Would you cover up a murder committed by someone you loved?
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What about drink driving? Or petty theft? What is our moral responsibility? To the person we love, or to the law? Our agony uncle and ethics expert Robin Herne from the University of Suffolk and West Suffolk College asks how much should we be prepared to protect a relative.
I saw a black & white film the other day that made me think of your column – it was a 1962 flick called Dilemma about a man who comes home from work to find a corpse on the floor and his wife fled. He sets about trying to dispose of the body in order to protect her. My question to you is did he do the right thing? Should people let loved ones suffer the consequences of their actions or should we try to cover up when they commit crimes?
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I had to look that film up on IMDB which got confusing, as there are several films of that name, but it sounds like you mean the one starring the late Peter Halliday as the bewildered husband.
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Murder is a bit extreme, but your question could apply as easily to lesser offences – stealing, drunk driving, drug use etc.
It's a difficult one given that most people's instinct would be to shield a person they love from facing whatever unpleasant consequences await them.
Yet doing so could be dangerous to others, and maybe the relative in question as well.
A person who has murdered once might well go on to claim another victim if they are unchecked.
Less drastic crimes could equally lead to awful consequences, such as the persistent drunk-driver eventually causing a crash that kills or horrendously maims someone, or the drug addict who one day overdoses.
Some philosophies place a great deal of emphasis on devotion to family first and foremost, whilst others consider the State to take primacy.
Two Chinese systems of thought exemplify this contrast – Confucianism and Mohism.
The teachings of Confucius consider filial piety to be tremendously important.
Going to the aid of a relative in trouble would certainly count here, though it would be stretching things a bit to suggest that helping cover up a murder would be seen as anything other than piling one poor decision on top of another. The thinker Mozi believed that we should all place the good of the State at the top of our agendas, a concept that can still be seen at play in the modern Communist party which would sacrifice everyone and everything in its own advancement.
Under such an approach, the act of murder (or the lesser types of crime) is not just an assault upon individuals but an attack upon the nation state itself.
In such a world view, the miscreant must be handed over to whatever fate is decreed suitable by those in charge.
Collectivist systems in general tend to expect their citizens to have no loyalty to anything greater than the government.
Religions, in general, assume people will serve a deity first – most religions tend to assume the Supreme Being to be all-seeing anyway, so the idea that any crime can be hidden from them becomes nonsensical anyway.
However, the film you reference is not about futile attempts to conceal something from God, but from the local police.
A Christian adhering to the injunction of giving unto Caesar that which is Caesar's might broaden the usual interpretation of this from applying to the payment of tax to handing over to the government any law-breakers.
Most religions allow that a person can atone for a crime, or try to put right what they have done wrong, without necessitating the involvement of legal systems. Mind you, this is starting to become a controversial point in a number of religions where the attempt to deal with certain crimes internally without knowledge of the police has led to accusations of cover-ups and the failure to actually stop further crime.
The scandals involving paedophile priests being shunted from parish to parish is a clear example.
Most paedophiles tend to be highly compulsive in their depravities – it is not the kind of crime that can be regarded as a one-off or a momentary weakness. This sort of high risk aspect might well be a factor in how most people would react to a loved one engaging in illegal behaviour.
An act of petty pilfering that will probably never be repeated is one thing, but someone possessed by destructive urges that they will almost certainly be unable to overcome (at least without professional help) is a clear and present danger to others.
Unless the relative ends up as a virtual jailer for their ill-behaved spouse, or whoever it is, then how can they trust that no further vile acts will be committed?
A follower of the Vedic religions, such as a Hindu or Sikh, might well feel that actively concealing a crime would involve the second person in the karmic burden of the original wrongdoer.
Whilst the latter person might escape a jail sentence, they will still face some form of consequence so the original deed will now drag down another. Rather than concealing the act, the devoted relative or friend would be better advised to help the person make amends. That might necessitate accompanying the person to a police station or it might be addressed in other ways.
A reactionary person might be inclined to suggest that too many people are shielded from experiencing any consequences of their shoddy decisions, and that this simply leads to even worse choices later.
It would be easy to revert to grumpy old man and complain about youngsters indulged by overprotective parents, but I'm reminded of the sociologist C Wright Mills who warned that corruption starts at the top.
When the powerful and rich get up to no good without any obvious consequences they invariably cause far more widespread harm than those with fewer resources with which to cause mayhem – the banking collapse is a prime example.
Many might feel that various politicians have also caused a significant amount of harm over the last few years, without ever being called to account. Whoever's crimes are being glossed over, there is so very often a worse price to be paid by others as the corruption spreads.
Watch a clip of Dilemma here