Criminal Justice

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Police have received a complaint from community residents about what the residents describe as a homeless man sleeping on a bench at a local park. As far as anyone knows, the man has not harmed anyone and does not appear to pose an immediate threat. There’s a local law prohibiting people from sleeping in public, and the fact that a complaint has been received suggest that residents are at least uncomfortable about the situation. Upon speaking with the man, police learned that he is simply very tired, has no permanent residence and no money for a motel room, and no other place to go. He prays for the police to give him a couple of hours to rest and promises that he will be on his way. How might a utilitarian approach resolve this issue? What moral duties might be relevant, how might and ethics of care approach this matter differently, and what tradeoff might allow for compromise and the accommodation of the needs of everyone?

A Utilitarian approach would attempt to balance the man's interests against those of the community. The police have a legal and moral duty to uphold the law, but also a moral duty not to exacerbate the man's suffering. The ethics of care emphasize the individual circumstances rather than the general moral principle, and would suggest a practical solution similar to Utilitarianism. This might involve finding the man a hostel or shelter, or another more secure place to sleep.

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This situation exposes a weakness in Utlilitarian ethics. If Utilitarianism broadly advocates "the greatest good for the greatest number," how does one balance a slight good for a relatively large number of people against a much more substantial good for a small number?

In this case, we do not know how many people have complained about the man sleeping in the park, or how uncomfortable it makes them. It is therefore very difficult to balance their discomfort against the utility afforded to him by sleeping on the park bench. Since there is a law against sleeping on the park bench, the police have a moral as well as a legal duty to move the man, but there is a competing moral duty not to create further suffering for a person who is already in a bad situation. The ethics of care, which focus on the individual rather than the general moral principle, would privilege the second duty.

One Utilitarian approach to this problem would be to provide a better place for the man to sleep. The police might be able to find him a room in a local shelter or hostel, or even provide him with a bed in a cell for a few hours, if that is really all the time he requires. This might remove the concern for local residents. It would ameliorate the man's situation by providing him with a secure place to sleep.

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