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?