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Arts & Letters Daily


7d. Desert - Allocating books


Does a person deserve punishment for being willing to do what’s wrong?


Duty. Mr. Jacks was making a final count of the English books that had been allocated to him for his English classes because some students can get quite upset when they don’t receive their textbooks on the first day of classes. Sure enough, the new vice principal, Ms. Bentley, had short-changed him of two copies of one of the novels. This was the second year that she had made a counting error. Enough already! He was sure she was shorting him whenever there was a shortage of books. This time he was not going to put up with it. He confronted her accusing her of deliberately short changing him whenever there was a shortage of books. Had he made a moral issue of what started as a non-moral issue? Was that immoral?

Rights. Ms. Bentley retorted, ‘I have a duty to allocate the textbooks … that gives me the right to allocate the books as best I can. Someone has to put up with textbook shortages. In any case, you won’t be using the novel where you are short of two copies till later in the year. We might be able to order those books before you need them.’ With that said, she returned to distributing books.

Motive. Mr. Jacks was not amused by Ms. Bentley’s terse response. He accused her of acting with indifference as to the wrongness of her action. ‘That’s immoral,’ he shot back.

Desert. Why did Mr. Jacks confront Ms. Bentley about this issue given that she was quite right about when he would be teaching that novel? He felt she needed an expression of disapproval because she apparently had short-changed his class quite deliberately. She seemed indifferent as to whether her actions were right or wrong.


  • How might Mr. Jacks and Ms. Bentley resolve the differences in their perception of each other’s motive?
  • Did Ms. Bentley deserve an expression of disapproval?
  • Discuss other situations where people use this kind of thinking.

You may want to discuss other dilemmas.

Consider this view about ‘willing to do wrong’

  • Crooked thinking

A person deserve punishment for being willing to do wrong for wrong’s sake.

  • Straight thinking

Normally such a person would only deserve an expression of disapproval. It should be noted, though, that conspiracy is not just a matter of willing to do wrong. It is an act of planning and organizing the infliction of objects of disinterest on other people.

Moral principle value tests

An application of the moral principle value tests probably illustrates most clearly what is entailed in evaluative reasoning. They are:

It is important to emphasize that the moral-value principle tests are not designed to resolve issues (guarantee right answers!) but to assess the ‘justification’ for moral value decisions.

To view the Dilemma from the perspective of Duty, Rights, Motives, Desert and Justice, click on the following:

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