Monday, October 12, 2009

Ethical dilemmas

This is my column today.

At the height of the flooding in Pangasinan, hundreds of people were trapped inside the SM City in Rosales. Parts of the mall itself were submerged in floodwater and as can be expected, goods were floating around— obviously many of them hardly usable and practically worthless already because of water damage—and many found their way out of the building.

If you were a security guard or an ordinary worker inside the mall and you know that these goods would eventually be declared as losses anyway, would you start throwing these goods out of the building in the hope that some people would be able to salvage them and derive some benefit from them? And if you were an ordinary onlooker and you see these goods floating around, would you start picking them up and carting them away for personal use?

As it turned out, there were security guards and mall workers who did find ways to push the floating and therefore damaged goods out of the building. And many people from neighboring areas were caught on camera salvaging these goods, some of them helping themselves to the shopping carts and loading these with all kinds of waterlogged goods. Of course some people were also caught on camera not doing anything, simply content with being onlookers.

The situation seemed like a standard case study in ethics. Another interesting aspect of the situation was the behavior of media people who were reporting on the calamity in the area. Sensing a potential human-interest story, some reporters swooped into the area and started to train their cameras on the people who were carting off with the goods. The slant of the reporting was quite provocative: There was immediate insinuation that looting was happening in the mall.

This was evident in the way they framed the questions that they asked of the people seen carting off with the goods, which were quite accusatory. Some of the people looked embarrassed, others responded nonchalantly but they all had the same response: They were simply picking them up from the flood around the mall. Some people volunteered the information that security guards and people inside the mall were throwing the goods out of the building. What was even more interesting was that despite the information gathered from previous interviewees, the reporters still asked the same accusatory questions of the rest. In short, they continued to insinuate that the people were up to no good and were probably guilty of looting the mall.

There are many stories of this nature that found their way into various media channels. Some people bemoaned the fact that at the height of the flood brought by storm Ondoy, the pigs and chickens from various piggeries and poultry farms in Bulacan that were washed away by the flood were seen being snatched up by people along the waterways. In Dagupan City, there were reports of people scooping up milkfish from overflowing fishpens.

Like I said, these situations are variations of the famous Kohlberg cases that are standard fare in management classes, one of the most celebrated being the plotline of Viktor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Would you steal a loaf of bread to save starving children on the brink of death? They represent ethical dilemmas.

Oh, I have no doubt that some form of deliberate and premeditated looting did happen in certain cases. However, given the fact that the goods were in all probability going to be declared as losses anyway, and in the case of the pigs and chicken in Bulacan most likely unable to survive and therefore die in the flood, wasn’t it better that these be salvaged by others who, theoretically, could derive some benefits from doing so?

But the question that begs to be answered is: Why are we so quick to suspect the worse of other people even in the face of a calamity? We hear of stories of bravery and courage, of heroism and selflessness. But we also tend to balance these off with stories of thievery and fraud.

These were evident during the relief efforts for the victims of storm Ondoy in Metro Manila. Many stories of people in positions of power or influence appropriating relief goods for their own constituents, of people supposedly using their influence to distribute advantages to benefit people they know rather than those who really needed help the most. The knee-jerk reaction of many people seemed mainly framed from the point of view of rigid morality rather than a more comprehensive assessment of the various elements in the picture.

The parish priest of the church where I attend mass shared during his Sunday homily what he thought was a horrifying instance of selfishness and lack of discipline of certain people. He and some parishioners were on their way to visit a depressed area in Cainta, Rizal to distribute relief goods. They were stopped along the way to their original destination by scores of people who insisted that the relief goods be given to them because they haven’t received any relief yet. They ended up retreating and donating the goods they were carrying to the relief programs of some media networks. The good priest bemoaned the fact that they weren’t able to do their charity work. He was very convinced that the people who stopped them along the way were opportunists; people who were depriving those who were in real dire need from receiving aid.

I wanted to protest and point out that it was also possible that those people who were being condemned as thieves and opportunitists were probably in dire need themselves already driven by desperation. The point seemed lost on the priest.

One of the sad realities during tragedies and catastrophes is that very often the ethical dilemmas that people in positions of power face when making certain decisions are not subjected to rational and objective analysis. Most of us are just quick to subject the decisions using our own subjective moral yardsticks.

Ethical dilemmas are difficult to manage particularly in the area of public administration precisely because of the stakes involved. This was painfully evident in the way certain people have been making quick judgments on the decision of the administrators of those dams to release water when the critical levels were reached. Releasing water from the dams brought flooding to many areas but the large-scale consequences that would have been wrought on the areas had those dams been breached are even more unthinkable.

Should American soldiers be allowed to participate in relief efforts in this great hour of need despite the threat that doing so legitimizes their presence in the country? Should the interests of politicians be allowed to piggyback on relief efforts particularly those of government and media networks? Is it acceptable for government to insist that businesses take on losses at this time through price control mechanisms that often put businesses at a disadvantage?

Clearly, there is a need to bring the discussions to the level of more rational analysis. True, integrity and morality are important components that need to be seriously considered. But so are accountability and responsiveness. Even legality. The problem is that many among us don’t look at ethical dilemmas as problem-solving situations that encompass not just moral (i.e., integrity) issues but legal and social issues as well. And very often, the issue of responsiveness clouds the situation particularly when urgency becomes the order of the day. We probably need to be reminded once again that what constitute the greater good are not always clear-cut and one-dimensional.

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