Looting has been reported in Houston. There are not too many species of human detritus lower than those who take advantage of natural disasters to prey on their neighbors, so the question arises, is it ethical for a city government to order police to shoot them?
This question usually arises in the context of martial law. A curfew has in fact been declared in Houston to minimize the looting; presumably an announcement that looters will be shot on sight will be even more effective deterrence. There are good reasons to discourage looting with strong measures. The conduct threatens civilized society itself, because it is not civilized conduct. If looting becomes widespread, the rule of law is suspended, and worse crimes may follow. In a situation like Houston’s, looting also forces law enforcement to choose between rescuing property and rescuing people. If police openly make the choice to let looters loot while they devote their attention elsewhere, then Looting Season has been declared officially open.
Over the years we have occasionally heard that orders were given to shoot looters on sight, but few looters have been shot. Usually the order is enough, which suggests that the order to shoot is a bluff, but usually an effective one.
Police shoot unarmed citizens alarmingly frequently already, however: that’s one order that shouldn’t be given in jest. Presumably most looters are unarmed; I’m not going to concern myself with the question of whether armed looters can be ethically shot. The answer to that is yes, especially when they shoot at rescuers, as apparently some have in Houston. No, your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:
In a natural disaster, is the order to shoot looters on sight ethical?
In the chaos that followed Katrina, there were reports that police officers were ordered to shoot looters. A Pro Publica report documented the confusion; it also appears to presume from the outset that shooting looters is per se wrong. I should clarify that if one approves of shooting looters, we are talking about shooting to kill. Salon, predictably, issued an ideological screed during Super Storm Sandy arguing that “demonizing looters puts property above people.” Ah. It is only poor people who are looting, ergo looting is a crime of necessity, not a crime of opportunity, ergo not a crime at all. The article is the product of badly assembled ethics alarms. I am not asking whether those who attempt to benefit from their community being ravaged by nature should be demonized: the answer to that question is “Of course they should.” Nor is the quiz “Should the staff at Salon be shot for making social justice warrioring appear especially brain-dead and ridiculous?” though I am sorely tempted.
No, the question is about whether a utilitarian analysis dictates that looting during a disaster is conduct that must be stopped, and that draconian measures are justified in stopping it. We can’t apply the Golden Rule, because the people I am asking this question to would never be looters. Kant’s Rule of Universality would presumably apply if one’s answer to the quiz is yes. Salon raises the question of good looting and bad looting, which makes any serious deterrence impossible. ‘Looters carrying TVs and large appliances will be shot; looting of sex toy shops will be giggled at, and looting of grocery stores and pharmacies will be assisted by police if their time permits.’
Let’s keep this quiz simple. Is it ethical for police to shoot looters, or not?