A Question of Ethics: What Would You Do?
Below is a hypothetical situation that most of us have pondered. A tough dilemma for some and a slam dunk for others. We are interested in your thoughts. Thanks for reading.
One Week Worth
James has a family of two which include his wife and four year old son. He loves them both very much and would do anything to see to their well being. Given the recent events in Haiti, Thailand and most notably Japan, James has decided to prepare himself and his family for a natural disaster. Living in the Southern California area, he has focused his preparation for an earthquake and possible tsunami. In his home he keeps enough canned food and fresh water for his family to survive for at least one week. This week long time frame is about the length of time it would take for emergency services to come to grips with a major disaster and restore some form of normalcy. Various forms of equipment are included in his survival kit that include basic hand tools, water filters, sleeping bags and tents should the need to vacate his residence become a necessity. He has also instructed his wife to keep at least a half a tank of gas in her car at all times and that an emergency kit be kept in the car as well.
James has shared his efforts with close friends and has advised them to prepare themselves for a natural disaster along the same lines as he has taken. After all, it does not cost much and takes little imagination to prepare for the worst. The advice given by James is met with skepticism and is really not given much more thought by his friends.
On a Friday night at just past 10 PM the worst happens. An earthquake in the range of 8.7 hits the Southern California area. Subsequent to this a large tidal force makes its way to the coast of Southern California and Baja as the quake was centered off shore. After shutting of the gas and power lines to his house and making sure his family is safe and uninjured, James takes stock of the situation. The house is still standing and safe, emergency rations and equipment are undamaged and accessible and the cars are in perfect working order. Without power and without information, James turns on his battery powered radio and learns the magnitude of the quake and that the low lying areas off the coast have been flooded by a tsunami. Luckily, James and his family live on top of a mesa that overlooks the swelling seas. A few hours after the quake with candles burning, James looks at his sleeping family and counts his blessings. Just then a knock come at his front door. Rising to answer it, James expects to see a uniformed officer or fireman. Instead he is greeted by a close friend and his family. At the threshold, his friend tells him that his house was washed away in the flood and that he barely had time to throw his wife and child in the car and make it to high ground. This friend did not follow the advice about preparing for a natural disaster and came to James’ door for help. The friend knew that James was prepared and looked for a reprieve from the ensuing disaster. James told his friend that he had few supplies and that he should take his family to a shelter. James told him where the shelter was and told him to drive there as they could provide real relief and medical assistance. The friend came to James’ house with a car that had less gas in it than a lawn mower and barely made it to his front door. They would surely not make it the twenty miles inland to the nearest shelter. James’ friends asked for an open door and help.
Dilemma: Should James let his friend and his family into his home?
Given the situation, let us identify the people involved. James, his wife and four year old son along with his friend , his wife and three year old son. All of them have something to lose. There are no neighbors, police, rescue workers or resources of interested to speak of. Just the six of these players and the situation that they are in are all that are involved.
James has a few ways to look at this situation that could help guide him to making the right choice. From a teleological standpoint, this case has many variables that could be considered. Let us assume that James simply has food and supplies for his family for one week only and that for whatever reason outside help from anyone is absent for the period of one week. Also assume that no other help is available to his friend and his family in the immediate area. Given that James has the choice of either letting his friends in his home or turning them away.
If James lets his friends in a few things are going to happen. By doubling the amount of persons in his home to look after his food, water and supplies basically get cut by 50 percent. This means that his supply window has become three and one half days instead of the comfortable seven days. This could mean that after the fourth day he, his family and friends would be without food or water. While the adults could make it another three days without supplies the children certainly could not. Moreover, in their weakened condition on days four through seven, fighting off looters and taking care of unforeseen events could become difficult. While the entire unit would be flush with supplies for the first three days, the last four days would be met with hardship and possible death to some or all of the members. This option seems a tough path to follow as James prepared to take care of his family while the other family did not even with warnings from James.
Alternately, James could simply turn his friend and family away. This would mean that James and his family could comfortably survive until services were restored. However, shutting the door on his friend and family would mean that they would be out of doors on their own, on foot, with no food or water. With no real survival training and with a three year old child in tow, it would seem that they have little chance of making it twenty miles to the nearest aid station. In reality, James friend and his family would meet serious trials on their way to the aid station. These trials would most likely be too much for he and his family to handle. James knows that by closing his door to them that it would mean almost certain death for at least one member, if not all members, of his friend and family.
In this situation, given that James thinks that by closing his door to his friend and his family they would have a chance, it is important to explore what James is required to do by law. There really is no rule that says that James must open his door to his friend. All of the food, water and equipment that James has are his and he is free to do with them what he wants. No law forbids him from closing his door. He has the right to protect what is his and given the situation has the right to vigorously protect what is his. The concept of justice in this area is interesting though. James would, of course, hope that his friend would open his door if the tables were turned. With that, James advised his friend to prepare for such an event and asked for no favors. James really has done all he could for his friend up to this point. No debt is due to his friend. No favors to be cashed in.
James knows that he could simply shut his door to his friend. He knows that he is well within his rights to do so and knows that he would guarantee that his family would survive the next week. He also knows that his friend and his family would endure incredible hardship. James must now look into himself and demonstrate what kind of a man that he is. In this moment, all of the character of his being will be demonstrated.
By taking another look at the concept of justice, James’ could do a few things. Justice really is doing to others what they deserve. James warned his friend to take care of preparations in case of a disaster. He advised his friend that with just a little forethought and planning that he could provide for his family when the unthinkable happens. From this view point it is apparent that James’ friend is going to get what he deserves. On the other hand, it would be hard to imagine that he and his family deserve to be let out in the cold under such dire circumstances. He and his family would surely meet with hardships that most could not endure and it is very possible that someone could become hurt, injured or even die. James’ friend has done nothing to him that would warrant that type of justice. James’ friend and his family do not deserve to be put in a situation that could result in death.
However, is it justice for James to let these people into his home knowing full well that he is now putting his family in danger by cutting their supplies in half? James and his family deserve to be taken care of because preparations were made at no cost to anyone. James did it all on his own and took no favors.
In interesting aspect of this dilemma is that James believes in God. He is what most would call a religious man. James also knows that to be holy he must act as Jesus would have acted. James must also act as Jesus would because he wants to not because he has to. He also knows that his longing to be holy makes him accountable for his actions. James needs to act with moral purity (Hill, 26-28). A holy man trying to emulate Jesus would not turn his back on someone in need, especially a friend.
Love is another concept that James has to come to grips with. The people knocking on James’ door are friends. A positive relationship has been created between them. Closing his door to them would not be an act of love. James needs to take care of his friends not because he has to but because it would be an expression of love. Turning his friends away might cause them to meet with hardship and death. With that, James needs to be empathetic to his friends and imagine what it would be like to be standing outside in the middle of a disaster zone with your family (Hill, 53-56). No food, no water and only one hope. This hope is that you will let them in and take care of them.
What of the love for James’ family? James surely has love for his family. In this instance he prepared to take care of them. He took pains to make sure that they were safe in the face of an emergency. It would not seem a very loving thing to do to take three and a half days worth of food away from his family. Because by letting his friend in, that is what James will do. By expressing love for his friend and empathizing with his predicament, James must to consider the effect on his family. He must place himself in his families’ shoes and see things from their perspective. At once his family felt safe knowing that everything was taken care of and that they would survive this disaster. With the knock at the door the possibility of survival potentially just got cut in half. James’ family does not feel as safe as they did and James knows that. If James is to express love to his family he must take care of them. If James lets his friend in, he is placing his family in danger. Putting his family in harm’s way is no expression of love.
James faces another subject for thought when it comes to making a decision about what to do about his friends at the door. James knows that he has a duty to care for his family. He cares greatly for them and does whatever he needs to do to make sure they are safe. After all, they are the closest thing to him. Close to are his neighbors and friends. James must exhibit the same caring for his neighbors and friends that he does for his family. This ethics of care demands that James care for the well being of those near to him (Velasquez, 59-60). This includes his family, neighbors and friends. James’ character is made up of all the experiences in his life. His character is crafted by the inputs from his family, friends and neighbors. His character is defined by his religious beliefs. In ignoring the ethics of care in this situation, James is ignoring everything that he has learned in his life and the definitions of his character. James has a duty to care for those around him and failing that would be to fail his own character.
This ethics of care brings up an interesting question. Just how many friends and neighbors does James let into his home? There will come a point when all that he has prepared for will be consumed in just a few hours if he opens his doors to everyone. Knowing that his resources are finite James would have to make some choices. Is one neighbor better than another? Is one friend’s life worth more than another? How much food will he take out of his family’s mouth to feed those around him?
James could turn away everyone that comes to his door. He has the right and reason to. The more people that he lets into his home the less time his family has to survive. James is normally a caring and virtuous individual. He gives of himself and of his time to his friends, neighbors and family. He is also active in the community and always has a kind word to say to anyone he encounters. Thrust into the situation that he is in James rationalizes that in this situation that it is alright to show some cruelty with the excuse that if he cares and lets his friend in that it will take away from his family. Surely no one could fault him for that. Given the circumstances he is well in the right to turn his friend away and put his caring nature completely towards his family.
While this rational is not necessarily wrong, it does bring up the concept of dual morality. James is normally a caring and loving person for all people and things. As a God fearing man he knows that this reasoning for turning his friend and his family away is fundamentally flawed. He would demonstrate a dual morality by insisting that he is a caring man normally but in this instance he has the right not to be. This thinking is ethically flawed. If James is in fact a religious person then his dual morality is attacking the basis of his belief system (Hill, 71-74).
Weighing all of the facts together and looking at all of the pros and cons of this dilemma, James decides to let his friend and family in. This decision was not made lightly. From a cost benefit stand point only it is clear that by letting his friend in that James’ family would be put into danger. James also has no law stating that he must open his door to his friend. No disaster rule exists that makes it a duty of James to open his door as well. Rule of rights also tells James that his friend has no claim to his preparations as he did not help in the construction of this kit and that none of the equipment James has is borrowed from his friend and that his friend has no contractual right to any of James’ equipment. James also could claim that his friend is getting what he deserves by being left out of James home because his friend was advised to create a disaster kit and emergency plan.
However, James is a man of character. He knows that while a view of justice tells him that his friend would get what he deserves by not listening to James in the first place, he knows that his friend has done him no harm. His friend made no demands of James but simply asked for help. Looking at justice from another angle shows James that no one deserves to be put in a situation where severe hardship would be endured. James can see how by letting his friend find his own way is no justice at all.
Further, James decides that he needs to show an ethic of care here. He needs to ensure for the well being of those around him. These people are his friends and James is duty bound to take care of them. James also has a duty to his family as well. James must balance what he gives to his friend and what he needs to provide to his family. James decides that only the rations that were intended for him should go to his friend and his family. In this way James is taking care of his friend and taking care of his own family.
This rationing method also answers the question as to how many people James would ultimately let into his home. What if another friend or a stranger came calling for help? In that instance James can only give what he has. He can give from himself but cannot take from the mouths of his family.
The decision to let his friend in is also influenced by holiness. James is trying to walk in the same path that Jesus did. James is trying to emulate Him in as many ways as he can. James knows that Jesus would never turn away someone in need and especially a friend.
This holiness also brings up the question of dual morality. James knows that he is a caring man and that he cannot put that caring away in certain situations. By doing so, it would undermine the entire idea of ethical behavior. James stands on the pillars of holiness, justice and love. To act with a dual morality base would weaken the very foundation of what makes up James’ character and ethical thought (Hill, 16).
In the end James’ ethical dilemma comes down to a question of his character. Justice, holiness and love as well as an ethic of care outweigh the cost and rules in this case. James knows that his decision could save some lives, add comfort to a friend in need and will shape his entire ethical life. James is also showing a positive example to his family and to his friend. If everyone could learn by this example there would be much less pain and suffering in the world. In the end, it is just a few days of food that is coming out of James’ mouth. James can take comfort in knowing that his good deeds and ethical reasoning will keep him fully nourished during this dark time.
Hill, Alexander. Just Business. Second Edition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press., 2008
Velasquez, Manuel. Business Ethics Concepts and Cases. Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ
Pearson Education, Inc., 2006