Posted by: captainfalcon | September 8, 2010

The Quality of Mercy

Brian Leiter has a real-life ethical quandary on his hands. P and V were both vying for the same tenure track post at law school L. Before V returned for a second interview, P anonymously sent V an email purporting (falsely) to contain a critical, insulting evaluation of V by the professoriate at L. P has secured another tenure-track post, but his identity is now known. Leiter’s question, on which he’s opened comments, is whether or not P should be outed (whether to his dean or the public; whether by P or someone else).

Judging by the comments on Leiter’s thread this is an idiosyncratic reaction, but I am uncertain whether P’s identity should be revealed by P or anyone else. I think P’s identity should be revealed if P is likely to act wrongly again, or if V would suffer from P’s being treated mercifully. I think P’s identity should not be revealed if P has mended his ways and V has brushed off P’s misconduct.

(I suppose my intuitions are broadly consequentialist. If giving P a mulligan won’t do his students, colleagues or V any harm, and will do P a whole lot of good (probably, given the psychological costs of his disgrace and the fact that losing something (e.g. a tenure-track post) is costlier than gaining it, more good than would be done to the aspiring professor who might take his place) then mercy promotes the good; if P is a recidivist, or V still suffers, then it does not.)

I have no idea whether there are sufficient facts to make a determination about P’s future intentions (or V’s attitude towards P), nor do I have any thoughts on what is the right thing to do absent knowledge of such facts. I’m also aware that I, like Rumpole, tend to empathize more readily with (especially petty) perpetrators, so my comparison of the costs of P’s exposure (to P) to the benefits of P’s exposure (to the aspiring law professor who might fill his vacancy) may be off-base. Therefore I’d be interested to hear alternative points of view (especially regarding the likelihood that letting P slide will better promote the good than will any alternatives).



  1. So here are a few of the reasons that incline me to think P should be outed…
    1. The “if P has mended his ways” seems like a big “if” to me, and also one which may be unknowable… but my first inclination (which may be solely through the limited picture of the man I get via just this story) is that he is unlikely to have done so. If not, outing him hopefully encourages him to straighten up and fly right, or at least warns others of his tendencies to minimize future damage.
    2. More significantly, outing P might provide a corrective lesson to others who might potentially follow in his footsteps in the future.
    3. And last of all, “V was obviously very distressed” and the fact that it was V, rather than the law school, which set up the trap and identified P, makes it seem unlikely to me that V has, in fact, brushed it off.

  2. MM,

    The verdicts you reach in (1) and (3) situate the scenario where I am most likely to endorse exposure, but I’m unpersuaded that either verdict is sound. First, I don’t see how Leiter’s account, which does not establish a pattern of behavior, licenses any inferences at all about P’s character. Second, Leiter’s (past-tense) description of V’s conduct and mental state strikes me as equally consistent with V’s having undergone an episode of cathartic outrage as with V’s continuing to suffer.

    (2) is a good point, though my gut tells me that those who would do as P did don’t (at the time they’re forming the intention to act) have a normal response to incentives.

    Finally, it seems to me an open question whether our reactions tell us more about our respective worldviews or reality.

  3. Unethical behavior should be punished. A universal, uncontroversial agreement on the behavior’s wrongness is enough reason. We don’t need to bother ourselves with the specifics of P and V since the act. Out the bitch.



  5. I am knee-jerk inclined towards letting P off the hook. The rammifications of outing seem disproportionate to the misdeed. But perhaps, like CF of the Bailey, I too empathize with the pettily unscrupulous. I will examine my prejudices further…

    Also, how does one go about sending emails anonymously? This facet of the internet seems to have escaped me.

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