Add this site to your Home Screen by opening it in Safari, tapping and selecting "Add to home screen"

Our panel of 90 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Hi! I was wondering if I could ask a few moral questions related to Brett Kavanaugh. 1. Is it morally bad to profit from a crime; and, if so, why? It seems to me that most traditional moralities seem to proscribe against acts (like "Thou shalt not murder"), and sometimes against the emotional motivation for acts (greed, lust, pride), but that they aren't focused on the consequences of acts. It also seems to me that act utilitarianism wouldn't regard profiting from a crime as bad per se. If anything, the resulting happiness is a good: it's just that it needs to be weighed together with the resulting suffering. 2. In the case of Brett Kavanaugh, let's assume: (a) that he did commit assaults while drunk 40 years ago; and (b) that, after college, he went on to lead an unimpeachable life. In this scenario, would the assaults then constitute a moral reason not to confirm him to the Supreme Court? What does the panel make of the following claims? -- (a) He's a different person now, so there is no moral problem. 40 years says so. Convicted criminals need to do less than that to prove they deserve to have full citizenship rights reinstated. -- (b) Criminals can still be good Xs -- good doctors, good teachers, good judges, etc -- so there is no moral problem. There is no clear causative link between assaults then and judging ability now. -- (c) Assuming there are moral objections to profiting from a crime, Kavanaugh wouldn't be. Rather, he would be profiting from having got away with a crime, from not having it on his record.

You ask if it's morally bad to profit from a crime. Since the answer seems pretty clearly to be yes, I'm a bit unsure what would count for you as saying why, but let's try an example: Robin's spouse carries a large life insurance policy. Robin kills him—a morally bad thing, I hope you'll agree—and then gets the payout from the policy, thereby profiting from the crime. Sounds bad to me.

Consider two cases. (1) someone commits a crime—a theft, let's say— but they do it in order to help some desperate but otherwise innocent person. (2) Someone commits the same crime, but they do it simply because they want the money, which in fact they manage to get away with keeping and using. Most of us would say that the first case is less egregious, the wrongdoer of less bad character, and the act more forgivable.

Is there a deeper explanation? More than one, no doubt. If my profit flows from a crime, then I don't deserve the benefit I got, and we care about whether people deserve what they're getting. Also, if we don't have sanctions against profiting from crimes, we take away a reason for not committing them. No doubt there are other things to be said here.

As for your remark about act utilitarianism, it actually points to a reason for not being an act utilitarian. Suppose X and Y both murder innocent people, but unlike X, Y actually enjoyed the killing and savors the memory. Only someone in the grip of a bad theory could think that this makes it less bad overall that Y committed his murder than that X committed hers. On the contrary, the healthier thought is that Y's pleasure is worse than morally worthless; it's despicable. Someone who didn't see this is someone I wouldn't trust around sharp objects.

I am not going to offer any view on Brett Kavanaugh. In fact, set him aside entirely. Your broader question is this: if someone doesn't profit from their crime itself, but only from not being caught, should we care? Surely the question is whether we would think it was right to give them the benefit if we actually knew about the crime. Suppose that Z embezzled money from his law firm in a one-time act 20 years ago. (The statute of limitations is less than that, BTW.) Z is nominated for a judgeship. Don't know about you, but if I knew about the embezzlement, that would make a difference to whether I thought Z deserved the judgeship. And if Z served on the bench but it came to light after his death that he had embezzled from his firm, I expect my view would be that he didn't deserve his judgeship. Yes; he might have served honorably. But that's not the only thing we can care about.

Finally, on the bit about someone being "a different person." I think it's wise whenever we can to avoid making moral judgments on the basis of slippery metaphysics. I'd suggest that this is one of those cases.