Burn Notice, Leverage and the Virtue of Con Artists

In his otherwise excellent post on politics and virtue, Constant observes:

A thief is actually a bad person. A thief is morally corrupted. A vandal is morally corrupted. A con artist is morally corrupted. These are bad people.

I realize that this is a bit of a throwaway line, and as a general observation, it's undoubtedly true. There are, of course, exceptions, the clearest of which often appear in fiction (Robin Hood is arguably a non-corrupt thief and V's vandalism is not obviously villainous). Con artists, however, are a bit trickier. In general, they are often the worst of the bunch, frequently preying upon the weakest members of society. As it happens, though, pop culture provides us with a couple of recent examples of possibly-virtuous con artists.

Indeed, the central conceit of TNT's Leverage is that of con men looking out for the little guy. Timothy Hutton's Nathan and his team right some of the world's wrongs by targeting the wealthy and corrupt. And, of course, this being TV land, "wealthy" and "corrupt" are more-or-less synonymous. The Leverage team concocts elaborate scams that end with bad guys getting dragged away in handcuffs and the good guys siphoning off money which they then distribute to those who really need it.

Except when they don't. As Kyle Smith observed over at Culture11, Nathan feels no compunction about keeping some of the swindled cash to buy himself a $100,000 Tesla Roadster. Never mind that the money came via the U.S. government (aka, lots and lots of taxpayers who might have liked to, you know, have it back.) And the Leverage team's scam to short "Bering" Airlines stock ultimately screws over a whole lot of ordinary 401k portfolios.

See, the problem is that while Leverage's writers clearly intend the gang to be an updated Robin Hood, their intentions are done in by their rather unsophisticated understanding of the complexity of the modern economy. Robin Hood stole money from wealthy aristocrats who got that wealth by squeezing it from peasants. So when Robin gives back to the poor, he's just returning ill-gotten gains to the people from which it was taken in the first place. In targeting corporations (even corrupt ones), however, the gang isn't taking money and giving it back to the people from whom it was taken. Rather, they take wealth from some people who got it illicitly while in the process harming a bunch of totally innocent bystanders and then give their gains to a totally different set of people. The Leverage gang reminds me less of Robin Hood and more of the protagonist from one of the great B-movies of all time:

Princess Evie: Oh, so you rob from the rich, and give to the poor?

Deathstalker: No, I rob from the rich, and pretty much keep it for myself.

A more promising example of a virtuous con man is Michael Weston of USA's Burn Notice, a show that's one part MacGyver, two parts Miami Vice, and a sprinkling of Bruce Campbell for seasoning. The show's main story arc revolves around former-spy Weston's attempts to discover who "burned" his cover. But each episode features a Helpless Sap of the Week, someone whose own stupidity, naive credulity and/or desperation has resulted in an unscrupulous bad guy taking advantage. Michael and his friends (mostly Bruce and the alarmingly-skinny Gabrielle Anwar) then target the bad guys with a scam that results in the bad guys going to jail and the HSOTW getting his/her money and/or life back.

But where Burn Notice's cons differ from those of the Leverage crew is that the victims of Michael's cons have harmed specific individuals. And his pursuit of his victims is aimed largely at restoring the status quo ante. Or, rather, his scams mostly end up restoring the victim of the original scam back to the status quo ante while leaving the bad guys in jail. Last week's "Do No Harm," for example, found Michael and company conning a trio who had been running a modern snake oil scam. By the end of the episode, the family had its money back to use on a real treatment and the woman running the scam had called the cops and confessed her crime.

What's the upshot here? I'd argue that Michael Weston is pretty unambiguously a virtuous con artist. The Leverage crew, not so much. But don't try to take too much from any of this. Real-world versions of virtuous thieves, vandals and con artists are extremely rare. But the existence of fictional examples is, quite possibly, sufficient to show a fundamental weakness of virtue ethics, namely, that it's awfully tricky to detach an evaluation of someone's character from his or her intentions.

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The right of self defense

The right of defense of the self and of the innocent means simply the right to do evil things to evil people. To be more precise, it is the right to do, to evil people, things which, had they been done to innocent people, would have been evil.

An example of self-defense is shooting someone who is trying to kill you. Shooting someone, when done to an innocent person, is evil. So when you shoot someone in self-defense, then you are doing something to a guilty person which, had you done it to an innocent person, would have been evil.

We can extend the right to self defense to the right to defend the innocent. This includes shooting people, lying to people, conning people, taking people's possessions - it includes the whole lot of it. Everything bad has the potential to become good when performed against a guilty person in defense of the self or of the innocent.

All you seem to be saying in your comment is that we have the right of self-defense and the right to defend the innocent. And you seem to be implying that I have failed to take this into account. On the contrary. The right of self defense goes without saying, and went without saying in all my comments. Nothing I have written should be construed as excluding the right of self defense.

Indeed, the central conceit of TNT's Leverage is that of con men looking out for the little guy.

They are exercising their right to defend the innocent - in fact, in most episodes it is the right of self-defense, since they are acting as the agents of the innocents. In the latest episode they went ahead and defended 400 people whose homes had been fraudulently taken, only one of whom actually sought their help, so that is arguably an exercise of the right to defend the innocent.

And the Leverage team's scam to short "Bering" Airlines stock ultimately screws over a whole lot of ordinary 401k portfolios.

Generally speaking I am not happy with the anti-capitalist tone of Leverage. However, I do not actually believe what they did here was wrong. But it has been too long since that episode. I am not prepared to argue the point.

But each episode features a Helpless Sap of the Week, someone whose own stupidity, naive credulity and/or desperation has resulted in an unscrupulous bad guy taking advantage. Michael and his friends (mostly Bruce and the alarmingly-skinny Gabrielle Anwar) then target the bad guys with a scam that results in the bad guys going to jail and the HSOTW getting his/her money and/or life back.

Another exercise of the right to defend the innocent.

But the existence of fictional examples is, quite possibly, sufficient to show a fundamental weakness of virtue ethics, namely, that it's awfully tricky to detach an evaluation of someone's character from his or her intentions.

On the contrary, I don't think that this provides any challenge whatsoever for any ethical theory that takes as a given the right of defense of the self and of the innocent. All you have done here is misconstrued my statement. I wrote:

A thief is actually a bad person. A thief is morally corrupted. A vandal is morally corrupted. A con artist is morally corrupted. These are bad people.

It goes without saying and I had already on multiple occasions previously pointed out that the right of self defense consists precisely in the right to do to bad people that which would have been bad had it been done to an innocent. I brought this up, for example, a little while ago when someone claimed that according to Kant, it would have been wrong to lie to a Nazi looking for hidden Jews. I expressed my astonishment and doubt that Kant was actually so dimwitted on this point.

Not Intended as Criticism

I wasn't actually thinking of this post as a criticism of anything you'd really said in your initial post. Indeed, in one of your comments to the initial post, you made it clear that you're not a virtue theorist and that you weren't trying to offer a VT-style account of character. I'm sorry that it wasn't clearer that I wasn't aiming this at you, particularly. I was just using your line as a jumping-off point, as that's what got me thinking about the issue in the first place.

You're certainly right that a Kantian (though possibly not Kant himself; his "On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns" really does explicitly reject the morality of lying to the murderer at the door) could offer a very different defense of good con artists. I've no real quibbles with the one that you offer here, in fact.

Indeed, the only thing I'd take issue with is this:

But the existence of fictional examples is, quite possibly, sufficient to show a fundamental weakness of virtue ethics, namely, that it's awfully tricky to detach an evaluation of someone's character from his or her intentions.

On the contrary, I don't think that this provides any challenge whatsoever for any ethical theory that takes as a given the right of defense of the self and of the innocent.

You're certainly right that those examples don't pose any particular problem for "any ethical theory that takes as a fiven the right of defense of the self and of the innocent." But that's a bit of a non sequitur, as such a theory isn't going to be part of what's commonly understood as virtue ethics. You're articulating a deontological claim, one that focuses on an account of what makes particular actions wrong. "Virtue ethics" (which is a bit of a technical term, albeit one that's not all that well defined in the literature) replaces the post-Enlightenment focus on actions with a more classical focus on character and (as the name implies) virtues.

The virtue ethicist relies upon tradition (in some form or other) to inform our understanding of virtuous character traits and then judges individuals based upon how well their actions conform to a virtuous character. Intentions don't really play that much of a role in standard VT-readings of character. So someone like Michael Weston is a challenge for a virtue ethicist. Weston is much less of a challenge for deontologists like you, who are concerned with making sure that actions don't violate particular side-constraints. And he's not a challenge at all for consequentialists, who don't really give a flip about methods, so long as the consequences work out well.

V's vandalism is not

V's vandalism is not obviously villainous

Verily.

Nueve reinas amd The Sting both feature (arguably) virtuous con artists.