A Philosopher's Blog

Bounty Hunting

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on August 27, 2012
A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Three of my favorite westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and the Good, the Bad and the Ugly) feature a bounty hunter as the main character. I also have been playing a bounty hunter in Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. In addition to these purely fictional bounty hunters, the American Wild West saw its share of real-life bounty hunters and even today some folks still follow that profession.

For those who are unfamiliar with bounty hunting, the basic idea is that the authorities offer a reward for the capture (or death) of someone that they regard as being in need of capture (or killing). The targets, who are often “wanted dead or alive” according to Hollywood lore, are typically criminals.

As might be imagined, the practice of bounty hunting is sometimes regarded as morally dubious. After all, the classic bounty hunter is not an official agent of the state and is essentially being unleashed on another citizen who very well merely be wanted. Of course, in areas in which law enforcement is somewhat lacking, posting bounties can make good sense. After all, in addition to encouraging the capture of alleged evil-doers it also focuses the attention of others who are inclined to live by the gun on these evil-doers. As such, there is a double-benefit: a bad guy probably gets captured (or killed) and other potentially bad folks are kept busy hunting them. In the actual American Wild West, many of the folks who engaged in bounty hunting (and law enforcement) were sometimes on the wrong side of the law themselves. As such, old style bounty hunting could be potentially justified on utilitarian grounds—having rough people busy hunting bad people could have good consequences for society.

While this sort of bounty hunting is certainly fascinating, there is also another type of bounty hunting that has arisen on the digital frontier of the wired west. To be specific, software companies have sometimes offered rewards to hackers who can find ways to hack their software. While such bounties are sometimes offered as public relations stunts (the idea being that if a company offers a big reward to hack their software, then the public is supposed to believe that it is secure) they are increasingly being used to actually test software.

For example, Google has started offering fairly lucrative bounties for hackers who can find and exploit weakness in Google Chrome. Google has done this before and has even posted what has been learned (after the problems have been fixed, of course).

From a practical standpoint, this practice makes excellent sense. After all, while a company would have to pay the bounty, having a person hack their software in a contest for the bounty is generally more desirable than having someone hack their software “in the wild.” Such a wild hack could cost the company and its customers and hence such bounties can actually be seen as a good investment. It also has the advantage of keeping hackers busy, at least for a while.

From a moral standpoint, this approach also has merit. While companies are doing this to protect their software, reputation, profits and customers, they are providing hackers with an incentive to use their talents for good (in general, unless the software is for evil purposes). While paying people to do good does raise some moral concerns, it does seem preferable to paying people to do evil and is perhaps preferable to not motivating people to do something good. From the standpoint of someone who uses the software in question, these bounties should seem like a very good idea—after all, they might save uses from having their personal information stolen or other problems.

Companies, such as Google, who share the problems and their fixes with others also seem to be doing something that is both practical and commendable. From a practical standpoint, having less vulnerability in software is a boon for all honest users and developers. From a moral standpoint, aiding the community seems laudable.

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8 Responses

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  1. weventer said, on August 27, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Nice post. Bounty hunting and paying people to hack systems are on two very different levels of morality though. Unlike software hacking, ‘hunting’ people cannot be justified morally. Now, you may say that these are criminals being hunted and they have probably hurt other people. If you support this view, as a utilitarian, you are disregarding a person’s right to life. Hurting someone (particularly killing) cannot be justified on the grounds of ‘well-he-did-it-too’.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      I would agree that law enforcement is probably left to the police rather than hired guns.

  2. Tony Suggs said, on August 28, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Todays “bounty hunters” are hired to go after bail bond skips or failures to appear. Law enforcement usually do not have enough resources to go after all those that skipped out on their court dates.

    The biggest difference is we don’t bring them back dead or alive. Its always alive and with out any drama like what is shown on tv or in movies.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm

      True-real life is rarely as dramatic or awesome as portrayed on TV or in the movies.

      • WTP said, on August 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm

        Or in college classrooms, for that matter.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2012 at 5:43 pm

          True. Those opulent faculty offices and super classrooms are not the reality at most schools.

          • T. J. Babson said, on August 30, 2012 at 8:49 pm

            What about the hot girls throwing themselves at their middle aged philosophy professor?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 31, 2012 at 9:37 am

              Oh, that is real. If you replace “themselves” with “rocks.” :)


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