Blogs & Comment

The ethics of buying the alleged Rob Ford 'crack cocaine' video: Chris MacDonald

Do the ends justify the means?

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (Michelle Siu/Canadian Press)

You might as well stop feeling queazy about efforts at crowdfunding the purchase of the video that allegedly shows Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. After all, you’re going to watch the video, aren’t you?

The crowdfunding efforts (and there are at least two of them) have been the source of endless amusement, and almost as much controversy as the reported existence of the crack-smoking video itself. After all, while the video purports to show an important public official engaging in criminal activity, buying the video from the drug dealers who currently possess it would mean, well, doing business with drug dealers.

We can start to get a grip on this as an ethical issue by looking at it from the perspectives of both ends and means. The end or goal being sought by those trying to buy the tape is, arguably, an important one. If Ford has a crack habit, this is important, since it speaks to whether he is fit to be mayor. Doubt has already arisen about Ford’s suitability for office: among other worries, the mayor’s ethical failings and erratic behaviour are well documented.

So the ends here might be worthy. What about the means? Well, the proposed means by which to reveal the truth about Rob Ford involve associating with (or at least doing business with) drug dealers. This, in itself, is probably regrettable. Of course, buying a video from drug dealers is not quite like buying crack from them, but still. When you do business with certain types, the taint can’t help but rub off. But then, it’s a one-off deal, not the forming of a long-term business relationship.

So perhaps we can say that the deal, if it happens, would be merely unseemly, rather than fully unethical. And that’s an important distinction. Too often the question gets posed as “Is this ethical?” when what would be more useful is to ask “Just how bad is this?” We shouldn’t think of these things in binary terms. It’s OK to be vaguely uncomfortable with a course of action, as long as we ask ourselves why.

In the end, avoiding the all-or-nothing judgment is pretty important in a case like this, because it’s very unlikely that many of us (in Toronto, at least) will keep our hands clean. The option most of us will choose is to let Gawker or someone else get their hands dirty—let them do the crowdsourcing, buy the tape, and so on—and then cackle with glee at the results in the privacy of our own homes.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management