a senior citizen come in, make his transactions and leave the place in just a minute. I am fully aware that the reason they are treated in such a special way is because of their special conditions but it seems that the treatment is still unfair. After all, whatever they may suffer for waiting long in line are possibilities that I myself can experience. My questions then are: Are these special treatments unjust for the majority of us who are not in the same conditions? Do these violate the condition that moral principles should by nature...

'Impartiality' is in no way a simple moral concept. Yet one thing most moral philosophers would agree upon is that impartiality cannot be plausibly equated with treating everyone the same . Rather, impartiality seems to have both an exclusionary and and an inclusionary aspect. Here's what I have in mind. Being impartial means not allowing a certain fact or consideration about people to influence a choice or a policy. A judge who routinely convicts defendants with mustaches while routinely acquitting the clean shaven makes her decisions on the basis of a fact or consideration — the state of a person's facial hair — that ought not influence her decisions. Here she fails to be impartial because she does not exclude from her decision making a factor she ought to exclude. Conversely, suppose a judge issues her rulings without regard to whether the evidence provided indicates a defendant's guilt. Here she fails to be impartial because she does not include a factor she ought to include in order to be...

Some states mandate an automatic death penalty for murdering a law enforcement officer. How can this possibly be just when it elevates the victim above that of common civilians? I agree with the Aristotelian conception of justice as only partially overlapping that of morality but consistency is crucial to rationality in both judgment and conduct. Actions ought to be judged similarly unless there are morally relevant dissimilarities between them so a law-abiding or even a vindictive police officer, already armed and aware of the risks of his profession, is the same as any other civilian, both legally and morally. Common law jurisdictions work on the basis that all citizens are equal in intrinsic worth--wouldn't the imperative be to either entirely repeal the death penalty for murder or use it in every single instance?

I'm going to largely duck your last question: I doubt even the most enthusiastic proponents of the death penalty believe it should be imposed for every murder. Most jurisdictions distinguish between first-degree murder, second-degree, etc., precisely because not all murders are morally serious enough to merit the death penalty (which it is not to say that any murder merits the death penalty). But on to your main question: Should the death penalty be automatic for murdering a law enforcement officer but not automatic for murdering anyone else? I can think of three possible rationales for an affirmative answer. I'm not sure I find any of them convincing, but I'll leave that to your judgment. The first is that killing law enforcement is morally worse than killing someone else and so automatically deserves a harsh punishment. Your position seems to be that this is not so: That in order for killing law enforcement to be morally worse than killing someone else, there must be something about the...

I feel that it is okay for private citizens to break certain laws. As a matter of fact, when that law is unjust, I feel that it is a private citizen's duty to break that law. On the other hand, if someone is acting as a public official or as an authority figure then they should follow the law down to the last letter. Is this opinion valid or just inconsistent?

There are a few different issues in the air with your question. Whether it's morally permissible to break the law depends on whether, or under what conditions, there is a moral obligation to obey the law in the first place. This is an old philosophical question, perhaps addressed most memorably by Socrates in the Crito , where he argues that it would be wrong for him to escape from Athens to avoid his death sentence. The question of whether (and how) we have a moral obligation to obey the law has come to be known as the question of "political obligation." (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/political-obligation/). Philosophers disagree about whether such an obligation exists. 'Philosophical anarchists' maintain that there is no obligation to obey the law as such (though there may be an obligation to obey laws that require us to do what we are morally obligated to do anyway). Those defending political obligation offer a variety of different arguments, appealing to the notion of a 'social contract,' a...

A very close relative of mine admitted to committing a murder, but revealed few details about the crime. Do I have an ethical obligation to report what I've heard, even though I doubt very much that there is enough information there to lead to an indictment/trial/et cetera? Of course legally I'm not expected to incriminate an immediate family member, but my conscience seems to be pushing me towards reporting the information despite the lack of any significant real world consequences for the relative.

Before reporting the supposed crime, I'd ask myself a lot of questions: First, how strong a piece of evidence is an admission of guilt? Increasingly, psychologists and legal scholars are discovering how remarkably common "false confessions" are: http://courses2.cit.cornell.edu/sociallaw/student_projects/FalseConfessions.html Is there any reason your relative might admit to this crime aside from having actually committed it? Second, you say that there is not enough information to lead to an indictment or trial. But of course that determination isn't yours to make, and it may be that once your relative is under suspicion, an investigation will yield more information about the crime, information that could lead to your relative's being indicted. So do you really know what you claim to know, i.e., that there's not enough evidence to indict (as opposed to your not having access to sufficient evidence to indict)? Third, you say that there aren't any "significant real world consequences" for the relative if...

If we accept that caring for disabled members is an obligation of all society, is it permissible to prevent people from disabling themselves?

I’d be interested to know exactly what’s motivating your question, but here’s a stab at the reasoning that might be behind it: Suppose that a society is (collectively) obligated to care for the disabled. Caring for the disabled imposes burdens on the rest of society. But it’s wrong for us to knowingly act so as make ourselves (more) burdensome to others. So it would be wrong for us to knowingly act so as to disable ourselves, and since it is permissible to permit others from wronging us, it is permissible to prevent people from disabling themselves. Before we address the soundness of this reasoning, I’d note that very few disabled persons have chosen to be disabled. In the vast majority of cases, disability either doesn’t stem from a person’s choice at all (the disability is traced to genetic or environmental causes) or results from a choice that carried a risk of disability (working in a dangerous profession like logging, engaging in a dangerous form of leisure). Most societies address these with...