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If An Unethical Or Illegal Act Yields Positive Societal Results, Is The Act Necessarily Bad?

As a college basketball player (many years ago), I organized a Make-A-Wish Foundation fundraiser for a local fan with a serious medical issue. (Good news 20+ years later the individual is doing relatively well).

Recently, Frank Shankwitz (the inspiration behind the Make-A-Wish Foundation) passed away at 77. According to this article [1], after granting the first “wish,” Shankwitz ran into hurdles when trying to grant the second “wish.” The article states:

“The second wish he and his colleagues granted involved a visit to Disneyland. Calling from Arizona, Mr. Shankwitz (a motorcycle officer with the Arizona Highway Patrol,) had trouble finding anyone at Disneyland to listen to his request for help. Finally, he called back and pretended he had a warrant for a Disney employee’s arrest. That caught the attention of a senior person, who took the call. Mr. Shankwitz admitted he had lied about the warrant. Then he made his plea. Disneyland came through with full cooperation. “Sometimes you have to cheat a little bit,” Mr. Shankwitz said after telling that story in a speech several years ago.”

Today, Make-A-Wish Foundation has 64 chapters in the United States and 36 internationally and has delivered more than 500,000 “wishes” to critically ill children.

The above story raises the question: if an unethical or illegal act yields positive societal results, is the act necessarily bad?

Consider the following example.

Below is a satellite image of two communities “A” and “B.”

Although not visible on the image per se,  Community “A” has a population of 75,000 and Community “B” has a population of 50,000.

Yet as the image indicates, the communities are separated by a river and there is no bridge over the river. Because of this, there is little commerce or contact between members of the community and their lives are generally impoverished.

The leading public official of community “A” has a plan to solicit bids for the constructing of a multi-million, state-of-the-art bridge over the river, but the corrupt person he is, he will only allow the bridge to be constructed if he personally receives $1 million.

The bridge is ultimately constructed, the public official receives $1 million from the construction company selected to build the bridge, and because of the bridge, commerce and contact between individuals in communities “A” and “B” greatly expands and their lives improve.

All things considered, was this bribe bad or good?

During Congress’s multi-year deliberation of what would become the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, it was noted:

“Corporate bribery abroad is not the simple, safe issue it seems at first blush. […]  [T]here will be countless situations in which a fair-minded investigator or judge will be hard-put to determine whether a particular payment or practice is a legitimate and permissible business activity or a means of improper influence […]  Reasonable [persons] and even angels will differ on the answers to these and similar questions. At the very least such distinctions should make us less sweeping in our judgments and less confident of our solutions.”