Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
Part II. Selected Cases
by Lisa Newton

Case 6

[Note: portraits that might be regarded by some as racial stereotypes are deliberately employed in this case to draw attention to problematic, and very real, interracial perceptions.]

Janet Fellowes had just been appointed interim commissioner for Human Rights in New York City when an unprecedented case came to her attention. It was a pair of simultaneous protests, one from each side of disputed situation in Brooklyn. Rev. Robert Washington was protesting, on behalf of a 32-year old woman, a member of his congregation, that the employees of a Korean grocery had abused the woman, accused her of shoplifting, and thrown her out of the store. The congregation, in indignant response, had announced a boycott of the store and thrown up a picket line around it. Now Rev. Washington wanted the Human Rights Commission to make a full investigation of the racial policies of Koreans in Brooklyn. On the other side, Mr. Lee Kuan Kew, owner of that grocery, was protesting, on behalf of himself and his employees, that the picket line of African American citizens of the neighborhood was illegally interfering with his business by intimidating his customers, and he wanted them banned from the area. Naturally, he denied that any abuse of any customers had taken place. Janet decided to investigate further.

The matter turned out to have little to do with one allegedly abused customer. It had a lot to do with the mutual perceptions of African American and Korean communities. As the African Americans saw it, that neighborhood was theirs, the only place they could afford to live, the place where the city had stuck them. The only way out of that neighborhood was to be successful in something, to make money. And that was very hard to do. One traditional way of making money was to run the small stores that neighborhood residents like to patronize. The store owned by the Koreans had once been owned by African Americans, who had gone out of business. Matter of fact, most of the stores in that area had at one time been owned by African Americans, and were now owned by aliens--Koreans, Vietnamese, Chaldeans or others from the Middle East. The African Americans knew that those foreigners would take their coin, and make money, and get out of that neighborhood, and that not one penny they took in would be turned back to enrich the Black community. They were not sure just what economic forces led to this development, but they knew they wanted the situation reversed. To add insult to injury, they claimed, the Koreans show complete contempt for their neighbors and customers, avoiding eye contact, refusing to engage in friendly conversation, disdainfully filling the bags and shoving them at the customers. This is racism rampant, argued their leaders, and has to be stopped.

The Koreans, for their part, simply recited back to her the familiar text of the American Dream: they came over here, legally, they worked with relatives until they had some money of their own, then with the help of those relatives bought this small store. The whole family, children and all when not in school or doing homework, work in the store. They start at three in the morning, going to the big central markets to get their fresh produce. They work very hard keeping the store clean, and safe, and all the produce beautiful. And they don't charge very much money. When she asked them about the "complete contempt" the Blacks had noticed, the Koreans were puzzled; they respected their customers, very much, and were always very polite.

In consultation with her superiors, Janet learned that part of the issue was simple misunderstanding. In the Korean contexts from which the Kuans had come, making eye contact with customers and engaging them in conversation was regarded as bold and impolite; the Blacks were probably not aware of that and the Koreans had had no chance to learn American ways. But the issue was a lot deeper than that. A member of the City Council had suggested that certain areas of the city be designated "African American Enterprise Areas," where special tax breaks and Small Business Administration assistance would be available for small businesses run by African Americans, in an attempt to cultivate that kind of expertise in their population. Would Janet consider recommending that to the city?

How should Janet proceed at this time?

Case 7

The staff of the Mary Eddy Nursing Home had come to the end of their collective ropes on the case of Mrs. Satterthwaite. She was 62 years old, strong as a bull, and perfectly healthy--except for the Alzheimer's Disease. She was a "wanderer"--she liked her freedom, and she liked to use her freedom to get out of the Home, every once in awhile, just to take a walk. When she did, of course, she terrified the neighborhood and got herself totally lost. Once she had been gone for nine hours, and had got so cold that she contracted pneumonia, from which she recovered promptly. What should they do about her?

  1. Let her wander? Respect her freedom, let her make her own choices? Next time she'd hurt herself, or someone else. Abroad, she was a public nuisance; and legally, they were responsible for her safety.
  2. Restrain her? You're not allowed to lock wanderers in rooms (there have been too many abuses). Tie her to a chair? There are legal restrictions on that, too, thank goodness. Or just give her medications so she doesn't feel like wandering? The staff was worried about the side effects of psychotropic (anti-psychotic) medicine (tardive dyskinesia, for instance), and simply loading her with barbiturates turned her into a zombie. It seemed a sad end for a bright and independent woman.
  3. Do what the state told them to do in such cases, and put someone full time on her, to follow her, turn her gently back to the main building when she went beyond the bounds, distract her, comfort her, and generally give her the kind of loving care that would make her wandering unnecessary or harmless? They had done that for six months, at the expenditure of $16,000 in overtime. For that they could have started up a real Alzheimer's facility, with adequate room to wander harmlessly, for Mrs. Satterthwaite and all the next patients of her ailment. But then, they wouldn't have been able to take care of Mrs. Satterthwaite. The only other way to put someone on her full time would be to take a floor nurse away from her floor--leaving dozens of lonely, but quiet, patients to end their days staring at walls, with no one to care for them. That didn't seem fair.

What should the staff do?

II. Possibly the most frequent conflict we experience in everyday life in a complex society is that among the various, conflicting, social roles that we have assumed. For eight hours a day, more or less, we are supposed to be the doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, teachers and managers, and then we are supposed to go home and "be ourselves," except that being ourselves conflicts with the numerous family and volunteer roles that we have taken on. When roles conflict, which take precedence?

In this section, we also have some simpler cases suitable for use with less experienced or non-professional students.

Case 8

Jenny, 15 years old, came to her mother with a troubling story. She and her friend Karen had been shopping at the Mall, in one of the larger stores, and she had seen Karen take some stockings off a counter and put them in her coat. Such items were not "coded" to set off an alarm at the door, and Karen had gotten out of the store without being detected. Over lunch she had bragged about her success in "scarfing up" unprotected items. She didn't think of it as "stealing," really; it was just a game to her, and if she ever got caught, of course, she'd put them back. But the store didn't miss such little things, and she thought it was lots of fun.

Here are some questions on the preceding case:

  1. What should her mother suggest?
  2. Going to the police does not appeal to Jenny at all. Besides, by the time the police got to Karen's house, she'd have a plausible explanation for all the things she had from the stores she frequented. Should Jenny speak to Karen? What should she say?
  3. What is JennyÍs obligation as a friend?
  4. What is JennyÍs obligation as a citizen? Or at age 15, does she have any?
  5. Should someone point out to Karen the stupidity of bragging about her thefts? Or would that just make her a better thief?

Case 9

Dan and Gerry were an inseparable couple during high school, and they've promised each other to continue their commitment in college. Freshman year, Dan lives at home and attends Johnson Community College; Gerry goes off to Highland College, three states west. She never seems able to come home for a visit, so Dan arranges to visit her school one weekend in mid-November. Gerry hasn't been very good about answering his letters, and he can't afford to call her long distance as often as he'd like, so this will be their first opportunity to really talk and be together in two months. Dan is thrilled.

When he finally sees Gerry again, things seem all wrong, but she wonÍt admit it. Her obvious embarrassment over him hurts DanÍs feelings and offends his pride. At a dance, Gerry all but ignores him and introduces him to only one friend, and then just as "a friend from high school." Dan says, "WhatÍs wrong? Are you ashamed of me? What's changed? Why did you let me come?"

Gerry doesn't know what to say. The fact is, Dan now seems awkward, unattractive, and uncool compared to her new sophisticated college friends. She also really likes one of the boys in her crowd and doesn't want him or his friends to think she already has a boyfriend. She knows Dan cares about her and doesn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him. Besides, he helped her a lot when she had trouble with her family. The least she can do is be nice to him and spare him as much pain as possible. But how to get him to be "just friends"?

Here are some questions for class use in the preceding case:

  • There's an old saying, "It's cruel to be kind," for such a situation. What would be the ethical thing for Gerry to do regarding Dan?
  • Was it wrong or stupid of Dan and Gerry to promise to be faithful to each other when they went off to separate colleges? Are they now morally obliged to honor such a commitment?
  • Is it reasonable or fair for Gerry to expect Dan to move from being her boyfriend to "just a friend"? What should Dan do?
  • Do we owe loyalty to people who have been helpful or kind to us in the past but no longer are useful to us? Why or why not?
  • If we do owe this loyalty, how should it be expressed?
  • Do we owe something to people who care about us, even if we don't care about them? Always? If so, why? And what?
  • How might the values of personal growth and kindness be preserved in this case?

Case 10

Tom, a freshman at Misery University, is close to panic. There is just no way he can juggle his current load of schoolwork with his part-time work-study job, his tennis team responsibilities, and his romance with his girlfriend, Meghan. A crisis is coming because he has three midterm exams the week after his six-month anniversary with Meghan (who has made reservations at a beach house for a romantic weekend, for which she has planned and saved for more than two months). His work at the library has been going well, and his responsibilities and hours have just been increased. Meanwhile, the tennis team has two away meets during the same week. He can't study for his exams and do everything else--in fact, he's not even sure how he can juggle his new work hours and his meets and practices, much less fit in the trip with Meghan. Something has to give. But what?

Tom thinks over his choices. He can ask some friends for help with the test material. For example, maybe he can get one of them to tell him enough about the long novel he should have finished for his English class so that he can pass without reading the rest of it. He might try asking Mark to cover some of his library shifts for the next week. Although Mark seems pretty overworked as it is, Tom knows that he might do him a favor. He can try to get Meghan to celebrate their anniversary a couple of weeks later. Of course she'd be disappointed and probably angry about losing her deposit, and she would be hurt (understandably) that he'd waited until the last minute to upset their plans. He can pretend to be injured or sick so he'll miss that week's practices and meets. None of these options really appeal to Tom -- they all involve imposing on or disappointing people he cares about.

Here are some questions to go with the preceding case:

  1. Tom's options all seem to involving cheating or manipulating others in order to meet his responsibilities. Which choice or choices seem the least offensive ethically? Why?
  2. How should Tom prioritize his commitments? Why that way? What values are most important in this situation?
  3. How would a different ordering of moral principles suggest different orderings of his responsibilities?
  4. Do you see a moral issue in Tom's dilemma, or is it just a matter of his fitting a large number of commitments into a limited amount of time? Where does the moral issue come from?
  5. Does the university have a duty to regulate the level of time conflicts students might experience, for example, by forbidding away meets or games before or during midterms, or is this the individual student's responsibility?

Materials prepared by Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. 1998

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