Obligatory or permissive snitching?

Randy has an interesting question to answer this week. Yes, it's time to revive that feature of this website after its long hiatus. The question, in general form, is what one should do to cause someone else to comply with a law when one believes that a) the activity which the law prohibits is properly prohibited but b) the penalty which will enacted upon the lawbreaker if the proper authorities are informed is disproportionate to the seriousness of the offense. There are many possible instances of this, from thinking that someone who stole from you shouldn't get the jail time that you believe they would, wanting someone to cease the use of some illegal drug or another but again opposing jail time for it, to the actual example in the Ethicist column of wanting a bar to stop people from smoking but thinking that the fine is too high.

It makes the overall question somewhat less interesting, but I just want to clarify the Ms. Klencheski's factual claim that she, "do[esn't] want to burden a local business with a heavy fine." According to The Smoke-Free Air Act, NYC Administrative Code ยง17-508(e) a first violation would incur a fine between $200-$400. This is certainly serious, but doesn't strike me as particularly disproportionate if one grants the propriety of laws prohibiting smoking in bars in the first place. But let's say that is disproportionate. The best thing she can do, other than Randy's advice of just talking to them and noting that smoking at the bar makes her not want to attend, is to organize other customers to do the same. This might convince the bar operators that's it in their best interest to prohibit smoking, irrespective of the law.

Randy is too quick to concede that she only needs to put off calling the police, rather than not calling them all together. There may be cases where its unethical to inform the authorities of a violation of the law, and if one is worried about this it's worth finding out what the actual penalty is. One might for instance think that informing the police of the drug posession of another is unethical under current law, even if one thinks that criminalizing drug use and imposing some lesser penalty would be proper.

I'm out of practice on these ethicist pieces, this is bizarrely rambling and I haven't given an answer. I agree with Randy, it would be fine for her to inform the proper authorities (The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene), and I don't think it's even ethically important, rather than just prudentially useful, for her to take intermediate steps before going to the authorities. Also, mental hygiene is a pretty disturbing phrase, I wonder if some political candidate can make hay out of running on abolishing the Mental Hygiene department, when they're actually planning on just renaming it.