The Prime Minister liked to think of himself as a 'pretty straight kind of guy'. He genuinely despised corruption and sleaze in government and wanted to run a cleaner, more honest administration.
Something had happened, however, that presented him with a real dilemma. At a Downing Street reception, a businessman known for his lack of scruples, but who did not have a criminal or civil conviction against him, took the PM aside. Whispering conspiratorially into his ear, he said, "Many people don't like me and don't respect the way I run my affairs. I don't give a damn about that. What does annoy me is that my reputation means I'll never be honoured by my country.
"Well," he continued, "I'm sure you and I can do something about that. I'm prepared to give £10 million to help provide clean water for hundreds of thousands of people in Africa, if you can guarantee me that I'll be knighted in the New Year's honours list. If not, then I'll just spend it all on myself."
He slapped the PM on the back, said, "Think it over," and slipped back into the crowd. The Prime Minister knew this was a kind of bribe. But could it really be wrong to sell one of this country's highest honours when the reward would be so obviously for the good?
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 148.
Right. So this is a pretty clear case of attempted quid pro quo, where:
quid (this) = a good thing (giving £10M to help people in Africa)
quo (that) = a bad thing (honouring a person with a bad reputation)
The experiment then is essentially asking what bad can we do in order to get a good outcome. In other words, can the ends justify the means? We could spend some time debating how good knighthoods actually are, or how beneficial more development money in Africa would really be. That might be expected to change the math a bit, since a lot of good for a little bad is surely a better bargain than the other way around. But is that the right way to look at this?
The most common ways that traditional moral philosophers talk about this kind of issue depends on which type of ethics they ascribe to. For the utilitarian who wants to tally up the consequences of the actions and determine which decisions contribute "the greatest good to the greatest number," the deal for the knighthood seems to be a good one. For a virtue ethicists concerned with honour and integrity, the Prime Minister ought to reject the offer out of hand as a violation of important principles. These two moral camps disagree so we can't yet come to a decision.
What, then, would an evolutionary ethicist say? For moral dilemmas in general, I try to evaluate the long-term consequences of actions as to whether they lead toward or away from the long-term survival of life. That's my universal definition of good, so that's always the ultimate test of whether a choice is right or wrong. In this scenario, if you evaluate it in the short term as if it were a one-off event with no other consequences, then to me the help for Africa would be worth the perception of offering one questionable knighthood. Over the long term, however, there is a real risk that the sleazy businessman would expose the details of his transaction, hoping to show that everyone was corrupt like him, which would threaten to take down the whole inspirational edifice of the government's system of honours. That might also do lasting harm to the fabric of trust that binds a society together, making it quite possible the country would lose far more than £10M from future foreign aid budgets. As the great writer and philosopher Montesquieu said:
"The deterioration of a government begins almost always by the decay of its principles."
So to me, the Prime Minister ought to reject the offer as it stands. However, the reason he should do so—the fact that a baldfaced quid pro quo would be a threat for the long-term—hints that an alternative solution might be the best of all. If I were the PM, I'd tell the businessman that his assumption is wrong that he could be honoured by his country without being honoured by the people of his country. Governments are of the people, by the people, for the people, (to think "the country" is something separate is a category error), so if the businessman is truly serious about receiving honours from the government, then he should go ahead and donate the money to Africa, and we would see where those actions took him with respect to the opinion of the people of England. (Having lived in the UK for five years now, and seeing the system of honours mainly reserved for the province of the rich and famous, I suspect the businessman could get his way eventually without demanding any backroom dealings. But who really knows?) In other words, the choice of the quid for the quo is a false one since one doesn't have to be caused by the other, even though they may be correlated and follow one another.
What do you think? When do ends justify means for you? Hopefully, my own dilemma of putting forth a crappy effort here in return for a better effort elsewhere has also proven false, but maybe you have other alternatives for the PM that you would like me to have considered. Let me know if you have a chance. I'll honour you any way that you want.