Michael Palmer’s Ethics No-Brainer

Physician/novelist Michael Palmer is something of the new Michael Crichton, though unlike the eclectic late author of “Jurassic Park,” Palmer generally restricts himself to medical thrillers. He is promoting his latest novel, “A Heartbeat Away,” with a series of “ethics brainteasers,” as he called them in a recent Twitter post. Here is the latest, which he posted on his Facebook page and asked fans to discuss:

“What if a close friend confides to you that he/she has committed a heinous crime and you promise that you’ll never tell. However, you soon discover that an innocent person has been accused of the crime and is possibly facing significant jail time. You plead with your friend to give him/herself up, but he/she refuses and reminds you of the promise. What should you do? What if the if jail time was only a few months? What if the sentence was death?”

Does your brain feel teased? I hope not; this isn’t an ethics brainteaser, but an ethics no-brainer:

1. It was irresponsible and quite possibly illegal to make such a promise in the first place.

2. A promise to assist a friend in escaping accountability for an illegal act is itself unethical and does not create a legitimate duty to the friend-criminal, or supersede a citizen’s duty to observe and respect the law.

3. The fact that an innocent person has been accused just increases the ethical urgency of reporting the crime. I would say that having made the promise, you do have to tell your friend that you made a mistake and cannot keep it, before you call the authorities. You should give your friend an opportunity, with a deadline, to turn himself in before you do so for him.

4. The possible sentence has absolutely nothing to do with the problem.

Having never read a Palmer novel, I am hoping he didn’t expend a lot of thought before offering his “brain-teaser,” as this would not bode well for the intricacies of his thrillers. It is also a little alarming that he would think many people would find this dilemma a particularly challenging one.

Could he possibly be right?

10 thoughts on “Michael Palmer’s Ethics No-Brainer

  1. Well, not in my case he’s not right. Of course, I have the advantage of having had my consciousness raised by reading your postings lo the past two or three years. Sorry, just having a little fun but, you’re right and this one really is a no-brainer. I enjoy reading a good medical thriller now and again so, when you mentioned Palmer writes in that genre, I had it in mind to surf on over to Amazon.com after this to check his books out. Now, I’m not so sure.

  2. It’s less of an Ethics Teaser as it is a Riddle. The true riddle being, can you tell that Michael Palmer insulted you in the question?

    Heinous: adj. Grossly wicked or deserving strong condemnation : Abominable.

    Your friend commits a “grossly wicked” crime and Michael Palmer thinks, naturally, that you would make a promise that you’ll never tell.

    I think anyone that relates to the question in the first place has an ethics deficit. The question he’s asking is: “Okay, you’re unethical, but how much unethical is too much?”

  3. Definitely an ethics no-brainer. The only point I’d argue, however:

    “I would say that having made the promise, you do have to tell your friend that you made a mistake and cannot keep it, before you call the authorities.”

    Where the punishment entails a few months of jail time, I’d certainly agree, but if the nature of the “heinous crime” in question carries a death penalty, I think there would be a valid utilitarian argument in favor of not telling your “friend” first. It would be nice to live long enough to tell the authorities.

    • I don’t disagree, though it seems to me a general principle that if you gave someone a reason to rely on a promise, you should alert them before you break it. The utilitarian argument to the contrary is strong, however.

  4. And see, people like this yahoo is why there is a HUGE ethics deficit in America (possibly global?). That’s NOT a brainteaser, and there IS a WRONG answer. He’s changing people’s minds in his books by making them think there is any other answer than CALL THE COPS, then go visit the friend in prison!

      • Jack, where has he kept writing that there is no “right answer?” I only see his posting once, not multiple times like you’ve implied.

        While you are pointing out flaws in his ethics scenario, I do believe you’re missing the whole point of the experiment. After following the discussion (and his previous ones), I believe it’s purpose is to start a dialogue between Michael and his fans to share ideas–not to create a rock-solid ethics case.

        • He wrote there was no “right answer” in presenting the question, and then again in the facebook thread. Sure, it’s for promotion; everyone knows that. the point is, there is no question. The ethical course is plain, clear and uncontroversial, unless one is ethically clueless. Presenting this as an ethics “brainteaser” and suggesting there is no right answer is irresponsible, no matter why he’s doing it.

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