The Ethics of Buying a Mayor’s Crack Cocaine Video

roll_of_cashYou 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 2 of them) have been the cause of no end of 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. Suspicions have already arisen, shall we say, about Ford’s suitability for office: among other worries, the mayor’s ethical failings, not to mention his 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 involves 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. That’s not being wishy-washy. That’s being reasonable.

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 crowd-sourcing, buy the tape, and so on — and then cackle with glee at the results in the privacy of our own homes.

7 comments so far

  1. Urs Mueller on

    Hi Chris,

    From far away Europe two comments to this post and the interesting underlying moral issue:

    1) Your blog constantly assumes that there is in fact such a video. The mayor – whom I had never heard of before reading your blog – might in fact be a dubious character. But even then: shouldn’t the presumption of innocence also hold true for him?

    2) With respect to your considerations about crowd-funding the money to buy the video – if it exists – I would like to add one little thought: Buying the video from drug dealers is in fact far more than just doing business with a criminal/a person who we might condemn ethically/morally. There is a difference between buying such a video or buying something else from the very same drug dealer. The video is a side effect of the illegal/immoral activities of the drug dealer – and was possibly even taken in order to blackmail the mayor. So the video itself would be directly linked to the illegal and immoral activities of a drug dealer. And this is fundamentally different from – lets say – buying a used car from the same person (assuming that the drug dealer legally owned the car). So for me there is a strong argument against buying the video. From my perspective the end doesn’t justify the means in this case.

    But how about this case – that is widely debated here in Germany: Prosecutors did repeatedly buy CDs with data on people committing tax evasion in Germany. Individuals working for banks in low-tax heavens such as Switzerland stole the respective data from banks they were working for and offered the data to German authorities. Frequently they were paid millions of euros, which was financially profitable for the German tax authorities (they managed to collect more on taxes and penalties than they paid for the CDs). But there is a debate whether the government can/should buy such CDs because they are clearly the result of a criminal/illegal act (theft of data/violation of data security etc.). In this case the interesting data is also clearly linked to a criminal act – but (different from the mayor’s case) the person committing the criminal act is not (necessarily) permanently / repeatedly involved in committing such violations.

    Anyway: A very interesting case. Thanks for sharing!


    • Chris MacDonald on



      I assume there’s a video (at least tentatively) because reliable witnesses have seen the video. The presumption of guilt can be defeated: you’re only presumed innocent until someone provides evidence that you’re not. The attempt to purchase the video is an attempt to verify it.

      The comparison with prosecutors obtaining data on tax-dodgers is interesting, but I don’t think compelling. For a start, in those cases prosecutors were getting people to betray their own duties and to break the law in ways in which they otherwise would not have. Also, the fact that it is a public authority doing so is an additional sinister element. Neither of those is there in the Rob Ford case.


  2. John on

    I think it’s really unethical from journalists to ask for the money from the people, to pay some drug dealers for the tape. It’s a sort of manipulation, when you offer them this kind of intriguing news. People love scandals, it’s a known fact and journalists (the bad kind) use this all the time. But this isn’t just about the news, scandals and journalism. This has grown into something bigger and more serious since Gawker lost contact with the tape owners. They now mean to give the money to charity if the transaction fails. Is this fair to the donors? Do they agree. No one asked them actually. This is quite unethical too, but no one talks about it. Just as LSM insurance suggests, what Gawker really should be doing is giving the money back to the backers if the video cannot be purchased. They can decide for themselves if they want to donate to charity. Because if Gawker does this alone, who is going to get the tax deductions? Did people think about that?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Actually, Gawker was quite up-front about what Plan B was for the money, namely giving it to charity.

  3. Alyssa Bridge on

    This video raises many ethical issues especially relating to the perspective of ends and means. In ethics we ask ourselves do the means justify the ends or do the ends justify the means? In this situation the ends will determine if the mayor truly does have a drug habit and if so is he truly fit to be the mayor? The mayor needs to think of about the consequences of his actions in terms of is his actions ethically right. The mayor probably did not think about the consequences of smoking crack on camera. In this situation the means do not justify the ends if the video is true. The mayor would be considered to be a poor representation of Canada and a poor reflection on all the people who live there. On the other hand looking at the situation from the other perspective people trying to purchase the video from “drug dealers” does this justify the ends? If the video is purchased and proven to be the mayor then the focus will be on what was done not the consequences. A utilitarian may believe that purchasing the video from the drug deals may benefit the greater good because then the truth will be revealed and consequences will be distributed fairly.

  4. Nakia Smith on

    In a situation like this I understand why the author feels one should focus on consequentialism and think about both the means and the ends. However it could be argued that obtaining the tape is an act of utilitarianism because the act would be deemed recommendable. Making the public aware of the tape would decrease the unhappiness a community would feel if funds were misappropriated because of a drug problem by the Mayor. It is that person’s duty to themselves as well as their duty to be honest to the rest of the community. Then the community has the right to freedom to do as they please fit with voting him in or out.

  5. Brandi Hudson on

    This situation is not a easy decision to make and like the author said both sides can be seen as the right decision. From a utilitarian stand point, the greater good served being the Toronto public and having a mayor that is not performing his duties properly makes them unhappy. Unveiling the tape would essentially make them happy, because it would cause for them to have him replaced with a more deserving candidate. Another way of looking at this would be an altruist stand point which would require the Mayor to resign without the embarrassment of a tape being revealed therefore allowing for the public to be appeased by his act of selflessness. Either way someone has to make a decision, and I can see that crowd surfers are determined to make a decision which some would look at as unfavorable, but for the greater good of the people, will be outweighed by the removal of someone who is not up to par.

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