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Philosophical question: 1) A guy drops a cigarette on the side of the road, and it burns down a forest. Is it ethical to punish him for burning down the forest? 2) 1001 people drop a cigarette on the side of the road. 1 of them burns down a forest. Should the other 1000 punish him for burning down the forest?

 

Wednesday and I got nothing better to do than post stuff on the internet during my conference period. So I will steal this from my friend who asked this question. What say you?

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1000 people run a red light. 1 person runs a red light and kills a woman in the crosswalk. Is it ethical to punish that person?

 

We punish people more severely when they cause actual damage.

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We punish people more severely when they cause actual damage.

This.

 

Fine people who break rules but cause no harm in order to fund education/prevention programs (i.e. somebody leaves a campfire burning, fine them x-amount and set it aside toward conservation/forestry)

 

Punish people who break rules and cause harm.

 

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Yeah I don't see what's so philosophical about this.

 

From a legal standpoint, the amount of damages is a separate question from that of negligence (or whether an intentional harm was committed). You can have the latter but still have minimal damages. Example- let's say I walk by your house and flick a cigarette on your lawn and nothing much happens. Can you sue me? Sure, but the cost of filing the lawsuit will be less than the damages I owe you. And likewise you can have heavy damages if the harm is greater- if my flicking the cigarette lights up some brush in a drought that catches the wood siding of your house on fire and it burns down, the damages are hypothetically the entire cost of the house (and possibly some additional pain/suffering related damages).

 

Of course, in such a case, the plaintiff would have many hurdles to jump through- they'd have to prove the cigarette actually caused this chain of events (proximate cause), which is gonna be damn near impossible, and the defendant will likely have defenses such as contributory negligence; i.e. that you also were negligent and that contributed to the damage- let's say you had some old sh-tty wood siding that was in violation of building codes or what not, and it was an 'accident waiting to happen' so to speak.

 

But either way, let's say you get past those hurdles, the amount of damages is then just a calculation; it's a separate question from whether you were negligent in the first place, which doesn't ask what the monetary value of the harm is, but rather whether you acted unreasonably. That can be evidenced by many things, but violation of some city ordinance is one way (what's called negligence per se). That being said though, it's a separate question of what that guy then pays, again, as in the example above, you can be negligent and cause $0 damages.

 

It's the same in criminal law- the question of guilt or innocence is a separate analysis and completely different question from what the resulting sentence is. These two phases are usually (depending on the state etc) completely separate sessions in a trial.

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One thing though- there is a way you could argue the repetitive nature (and generally low risk of something happening) of an act can disprove negligence. If someone's negligent and you get to the damages phase, then again, that's just a calculation. But before you get there, the question of negligence is, once again, often a question of reasonability. Sometimes you can point to statutory violations as self-evident, so to speak, negligence (what I mentioned as negligence per se above), but in the absence of such, it's often just a question of what the jury would consider reasonable or not, and that often rests upon community standards.

 

A defendant could feasibly argue that some act, while undeniably the ultimate cause of a certain damage, is so frequently done by so many people (and with such little consequence in most circumstances), that's it not unreasonable to expect someone to act in such a way. Of if you do, the damage is so unforeseeable and the chain of events is so tenuous (again, this is proximate cause), that you could wiggle out of it that way too.

 

It's a harder case than your red light example Brando, because there you have two problems- first, running a red light is negligence per se (i.e. you violated a traffic law) and second, good luck convincing a jury that running a red light is reasonable or that a traffic accident is not a foreseeable result of running a red light.

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1000 people run a red light. 1 person runs a red light and kills a woman in the crosswalk. Is it ethical to punish that person?

 

We punish people more severely when they cause actual damage.

I get this from my students a lot. "Well, that kid did it, why can't i?" Even if it doesn't cause damage why be a lemming?

 

CM, I don't think that Brando's red light example is anything different from this because both acts have the potential to create harm or destruction of personal property.

 

The other argument I get is an example of the firing squad that is 10 dudes are set up to shoot the guy who has been awarded the punishment of death by firing squad but only one gets the real bullet that will kill the guy. Does that absolve guilt? Make it easier to fire the gun? So if 1001 people throw butts out without making sure they're out first on a dry day in California and a billion acres burn and houses are burned to the ground you can say "eh, it's okay because it wasn't my butt" and go on about your life still throwing butts out?

 

This hits close to my heart because some wacko in my apartment complex is throwing her butts off the balcony above. I have to sweep my porch of this trash regularly and she's burned a door mat with her carelessness. But she won't stop throwing them out. GAWD. Litterers.

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I took the hypothetical to include proof that Person X caused it. Proving it would be pretty impossible.

 

Proving legal negligence (which is effectively what I do - dealing with tort law rather than criminal) is quite different from saying whether it is ethical.

 

I have a case right now where I know one party is lying, but I can't do a thing about it. I don't have proof that he was negligent unless he admits it. So I can't prove negligence, but I also know his behavior is not ethical.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Carrie, I always enjoy reading your stuff. So in the cigarette example (just so I understand how it works), the flung cigarette is an act of negligence. That act will have guilt determined. Then depending on the damages resulting from the negligence, a large criminal penalty could be imposed for what would normally be punished as a civil nuisance?

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Guest El Chalupacabra
1) A guy drops a cigarette on the side of the road, and it burns down a forest. Is it ethical to punish him for burning down the forest?

 

 

Of course it is ethical to punish him. It's common sense. Pretty self evident not to throw anything burning into a wooded area where a fire can spread, which can damage or destroy the forest, wildlife, property, and cause injury or death to people. Not to mention it is simply enforcing laws and ordinances. But this is not a legal question. It's an ethical one. The heart of the matter is that would a reasonable person know not to through a cigarette anywhere that could cause a fire. The answer is yes. So, if someone does that, then yeah, it is ethical to punish a person for improperly disposing of a cigarette in a way that causes a forest fire.

 

2) 1001 people drop a cigarette on the side of the road. 1 of them burns down a forest. Should the other 1000 punish him for burning down the forest?

 

This question really doesn't make sense to me. Why is punishment left up only to 1000 smokers who did the same thing but with a different outcome, when in reality, it would be decided by the court system?

 

Be that as it may, I will take the question at face value, and again, this is an ethical dilemma, not a legal question. Whether or not the other 1000 people did the same thing, is irrelevant. We are taking about two different types of acts, here: 1. the act of throwing a cigarette on the side of the road without incident, and 2. the act of throwing a cigarette on the side of the road that causes a forest fire.

 

It is reasonable to assume that even though 1001 people have done the same act of throwing a cigarette where they shouldn't have, and that they are all equally wrong for doing it, it's the outcome that is at the heart of the matter. The other 1000 people may seem hypocritical for punishing the 1 who actually burned down the forest, but they are not acting unethically, because what matters in this case is the fact that the 1 destroyed a forest. In essence, they are punishing the 1 for throwing a cigarette onto the side of the road AND burning down the forest.

 

Since, in the first answer, it has been established that a reasonable person would know not to throw a cigarette on the side of the road where a reasonable person could expect a forest fire could take place, and it is in fact ethical to punish someone who causes a forest fire, then it is ethical for the 1000 other cigarette flickers to punish the 1 who causes the fire.

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