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Dobbers: heroes or community wreckers?

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2007

To dob or not to dob? That’s the question weighing on the minds of many Australians as they observe some of their neighbours shamelessly flaunt tough water restrictions to preserve their lawns and gardens.

Many people are taking the “I don’t want to get involved approach” in order to not risk disrupting neighbourhood harmony. But equally prevalent are rule worshippers who speed-dial the 000 operator the moment a neighbour’s lawn gets a tinge of green.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there is NO legal duty to report even the most heinous crimes, let alone the odd watery indulgence. Nor can dobbing be justified on the grounds that not to dob is to condone the illegality. Usually there is a world of difference between breaking the law and not reporting a breach of the law. That’s why we are not fined for failing to report people who zoom past us on the highways.


Thus the dobbing dilemma isn’t as simple as that rule violators deserve to be punished. They often do, but that doesn’t mean anyone has a responsibility to dob them in. That’s a personal choice.

There is no clear framework to guide us through the dobbing dilemma. Yet, ethics can lead us in the right direction.

The bad news for dobbers is that their lack of commitment to the task makes us question their real motivation. The police switchboard rarely lights up as a result of motorists who park illegally or pedestrians who run the traffic gauntlet and cross against the lights. Even the most fanatical of rule worshippers normally let such acts slide under their radar.

However, they normally can’t resist calling the dob-in line in relation to acts that potentially inconvenience them. What so irks many water dobbers is that their neighbour’s over-indulgence could lead to their own water supply dwindling down the track. Thus dobbing is often motivated by self-interest, rather than having anything to do with a wider sense of moral or civic duty.

Still, the motivation behind an act is rarely decisive of its moral status. In the end consequences matter most and there is little doubt that rule-obsessed neighbours promote greater observance of the law.

Empirical studies have demonstrated that the greatest deterrent to crime is not the size of the penalty but the perceived risk of detection if a law is broken. Watchful neighbours are, in effect, a civilian police force and assist in reducing the frequency of breaches of the law.


Even if they are doing it for themselves, there is no doubt that it is a good thing that more and more people are observing water restrictions and keeping the reservoir levels in their functional range.

Yet, not dobbing also has its upside. It is a concession to human frailty and contribution to community spirit.

Human relationships function most efficiently and effectively in situations of trust and acceptance. This requires a degree of understanding and behavioural latitude.

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A version of this was in The Age on May 8, 2007.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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