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

Case 11

In Kevin's otherwise shabby student apartment, one piece of furniture stands out: a large, glass-doored, wooden display case, which he has filled with his sizable collection of animal skulls and unusual rock samples. Kevin prides himself on being a naturalist, and has carefully labeled each item in his collection. As many of his friends have told him, the cabinet and its contents look as though they belong in a museum.

Kevin is very proud of this elegant piece. He has carefully waxed and polished all of the wooden surfaces, as well as re-glued some of its loose moldings. His friend Sarah, who has taken a number of woodworking courses, is impressed with it. "How much do you think it's worth?" Kevin asks casually.

"Wow -- maybe $800, or $1000? It has that expensive nonreflecting glass, and everything's beautifully dovetailed. The wood looks like really nice cherry, too. It's beautiful! Where'd you get it?" Kevin is used to his visitors' remarking on the handsome case, and he has often told the story of how he acquired it:

"Last summer I worked as a lab assistant for Professor Newton over in the biology department. It wasn't a very exciting job, because I was mainly washing glassware, but I did get access to the entire storage area of the department. Every time I went into that basement, I saw this beautiful old case and two others just like it -- covered with dust. It was such a waste, and I finally decided to take one home. So here it is! They've never missed it. And after a little work, it was better than new. Hey, if I slave for Newton again this summer, maybe I can fix up one of the other ones! My collection is still expanding."

Here are some questions on the preceding case:

  1. How would you react to Kevin's story if you were Sarah?
  2. Is anyone hurt by this kind of stealing? Kevin seems to feel that he has a right to the display case for several reasons: no one seemed to be using it, or even to remember it; he needed it; he has fixed it up; and it wasn't being appreciated or taken care of the way he appreciates it and takes care of it. Do any of these reasons lend legitimacy to his claims on the case?
  3. Is it somehow less hurtful to steal something from a large organization or institution rather than from an individual?

Case 12

Fern was preoccupied as she drove to Housatonic Community College on Thursday afternoon. She was running late for her biology exam because she had been studying her notes and had forgotten to leave as early as she'd planned. Not only that, but she'd also had a major fight with her boyfriend the previous evening, and she still couldn't get some of his nasty remarks out of her mind.

Of course the light at the first intersection was red. Fuming, Fern reminded herself to stay calm and to concentrate on the biology exam. When the light changed to green, she stepped on the gas. Unfortunately the Saturn in front of her accelerated slowly and FernÍs heavy old Ford hit it, hard. At that speed, the damage was slight, but since the bumpers didnÍt line up, her Ford's bumper shattered the SaturnÍs rear brake lights. There was no damage to FernÍs Ford.

An elderly man slowly got out of the Saturn, rubbing his neck. Her heart pounding, Fern jumped out of the car. "Are you OK?" she asked. "I think so," the man replied. He seemed a bit dazed, but maybe he was always like that. "I'm really sorry," Fern explained. "I'm late for a test at the college, and I guess I jumped the gun." "Well, it doesn't look too bad. We'll just see what the police say when they turn up," the man said.

"Oh please!" Fern begged. "I'll miss my exam! Let me give you my phone number. I'll pay for the damage, but I can't wait for the police to arrive!" Then she wrote down her name and phone number, jumped back in her car, and rushed the rest of the way to school. The whole accident set Fern back only about five minutes, and she got to class just as the professor was handing out the exam. Afterward, Fern reflected that it was a good thing she hadn't waited around for the police for another reason--now her insurance wouldn't go up. She'd call that old man as soon as she got home to make sure he was all right.

Except, she hadn't gotten his name or number. If he lost hers (and he did seem kind of foggy), how would she pay for the damage she'd caused? And what if he were acting dazed because he'd hurt his head? She'd never know or be able to make amends! She had to fight down the feeling that maybe that would be the best outcome, maybe the whole thing would just go away. . .

Here are some questions on the preceding case:

  1. Leaving the scene of an accident is against the law, but if both parties agree to do so, is there anything ethically wrong with this?
  2. Was FernÍs treatment of the accident victim morally wrong in some way? If so, why? If not, why is she feeling so guilty?
  3. Because she made a good-faith effort to be responsible, is she morally obligated to do anything else? What should she do if the man calls? What, if he doesnÍt?

Case 13

Jack and Ella have been going out together for two years when one night, right after the Senior Prom, they have sexual intercourse for the first time. One time leads to another. Jack tries to use condoms, but those donÍt always work, and Ella ends up pregnant. Now what?

ñWeÍll get married,î says Jack. ñWeÍre seniors, I have a good job lined up in the hardware store after graduation, weÍll do just fine.î

ñNo way!î says Ella, ñIÍve just been accepted at Cornell, IÍm looking forward to a career in environmental science, I canÍt think of marriage for years! I like you a lot, but this time, weÍre going to have to get an abortion.î

ñI canÍt go along with that,î says Jack. ñIÍm a good Catholic, I know abortion is a sin, really the sin of murder, and I canÍt allow my child to be killed for the sake of your ambitions.î

ñBuzz off.î says Ella, ñItÍs my body this child is growing in, not yours, and I have to stay on course for the life that I need. That means that I canÍt have a baby now. Sorry about your religious beliefs.î

  1. WhoÍs right?
  2. What do Jack and Ella owe each other?
  3. Does the baby get a vote? Why or why not?

Case 14: Tammy on crack

(This is a general case in professional ethics. Adopt the standpoint of different professions, and see how your view of Tammy changes, if it does.)

You, the professional, are at your desk. Tammy sits huddled in a chair beside you. She is desperately unhappy. She has just told you that she is a crack addict, she is badly at odds with her family, with whom she will not discuss her addiction, and she is now having drug-related problems that bring her to you. What do you do about her?

  • Pick up the telephone and call her family immediately?
  • Protect her liberty/privacy/confidentiality?
  • Call the cops?
  • Give her material help to survive the current crisis?
  • Some combination of the above?

Two preliminary questions:

  1. How did Tammy get to you?
    1. She ran into a crisis and came looking for help to keep her going. Your profession is:
      • Medical
      • Legal
      • Educational
    2. She turned up in an investigation, and may be willing to cooperate with it if you'll not tell her parents.
      • Governmental (law enforcement)
      • Communications (journalism)
      • Scientific (social or medical research)
  2. How old is Tammy?
    • Slide the scale from age twelve to age twenty.
    • Figure out if your decision changes anywhere along that line, and if so when, how, and why.

Now: What does your decision tell you about your attitudes toward:

  • Helping others
  • Respecting privacy
  • Justice
  • Drugs
  • The family
  • The law and the government
  • The society at large
  • Your professional role

Case 15

The Board of Directors of United Enterprises has been called into special session by the CEO, C. Charles Dickinson. Dickinson is in receipt of an unsolicited takeover offer from Sir James Silvertown, a notorious "raider" who seems to have kept his access to cash through the economic downturn. The price to be paid for each share of stock is very high, higher than the stock might ever be expected to go in the continuing (fairly profitable) operations of the company, and a very generous premium is to be paid to all the top-ranking officers of the corporation. The quickest look at the raider's plans make clear that whatever he says, he will not be able to sustain the company in operation without massive cutbacks in personnel and activities: first to go will be the prestigious Research and Development facility.

Dickinson speaks first, and reminds the Board that United Enterprises is vitally important in the country's efforts to restore competitiveness with the Japanese in its high technology areas, that it has turned out a steady profit for its shareholders for twenty years, with no plans of stopping now, and it is clearly worth saving for the stockholders. All he really wants from them is advice on "shark repellent," ways of getting the raider to give up and go away.

Vito Giolanno, another member of the Board, retorts that they really have no choice: stockholders buy stock primarily for its growth potential, and this stock's price will never get this high again. Best for the stockholders to explore the possibility of getting that price even higher, then sell. Just in case it might be forgotten, he adds, the Board of Directors has no right to consider interests other than those of the stockholders.

Fr. Leonard O'Donnell asks who is going to look out for the workers in these facilities that will be closed down. Don't they have a right to the same kind of consideration that the top officers are getting? And what will be done for the communities in which United Enterprises has resided, and paid taxes, and played an active role in the civic and charitable enterprises? Recent writings in business ethics seem to suggest that the firm is really obligated to look out for the interests of stakeholders other than the stockholders--whether or not the law insists it must.

Robert Links, the newest member of the Board, points out that all the outside directors are large stockholders, and all the inside directors are eligible for that premium, so the whole consideration is shot through with conflict of interest and should be stopped--turned over to some neutral party to negotiate.

Whose interests count in this case? Stockholders? Employees? Country? Who has the right to decide? What is the correct decision?

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

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