The Ethical Dilemma

An essay for the MA Criminal Justice and Crime Control by Deborah Thompson, December 2018.

Essay Scenario

A police officer has been investigating a secret group of ‘far right’ activists. An informant, who is quite highly placed in this group, is giving useful information to the officer because the officer has evidence that could see him charged with a serious crime. The officer realises that he is obstructing justice by protecting the informant; however, he believes that the information received may stop a terrorist attack.
The essay involves critically discussing the ethical issues raised in the scenario, applying relevant ethical theories, and to answer whether the officer should continue protecting the informant in exchange for information.


Whilst there are many different theories this essay will consider deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics in relation to the scenario detailed.

As society needs a system of principles to guide it there are sometimes difficult decisions to make which need the law to be applied, in conjunction with personal values, emotion and instinct. The scenario given invokes a decision about what to do with regards to the three theories of ethics – whether to follow duty and to strictly apply it, whether to protect society from greater harm, or whether to uphold personal beliefs and values.

Ethical dilemmas mean that individuals have to consider reviewing all the facts and identifying potential values that may be relevant, alongside which ethical principles need to be applied and then what choice of action that may resolve the ethical dilemma.

Deontological Ethics

This theory equals the study of duty. People often have duties to perform certain actions irrespective of the consequences of those actions. If someone had to judge whether an act was moral the only important consideration would be the intent but not the consequence.

Immanuel Kant put forward that good will, or the intention to do what is right, is fundamental to morality. Applying his theory it would be that if someone applied good will, then even it if turned out badly it could be consider a moral action. If someone appeared to be acting out of good will but actually was only bothered about themselves then this would not be a moral action (Kant 1785:61/2).

Josef Seifert (online 1991) cites Kant by quoting: “It is impossible to conceive anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will.”

He says that the categorical imperative tells us what we ought to do, for example ‘if you want to stay out of jail, you should not break the law’. This then commands you to follow and behave morally. Cyndi Banks cites Piers Benn by stating that motive is essential and that actions possess moral worth if they are performed with ‘categorical imperative’ (Banks 2004:209, Benn 1998:172).

Kant’s first formulation makes a case that for things to be moral it must be applied to anyone in similar circumstances and that you should ‘only do unto others as you would have done to you’, as cited by many of the world’s different religions (CUNY:2002 [online]). 

His second formulation argues that you should act in a way that treats people with value and not as objects. A case to highlight this would be the way that Jewish people were persecuted during the holocaust, where the Nazi regime systematically dehumanised a race by tattooing a number on every person to take away their identity and by stripping them of hair, clothes and personal belongings. Perhaps this made it easier for the Nazis to carry out the atrocities that occurred? His third formulation puts forward that when you act morally you can choose your own moral decisions and that you should make your own choices. In deontological ethics if something is wrong it is wrong all the time, regardless of the good that may arise from the decision.

In the scenario the police officer has evidence to bring a charge of murder against the informant. This clearly indicates that informant has broken one of society’s strictest laws and the officer knows this. His professional role means that he has to follow the laws of the land and that he should bring the evidence forward so that the informant can be charged with the crime and be duly processed through the criminal justice system. The officer has conflicting thoughts as he will be considering the greater good of whether keeping the informant ‘out of jail’ and giving over information about a terrorist attack that may kill many more individuals is a better decision than making one person pay for their crime. The officer has a duty to perform his role to the best of his ability and by keeping the informant out of the police system he is compromising his employed role, as he has agreed to follow the College of Policing Code of Ethics (2014 online). He is breaching standards of professional behaviour sections 1 to 10, however in particular section 1 honesty and integrity, section 6 duties and responsibilities and section 9 his own conduct.

It could be argued that the officer firmly believes that what he is doing will save many people, compared with punishing one at this time. Although he may justify this to himself by being able to charge the informant at a later point when the danger has passed. This could lead the officer into a more dangerous situation, as the informant would argue that he was helping and should not be punished, thereby putting the officer in a precarious position with his employers.

This theory of ethics is an absolutist system and that means that the officer knows that what he is doing is wrong and that he needs to arrest/charge the individual with the crime committed regardless of what may happen in the future. However, is duty always the right thing to follow?

Consequentialism Ethics

A second theory of ethics is consequentialism – this theory considers that an act can be viewed as moral if it generates good consequences/results. If it produces bad consequences this can be considered morally wrong.

Jeremy Bentham, circa 1789, developed the modern theory of utilitarianism, campaigning for a more humane and just legal system. The Principle of Utility – the greatest happiness principle is where there is an ability to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure or to prevent mischief, pain or evil from happening.

Julia Driver (2007:42) cites Bentham as stating: “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever; according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question…I say of every action whatsoever; and therefore not only of every action of a private individual, but of every measure of government.”

When considering a dilemma the right action is one that will produce the greatest pleasure and least pain to those affected by it. In the given scenario, it could be argued that the greatest happiness would be the benefit to society if the terrorist attack is prevented, even if the informant does not get charged with murder against an individual. However, if it unfolded that the terrorist attack was never going to take place and society would not be affected then the officer should consider taking the informant into custody.

This kind of decision by an authority has recently been highlighted in the news with regards to an undercover police officer using whatever means necessary to infiltrate an animal rights group (The Guardian 2018 online). The furore surrounding whether his superiors were aware of his methods, and their approval, are currently being investigated. Does this mean that this theory is ok providing the public do not become aware of it? Does the end justify the means? If the pubic become aware of it do we then question the institutional morals/ethics?

John Stuart Mill developed Bentham’s ideas, by expressing that “his pleasures and pains are not regarded by me as any more important than yours when it comes to deciding what is right or wrong for me or anybody else to do.” (Brown University online) Linking this to the dilemma can a question be asked about whether the informant’s pain is greater or less because of being blackmailed for information. Will he be forever wondering if he will eventually be charged or the instance let go?

Brown University (online) put forward that we should do ethical actions that produce the greatest good and the least harm for all who may be affected including governments, businesses, the community and the environment.

This is something that we are now seeing in today’s modern ethos – do the least harm and the greatest good for all stakeholders including protecting agriculture, animal and marine life, energy and chemical usage etc.
The dilemma would really be debated by these considerations, as in what benefits society more? Is keeping the informant out of prison helping society more, as the societal good in this case would overrule the good for the person?

The question to be answered is whether to recommend unjust actions. Should there be a sacrifice of some kind in order to save the lives of others? The sacrifice of the officer’s duty, the sacrifice of the informant’s freedom of choice in order to stop the potential fatalities that could occur in a terrorist attack. (Driver 2007:122)

Virtue Ethics

In order to understand what virtue ethics means it is necessary to understand what a virtue is. Banks (2004:237) puts forward that a virtue is having “…personal qualities or traits of character, shown through habitual action, that makes us persons of excellent character.”

These qualities can include intelligence and strength and aspects covering temperament, patience, empathy and religious beliefs.

The BBC (2014 [online]) states that: “… Virtue ethics is person rather than action based: it looks at the virtue or moral character of the person carrying out an action, rather than at ethical duties and rules, or the consequences of particular actions…”

Some of the earliest theories arise from philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, in terms of establishing what makes a ‘good character’ and ‘what kind of person do I want to be’?

This theory of ethics says that an action is right only if a virtuous person would typically follow the same action, if the same circumstances arose. This theory is concerned with moral character and that this takes a long time to develop through upbringing, education and habituation. It puts forward that a person’s moral character may take a whole life to develop, but once it is established then the person will apply it consistently, predictably and appropriately in a variety of situations. However our ‘friendships’ can be classified into three types according to Aristotle – one of utility, one of pleasure and one of virtue. (Driver 2007:143:144) Given this statement, how do we see the relationship between the informant and police officer? This seems to be more one of utility as this relationship would not be in existence if a ‘business’ transaction was not taking place.

As a police officer he has sworn to tell the truth and uphold the law and these values will cause him a dilemma in regards to whether to charge the informant or not. In this theory the police officer’s moral character should be firmly established and he will know what he should do and that would be to charge the informant with the crime of murder, as the accused also has rights and is currently being ‘blackmailed’. Has the police officer himself broken a law by doing what he has been doing? What would happen to the officer if this were to be made public? In terms of virtuous ethics what would another officer do in the same circumstances?

Banks (2004:257) argues that it is not enough to tell the truth sometimes or only when it is advantageous, a virtuous person would tell the truth no matter what the outcome – therefore the police officer should arrest the informant and charge him with crime he has committed.


To conclude this essay it can be said that all the theories have similarities as well as differences, that two theories would arrive at the same conclusion and one would be different.

Deontological Ethics are concerned with the rights of duty and doing what is believed to be right but not concerned with the consequence and where the police officer in this dilemma should choose duty and arrest the informant. If something is wrong it is always wrong irrespective of what may happen in the future. Consequentialism Ethics is more concerned with the results of an action i.e. does it generate good results. If it does then it can be viewed as morally right and if bad results morally wrong. This theory is more complicated as the situation is unclear and may go two ways. If there is a planned terrorist attack then the consequences would be good for society and the informant should be utilised to gain information. If there was no planned attack then the informant should be arrested and charged for their crime. The officer would be in a dilemma knowing that he has a duty to follow the law but also to protect society. Virtue Ethics is more concerned with the person’s character and would argue that to be a police officer you would need to have certain qualities and character traits that would allow you to do the right thing in whatever circumstance. This would indicate that the police officer, because of his chosen role, should be virtuous enough and to arrest the informant rather than blackmail him into providing evidence.

Reference List

Banks, C. (2004) CriminalJustice Ethics Theory and Practice. London:  Sage Publications Ltd.

BBC (2014) VirtueEthics.  [online] Availablefrom:[Accessed 11th November 2018].

Benn, P. (1998) Ethics:  Fundamentals of Philosophy.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Brown University [n.d] A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions. [online] Available from:[Accessed 11th November 2018].

College of Policing (2014) Code of Ethics A Code of Practicefor the Principles  and Standards ofProfessional Behaviour for the Policing Profession  of England and Wales.  [online] Available from:[Accessed 11th November 2018].

Driver, J. (2007) EthicsThe Fundamentals.  Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing.

Graham, G. (2004) EightTheories of Ethics. London: Routledge.

Hall, R. A. S., Dennis, C. B., Chipman, T. L. (1999)  TheEthical Foundations of Criminal Justice. London:  CRC Press.

Kant, I. (1785)  Groundwork.  [online] Available from:[Accessed 11th November 2018].

Seifert, J.  (1991) Theoretical Ethics. [online] Available from:[Accessed 11th November 2018].

The Guardian (2018)  WomanTricked into Relationship with Police Spy Launches Legal Action. [online]  Available from:[Accessed 11th November 2018].

The City University of New York (CUNY) (2002)  Ethics,Chapter 9 Kantian Theory:  TheCategorical Imperative, Not the Golden Rule [online]  Available from:[Accessed 13th November 2018].