An Ethical Brainteaser!

This is one of my favorite questions that I ask to my close friends. So, here it goes:

You witness a poor person who cannot afford to buy medicines for his daughter suffering from a life-threatening condition, steal some money from very affluent and corrupt person who has earned most of his money through illegal means like demanding bribes and cheating others (I am not implying that rich people are corrupt; just that this hypothetical one is). But no legal action has been taken against him because of his being able to subvert the legal and judicial processes. In the court of law, would you testify to tell the truth that he stole the money? Or would you lie to save the daughter’s life? I will add some more hypothetical conditions:

1. Your word would be taken as absolute truth. So you will not be penalized for lying.

2. That rich person will not persecute you!

3. Somehow you know that the accused person will not steal again, except if a similar need arises, in which case, he would pick a similar affluent and corrupt person.

4. You do not have the option of helping the daughter by donating money yourself.

Let me add a few immediactely apparent ethical issues here. You may certainly point out other issues involved in your comments.

For speaking the truth:

1. Stealing is stealing, and is wrong.

2. Lying is lying, and is wrong.

3. Money is money, to whoever it belongs. “Who am I to judge him guilty of corruption if law-enforcing agencies haven’t done that up till now? It’s wrong to take law in my hands.”

4. This will encourage robbery in the society.

For lying:

1. To save the daughter’s life.

2. To ensure that the parasite on society gets his due (losing some money). Idealism works only in ideal society. Just because the judicial system has gone corrupt, does not mean the affluent person should not be punished.

3. The amount of money lost by the rich person would be insignificant to him. He would not have even noticed his loss, had the act not been discovered.

4. The law should first penalize the rich man for his crimes, before turning to judging the act of robbery.

I would be glad to know what the readers would do. I will try my best to not contest anyone’s opinions 🙂
I’m also putting up a poll in the left side panel.

PS: The poll has expired.

59 thoughts on “An Ethical Brainteaser!

  1. No, you were just drunk! And yes, everyone lies, that’s how babies are produced. Well Alpes, that’s a very commonly quoted paradox, but it lies in the domain of logic, and not in that of morality. In this scenario the choice of a person has a lot to reflect on what they think of the nature and purpose of the ‘rules of the society’ (including judicial law, ethics, moral principles, etiquette, etc.) and of themselves as the one having stakes in drafting those rules (as a part of the society).


  2. Hi Saimukundan!

    What I told Alpes was just some benign poking, not any kind of preconception.

    This is one post, where I’m unlikely to offer my feedback, though my response, is (surprisingly) different from yours. Surprising, not because you differed from ME, but because we differed from EACH OTHER. I consider you a rationalist (and even myself), so this difference in our views would fuel my desire to explore the reason for that, of course when I have more time at hands.

    Thanks for responding, and take care!

  3. hmmmm , so the ‘poor’ man always looks for a rich man who should also be “corrupt” when the direst of needs beckon him ?? or does he steal from anyone he sees -who may not be rich at all -middle class guy? someone like a salesman or a struggling model who may look like a rich guy but isnt?
    stealing isnt really justified , but given the conditions that he wont ever steal again , but wait you also said unless a similiar condition arises . this ‘similiar’ has a vast range , maybe triviality could lead to similiar issues ?
    & When it comes to my choice of lying or not , at first i thought that o would , but then again , no i wouldnt .

  4. Alpez,

    I didn’t get you. Did you mean you wanted to know if people take offence at being told that they lie? Yes, I for one, have lied many times, and if one applies insane degree of strictness, I do even day in day out. TC.

  5. Hi, I’ll try to be truthful!

    Welcome to the blog and thanks for the remarks!

    This question is not to decide what is moral or immoral. You’ve, I feel, read more into it than required. I’ve tried to clarify, though not very expressedly so, that this question is not about trying to understand the psyche of one who commits some crime. In the question, the poor man knows that that particular rich man is corrupt, and when I said ‘similar’ situation, I meant an equally dire situation. The primary purpose of this question is to try to determine what proportion of people tend to take a literal meaning of crime/pin and justice v/s the spirit behind them. Meaning, if people give more importance to the specifc acts or intention and circumstances. Hope this explanation helps you put things in proper perspective.

    Take care.

  6. Hi! I`d have easily managed to say a ‘lie’…the poor did steal but he really needed the amount for a good cause.
    And also i know the rich person won`t persecute me…i`d have taken a chance to save the needy person by a simple one line lie.

  7. I honestly am curious as to how you intend to judge a person’s moral standing by their reply. For one there was only one HARISHCHANDRA in the past and the number hasnt increased ever since. Today people are morally immune to lying, unless its something about big and consequential. Infact the seriousness of a situation and lie is relative and depends on personal judgment… in such a scenario lying to save someones life would be considered a moral high point, considering we lie evry day for our needs.

    In your question the choice is obvious, though I wonder had the poor man stolen money from some random guy… will people still lie as comfortably?? and had the other guy been poor too and taking that money to pay his wife’s hospital bill, in that case will ppl still lie to protect the thief?

  8. Just me 🙂 (there’s another ‘just me’ who’s likely to reply here, but she’s just ‘just me’ and not ‘just me :)’),

    Thanks for visiting and commenting.

    True, there are many people who lie day in and day out, but they’d still get defensive about lying even in circumstances similar to one I presented here. It’s just that you’re so sure of what’s right, otherwise the option of speaking the truth has also found favor with some.

    This question is only to make out if the source of morality for people is their own judgement (intrinsic) or if it’s sourced in some authority (extrinsic).

    I’d also go with the option of lying (without any hesitation).

    Welcome to the blog!

  9. Let’s look at the facts:

    1.Rich guy is corrupt. (Here I am assuming that your statement about his corruption is true desptite what the law enforecement agencies have to say)

    2.Poor guy needs money for child.(Assuming that he is not normally a theif: this is his first theft and does not intend to steal again)

    Now I analyse the effects of my act:

    If I lie: Rich man loses some money|Poor man saves child.

    If I tell the truth: Rich man loses nothing|Poor man loses child

    Decisive Factors:
    1.In my book losing money is much lower on the ‘scale-o-grief’ 🙂 than losing a child.

    2.If the ‘rich guy is corrupt’ statement is true, at least a portion of his wealth would have been aquired unjustly. While that in itself does not give another man the right to steal that money, it is highly improbable that this unjustly aquired wealth will return to its original owners/proper place, but will save the life of a child is stolen.

    So a clubbing of these two factors means:
    I would stick up for the poor fellow: out of compassion if nothing else, and after having weighed the effects of my act coupled with the decisive factors.

    It’s not a perfect choice, but nothing in ethics ever is.

  10. Thanks TCC for a detailed analysis!

    As I’ve mentioned in my previous comments, the aim of this post was not as much to determine what people think as more moral in this case, but to see what do people choose when their instincts are in conflict with established concepts of morality and/or law of the land.

    As you could see from the previous comments, people faced different degrees of hesitation (absolute conviction to being undecided) in reaching either of conclusions.

    I didn’t phrase the fact about the rich guy being corrupt more strongly as I didn’t want it to sound like some kind of moral judgemet, otherwise it’s not at all uncommon to find people who’ve earned everything in their lives through most immoral means possible (including murder), and who’re untouched by law.

    Welcome to the blog! TC.

  11. Oh, my instinct when I read the question was to lie for the poor guy. My post was only an attempt to set down the sub-consious thought process that might have lain behind thid instinct, and not really a judgement or analyisis of the moral issue.

  12. And TCC BTW, my logic coincided exactly with yours, except for I wouldn’t call the conclusion an imperfect one, because one can talk of perfection only if there’s margin for, and in this case, circumstances didn’t allow for (perfection).

  13. oh?

    thats pretty easy.

    I’d ask the poor guy to help me out.

    then we’d say that the rich guy was actually stealing from MY pocket.

    and then I’d take all his money.

    and then help the poor guy.

    isnt that society improvement?

    in the end, I’d also have a swimming pool in my room filler with milkshake.

    social improvement starts from personal improvement, doesnt it? 😉

  14. ‘social improvement starts from personal improvement, doesn’t it?’

    Absolutely! Which constituency did you win this election from?

    I see great potential in you. [searching fervently for 23 diopter glasses]

    Lord save the poor rich guy!

  15. election?

    oh. shit.

    theyre over?

    damn. I think I slept through there.

    there goes my plan of giving reservations in PG for lazy people.


  16. ‘Reservations’ for lazy people…And you slept through the elections?

    You didn’t think of your country even once all the while you were sleeping?

    [shattering sound]…Oh, never mind. That wasn’t my heart, just the 23 D (I just have a slight idea what your [pro]creative mind must be thinking reading these kind of figures) glasses. 😦

    All the best for the next elections or PG entrance, whichever is later 😉


  17. hmm.

    youre right.

    thats a loophole.

    I think this time I’ll get a reservation for all persons named deluded.

    also, everyone will have to salute the deluded, call him king, and do whatever he asks them to do.

  18. Hail Hitl(er)… Deluded!

    What’s in a name? One who’s deluded, by any other name (for instance, ‘Ketan’), would crap as exquisitely.

    Don’t forget to set some effective alarms before your exams!


  19. And BTW, I’m genuinely curious, what you’d have done in the given situation (‘A moral brainteaser’), with only those options.


  20. hmmm.

    the answer is pretty simple isnt it?

    get the poor guy off on a small charge, and if possible pay for his daughter out of my own pocket.

    even better if the rich guy pays. out of compassion.


    but if you wouldnt even allow this compromise,

    then I’d let the poor guy off.
    with a promise that he wouldnt do it again.

    a perfect society, where everyone is just, and no one has feelings or kindness…..would be…the end of humanity, in my mind.

  21. Deluded,

    When you’d have won the election (that you’ll win is a certainty as I see it…through my blurred vision), can’t you just spare one seat for me? How many seats are you going to occupy anyway? If not a PG one, maybe, superspecialization one? Please, please?

    And also remember, unless you do something about it, more PG seats for yourself will mean more junior residencies. Are you that masochistic? 😉

    Did you vote in the side panel?


  22. Deluded,

    In this survey, I wanted to know if people, in judging certain acts, go only by whether the said acts are ‘considered’ immoral or moral, or also take into account their context, i.e., intentions and consequences.

    < personal opinion I'd said I won't give> Speaking truth and helping have ‘good consequences’ in VAST MAJORITY of cases, and that’s why they’re considered virtues, but there can be exceptions. In evolution of human societies, traits that furthered the propagation of species got selected (socially as well as genetically)…which is well a conjecture 🙂 So, there’s inherently nothing virtuous about our decisions, but usually easily decided by the context. < / personal opinion I'd said I won't give>

    Thus, I wanted to see, if while making decisions how much do people get influenced by ‘conditioning’ they’d have received in their upbringing v/s their own sense of their moral instinct. I’m happy that the scenario inspired an element of ‘hesitation’ in a few, which was against my anticipation.


  23. I would tell the truth. As I testifying in the court, I assume the daughter has recovered and my testimony is not going to adversely affect her. And the poor man is guilty of theft.

  24. RGB,

    Thanks for your comment! But why would you like to assume when you’d be knowing the facts?

    Welcome to the blog! I look forward to your interesting comments on my other posts, too.

    Take care.

  25. Yes, I would know the facts. That statement was in response to your statement that I might save the daughter by lying. My testimony would not have any effect on the daughter’s health. And hence I need not consider that while giving my testimony.

  26. RGB,

    Oh, you applied t-h-a-t kind of logic. If the daughter would’ve been suffering from cold/cough, etc. I’d have not called it ‘moral brainteaser’. But since, we’re talking of judiciary also, yes, maybe I should’ve been more precise. Thanks for pointing out the glitch.


  27. I’d read this when u posted it but was confused so didn’t poll at that time.

    But if I had to make a call, I’d say, it would depend on a lot of things. How truthful is the guy who steals? How big is the amount involved (materiality), and a lot of other things.

    But I’d like to lie…

  28. Rakesh,

    Just to clarify, the amount would be very trivial to the rich person. I’ve not tried to put an absolute figure, but thought that the fact that it won’t practically affect the rich person should suffice.

    Thanks for participating!


  29. I wud have lied to have the poor man let he cud save his daughter..

    no one likes rich corrupt ppl anyways..becoz very few can become rich corrupt ppl..

    and all our collective hatred rooted in jealousy is mirrored in the bollywood stereotype of a villain being a rich corrupt man.

    its a very visceral response to give..but i think it fits the conditions of ur brainteaser perfectly..

    if he wont steal again except from corrupt rich ppl and he’s not stealing from me anyway, who cares abt the poor rich guy..

    besides, what wud u do if u were the poor guy?

    oh and i voted too..:)

  30. Hi TUIB!

    Thanks again for your response!

    I’ve not tried to reinforce any stereotype. I’ve made it pretty clear in the post itself that the given situation isn’t to be taken as my commentary on prevailing social situation, but just as how it’s given.

    Now that’s a good question–one you asked. I too am not sure what I’d have done. Maybe, I too would have stolen. Maybe, I should’ve made it clear in the post that it would be just impossible for the poor man to gather money through some more respectable means. But I’m still satisfied with the scenario. Because, one very important factor that most of the respondents have missed is that, the rich guy didn’t DESERVE to be rich, and that if he was not apprehended and penalized for corruption, which implies that the legal machinery itself was inefficient and/or steeped in corruption. So for my take here would be very simple–why should I make my intact morality align with machinery which had lost its own moral compass?

    Just like how speaking the truth is considered to be a virtue, helping someone in need is also considered to be so. And lying is considered a vice just like how not helping someone in need is.

    If your friend asks you for a small amount of money, and if you decline, it sounds like you’re doing something wrong. But if it’s so happened that she hadn’t returned money to you in past on multiple occasions, or that she wants it to try ‘crack’, you’ll be right in denying her that money. Here, no doubt, what’s moral or immoral is decided by the context, consequences and your intention.

    The example in the post is such that it’s very easy to end up with minimal amount of cumulative and composite harm by simply lying. How would one be able to claim that they didn’t want the girl to die, if it was simply in their hands to lie and rate her?

    If your emergency shift would’ve just ended, and an emergency case comes where you could help, but you choose to leave your shift citing the end of your official duty hours as the reason, legally you can’t be held guilty if the patient is harmed. But would you ever again be able to claim that it was your intention that the person be saved. And since, ‘not living’ = ‘dead’, ‘not intending to save when possible’ = ‘intending the patient to die’.

    I’ve attempted to present some of the subtle issues involved in ethics, and not necessarilly as an argument with you, which is anyway redundant as you and I are in agreement! 😉


  31. Ketan,

    The rich guy has cheated all his life to make money. This tells me that this is a society in which the justice system is already broken.

    The poor guy cheated once and got taken to ‘court’. In such a corrupt society, I would lie to protect him and his daughter.

    In a society where the rich man had become rich without breaking the rules and where justice was uniform, I would not lie.

    My response was intuitive and not objective. What I find interesting is that in the first case, I feel like lying because the rich man has lied before!

  32. Hi Mohit, and welcome to the blog!

    Thanks for your comment, and please do put in your vote in the sidebar, if you’ve not done that already.

    You’ve raised a very relevant point, and that’s what I’d meant in my post, when I said idealism works in an ideal society and The law should first penalize the rich man for corruption, then turn to judging the act of robbery

    Thanks for your comment!

    Take care.

  33. Tell You what!! I don’t give a damn about age old dogmatic morals at such times.

    I will help that poor guy, and I will Lie!!!!

    Since lying don’t have any dire consequences for me, I might as well intentionally put the rich guy in trouble and make him pay for false accusations and taking bribes, and causing people unnecessary trouble.

    How about robbing some more money outta him before the hearing? I am sure the poor guy will help me. [His daughter shops lavishly after she gets well. and I get that pretty outfit I saw yesterday in Mall.] [[[Smiles Wickedly]]]]

    Damn, I miss a Robin Hood in our society.

  34. What justice does the rich guys seek in the court!!??
    Does that corrupt creep deserve this?

    I would prefer to strip him of all his riches by hook or crook 😛

    Wow, should I assume the role of Robin Hood. I am already getting a high thinking about it…. Guns Fire, robbing the wicked rich, and redistributing to those who really deserve!!


  35. Hail Chiya Robin-ey Hood!

    I just hope you didn’t get one pivotal aspect of the question wrong–the poor man actually steals.

    But I got your point. And if I gather your predisposition on such issues correctly, your prognosis in life is really, really poor, as far as I can see it.

    You’ll find the kind of people I’ve described in the post (maybe incompletely so) everywhere–peer group, friends’ circle, even relatives, and if we’re objective enough, even our family members, and sometimes, ourselves! Some people desire to earn money at any cost, but simply lack the talent, some are afraid of losing what they have, some afraid of “what others will think”, some afraid of “what God will do to me”. What’s the difference between such people and person in the post who merely manages to be ‘successful’ because of talent+luck? So basically, you’ll find extremely few people who intrinsically desire to be ‘good’ and moral only because that’s what they want to be.

    Thanks for your lighthearted comment and voting!

    Psst… coming to the ionsortant issue–do you count me among really deserving people in “redistributing it to those who really deserve”? 😉


  36. TUIB,

    Sorry, I’d missed your second comment. Though you agree with me, now looking back at my own comment, I feel, things are not that simple! Double standards, what to do? But, there’s maybe a difference between actually wanting to kill and not wanting to save!


  37. hey ya!!!
    I know that poor man stole and stealing is bad.
    But I don’t believe that Something can be classified sharply as good or bad.

    so if I steal money to save my daughter that too from a corrupt guy, when all other options are closed. I believe I am being good..
    Why should I let my daughter die because i have to keep my conduct clean. I don’t mind tarnishing my record for a good cause.

    This is old bollywood.
    Telling a lie is bad, won’t you tell a lie when you know that telling the truth will give a old fragile person a heart attack. Or would you tell the truth because you want to be honest however much??

    I don’t believe in “lying is bad’ ‘stealing is vice” I don’t mind ppl calling me a liar or a thief if the result is good.

    I believe in doing what serves the situation the best. 🙂
    that’s all

    and yea, if some money is left after I get the daughter a lavish shopping spree and myself that outfit. then I will consider you. But then, you know girls and their shopping addiction 😛

  38. Oh no Chiya-ji, you got me wrong!

    That second response was to this point in your first comment: “…and make him pay for false accusations and taking bribe”.

    I’d thought you misinterpreted the plot to conclude that robbery was not committed. I just wanted to correct that.

    And well the second part of the comment, was a total digression, and whether one considers it relevant or irrelevant depends upon ‘scope’ of our moral judgement. If I’ve got you right, I too used to have that kind of anger and hatred towards moral corruption, but then realized that that anger didn’t help in any way, only made my life more miserable, and that I’d lose all that I hold close to me (not money; I hardly have any 😉 ), but people and relations. But I couldn’t really delude myself into believing people to be better than they actually were, and eventually I realized the moral standards I applied to people were too high, and I got detached from ‘people’ as well as my moral standards as far as their application to ‘people’ was concerned.

    And I totally love reading your essays, just wish they’d be longer, come more often on my posts as well as your blog!

    Never mind even if you don’t share the spoils with me. If I were to know of your shopping spree, I’ll better open a shop myself. :p

    Happy shopping!

    And BTW Chiyaji, if you read my comments above, you’ll realize, I’d have lied without any hesitation whatsoever. My moral compass is very clearly pointing in one direction in this particular case. You might enjoy a related post–‘My morality’.


  39. I think I’d lie.

    Yes, I’d lie. Not because the rich man got his money by cheating, but because I’d like the poor man and his daughter to be saved.
    Sure, truth is truth but, well, sometimes, you just need to lie. To save somebody else.

    For example, if my really good friend played a prank on a teacher and the teacher asks me who did it. And I know my friend will be punished real bad. So I obviously don’t say the truth. I lie and say I don’y know.

    On paper, you should never lie and all. But practically, sometimes you just NEED to.

  40. Thanks Srishti for your response!

    I guess, you realize I too would’ve easily lied without hesitation.

    Had the one robbed earned his money through hardwork, I would’ve still lied, but with guilt. I would’ve known my choice wasn’t perfect, and the guilt would’ve kept on troubling me, but not in the situation given in the post.

    Maybe, if the one thus robbed, would be an understanding person, I would pay him from my pocket to compensate for his loss–caused partly due to me.

    But my major point is in a system itself gone morally corrupt (rich corrupt man not getting punished for his corruption), I would not feel at all guilty of doing something immoral for a purpose which my conscience permits.

    But the most interesting thing about this poll was I wanted to see, whether people distinguish between ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ acts on the basis of their compliance with established standards, or on the basis of intention and consequences of an act?

    Interesting thing was that sizeable proportion (one-third) of respondents felt they would speak the truth (‘spoken truth’ more valuable than the life of that girl)!


  41. This might sound irrelevant to you.

    First of all, I do not believe in the established concept of morality, which is perfectly human-centered. In my concept of morality stealing, lying, money, robbery and society, these are so petty issues that are not even visible to me. There are much much bigger issues facing existence!

    In fact this entire affair is something which does not affect me. It is so HUMAN-SPECIFIC!!! As far as any such thing is concerned, I find myself in the game again. So whatever decisions I take by whim in the game, is neither right nor wrong.

    I might save the one who stole in this case, for example; Or I might sometime also think that one human less is good for the planet 😉 Depends on the mood I am in at the moment!

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