Taking Equal Bribes

A former student of mine, Olivia, gave me a book titled, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, which does a remarkably good job of illustrating philosophical ideas through humor. I thought I would share a small section regarding the philosophy of law, as it’s both entertaining and enlightening.

A key question regarding the philosophy of law is, “what is the purpose of laws?” Three primary¬† historical responses to this question are Aristotle’s Virtue Jurisprudence, Immanuel Kant’s Deontoligical Jurisprudence, and Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism. Elaborating respectively, Aristotle asserted that the purpose of laws is to encourage the development of virtuous character. Close to this idea, Kant posited that the purpose of laws is to codify moral duties. And, perhaps as a counterpart to these two ideas, Bentham held that the purpose of laws is to promote the best consequences for the greatest number of people. Having heard these three responses, some might ask, “what practical difference does it make what theory we subscribe to?”, particularly since it is not hard to imagine all three purposes co-operating in the production of laws. An analysis of the following joke, however, illustrates the potential difference the underlying purpose for creating laws makes.

A judge calls the opposing lawyers into his chambers, and says, “The reason we’re here is that both of you have given me a bribe.” Both lawyers squirm in their seats. “You, Alan, have given my $15,000. Phil, you gave me $10,000.”

The judge hands Alan a check for $5,000 and says, “Now you’re even, and I’m going to decide this case solely in its merits.”

Paraphrasing the analysis of the book’s co-authors, if the purpose of proscribing bribes is to support the duty to deal equitably with all, or likewise if the purpose is to ensure even-handedness in the production of good consequences, then we might be able to endorse the judge’s course of action in taking equal bribes. However, if the purpose of law is to encourage the development of good character it becomes a bit more challenging to find any support for the judge’s actions.

So, there you go, philosophy through humor.

5 Responses to “Taking Equal Bribes”

  1. Roger Green  

    Can’t help but to think that the Supreme Court ruling on the eminent domain case in Connecticut (Griswold) about 5 years ago ended up doing none of the above. It was neither virtuous or moral to throw people out of their houses. at least the greater good was in play, but then the commercial activity that prompted the whole case fell through.

  2. Roger Green  

    Lest I forget, Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  3. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – I think that the example you provided is excellent in the way of analyzing the underlying purpose that drives lawmakers to create laws, and like you said, the only justification I see in eminent domain is the greatest benefit for the greatest number. On the other hand, and I acknowledge that this may be a stretch, it could be argued that it is virtuous to sacrifice for the greater good, and eminent domain promotes such virtuous action. But again, if such action is forced by the state it is not self-sacrificial but rather coercive, and in this instance virtue is not really formed. And yet, I think Aristotle would argue that we train the soul through action, and so what began as coercive could yet lead to the development of virtue.

    In the end, the problem with the use of eminent domain is that at times the supposed greater good is really the good of some developer who has persuaded a city council, or some kind of political official, that the plans they have developed, by which the developer will get rich, is good for whatever community.

  4. Thomas Cathcart  

    Your blog came up on Google Alerts, as mentioning Danny’s and my book, “Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar.”

    Very interesting blog. I share your enthusiasm for Niebuhr and Chesterton.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on them and other matters.

  5. Anthony Velez  

    Mr. Cathcart – What a nice surprise! I want to take this opportunity to thank you and Mr. Klein for a great read! Truly enjoyable.

    In thanking my student for giving me your book I told her I was going to have to be careful and not make a shtick out of using the jokes from your book when I teach Intro to Philosophy next semester. I’m sure I ‘ll find a way to put it to non heavy-handed, good use.

    Many blessings on your writing endeavors.