The Ethicist Endorses Omertà


The NYT‘s Ethicist has taken a very strange approach to wrongdoing in this weekend’s column.  A student wrote in to say that ze saw a friend take someone’s car keys and throw them into a lake.  The friend offered the letterwriter $50 as an implicit bribe in order to stay quiet.  The bribe worked.  Later, someone came by looking for his keys, and the letterwriter kept mum.  But ze felt queasy about zer choice, and asked the Ethicist for his advice.  Here’s an excerpt from his reply:

It was wrong to accept this bribe; by doing so, you became complicit in the crime. Yet this immoral commitment is still a commitment. You have agreed not to expose the person who threw the keys, and you have entered into an unspoken contract that represents this promise. You should have confronted the victim and said: “Your keys were thrown into the lake. I did not throw them, but I’m assuming responsibility for the person who did. Here is $50 to compensate you for the loss.”

It’s possible this response would not have satisfied the man. Perhaps $50 would mean nothing to him. Maybe he would call the police. And if that happened, you might be legally compelled to explain exactly what happened. In which case, you would be unethical twice: once for accepting the bribe, and once for failing to live up to its conditions.

I’m still pretty confused as to why the Ethicist didn’t recommend just returning the $50 and speaking up.  But even if that weren’t an option (maybe the first kid had already gone home by the time the letterwriter was reconsidering), it seems very strange to argue that we’re bound irrevocably to the immoral commitments we’ve made.  (Ironically, last summer, the Ethicist treated promises much more lightly when they were given by a doctor to a patient).

I’d certainly hope the letterwriter is less likely to accept a bribe in the future, but that’s not really enough.  Sticking by an immoral compact wrongs yourself and your accomplice.  The very act of accepting a bribe reinforces that bribery is all right, misleading your partner in crime and abusing your friendship.  By keeping your promise to your friend, you are tutoring them in immorality.

Scale up the Ethicist’s scenario, to a hitman accepting a contract, or a doctor accepting money from a pharmaceutical rep to prescribe a useless medication, and it’s clear that we don’t want people to hew to unethical agreements, simply because breaking promises is bad.  We want them to extract themselves from these promises, so that they’re not fettered by them forever.

Ideally, that doesn’t involve keeping the profits from the initial bribe.  It’s important to return the goods you received, both to avoid profiting off of your broken promise, and so that you have a reason to return to your contractual partner and explain why you can’t ethically hold to the terms of your agreement.

Breaking a promise is a betrayal, but walking with your friend or partner into evil isn’t loyalty.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011 and lives in Washington DC. She works as a news writer for FiveThirtyEight by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."