Topic: Professions & Institutions

Make Way For Goslings
(8/0/2009)

When it comes to determining whether someone has acted ethically, the details matter. What is the real motive behind the act? Does it violate any basic ethical principles? If it involves choosing one ethical principle at the expense of another, was the choice a valid one? Did the conduct involve breaking the law? Would we want to see the conduct accepted and endorsed as the right response in similar situations? How much time did the individual have to weigh these factors?

It is molting season for the Canada geese, which means they can’t fly for a while. Around the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area, these large, loud birds have been disrupting traffic, sometimes getting themselves hit by cars or causing vehicles to swerve to avoid avian carnage. It’s obvious that some of us still remember Robert McCluskey’s 1941 children’s classic “Make Way for Ducklings,” because when Fairfax County Virginal resident Jozsef Vamosi saw a gaggle about to cross the busy Fairfax County Parkway during morning rush hour, he stopped his car, jumped out, and stopped traffic in all lanes so the geese could cross safely.

All together now: Awwwwwww!

Unsentimental Fairfax Officer Kevin J. Rusin gave Vamosi a ticket for jaywalking. The Washington Post quotes Rusin: "He actually ran out into the middle of the highway. There were numerous vehicles. I'm estimating about 15. They had to slam on their brakes very hard. It almost caused a crash or pileup in the middle of the highway." When the officer ordered Vamosi to get out of the road, "He told me no, repeatedly. He told me he was trying to save the geese."

Over in nearby Howard County, a similar drama was unfolding, but this time, it was a police officer (just like in the book!) who stopped traffic to allow the birds to cross. Officer Sarah Miller stopped traffic on busy Route 175 so eight geese, one with an injured foot, could waddle to safety. She got smiles and applause from the motorists, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Same conduct, different rewards. Were Jozsef Vamosi’s actions right or wrong? Well, a police officer has the official power to stop traffic in the interests of public safety and the common good. Officer Miller told the Sun that she worried about the birds, but also was afraid that a car might slam on its breaks to avoid the geese and cause a serious accident. She’s allowed to make that call. Officer Rusin said he was afraid that Vamosi’s conduct might cause a crash---also a judgement his position entitles him to make. Vamosi isn’t a police officer, but we wouldn’t want to reach a societal consensus that citizens are never justified in stopping traffic in an emergency. If it was a child wandering into the road, or a large animal like a moose or a stegosaurus, no one would argue that Vamosi shouldn’t have taken matters into his own hands. Indeed, he would have been hailed as a hero.

As Vamosi made it clear in his subsequent court testimony, he was only concerned about the welfare of the geese, not the motorists. (For all we know, so was Officer Miller. Yes, she said she was also worried about accidents, and should be taken at her word. Whether she was or not, she knew that citing human safety concerns would put her actions beyond challenge.) Whether or not the greater danger to the drivers was the geese or his impromptu stop, the fact that he acted without considering the motorist’s welfare puts his conduct in the category of well-intentioned, kind, courageous...and irresponsible, as well as illegal. When you take extraordinary action and have to break the law to do it, you have an obligation to think clearly and weigh factors fairly and ethically. Saving a goose was not worth killing or injuring humans (sorry, PETA). It is a likely that Vamosi himself would agree with that. Were his actions really endangering human beings? Officer Rusin says so, and the law says he decides.

Both goose-crossings worked out for the best: no dead geese, no dead humans. That is evidence that may legitimately be considered in determining the ethical validity of Vamosi’s and Miller’s traffic stops, but it isn’t dispositive. To say otherwise is to embrace the Scoreboard’s bete noir, consequentialism. We must judge the ethical nature of an act regardless of what chaotic fate results from it. It is true that if Vamosi’s traffic stop had caused a multi-car chain reaction that ended in death, auto fires and a six-hour rush hour delay, nobody would be saying “Awwwwwwww!” It is still illogical to use end results to determine the rightness or even the wisdom of actions. The most we can say is that the lack of an accident provides some counterweight to the officer’s assertion that Vamosi was endangering non-geese. Not much however.

When he went to trial, Vamosi was fortunate. He got a judge who considered the ethical complexities of his conduct as well as the law in deciding the case. The state and county code states "pedestrians shall not carelessly or maliciously interfere with the orderly passage of vehicles" and calls for a fine of as much as $250. It doesn’t have a Canada goose exception, and whether the act was “careless” is covered by Vamosi’s own words. He cared about the geese, but wasn’t thinking about the drivers. Careless.

"I think you violated the code section," the judge (Fairfax General District Court Judge Thomas E. Gallahue) concluded. "I don't think it was the best thing for you to do. I don't know what the best thing is to do."

“I don't know what the best thing is to do." Good for the judge. This is the crux of Vamosi’s best defense, and it is true. There wasn’t time for Vamosi to take out Harvard Business School Professor Laura Nash’s excellent list of twelve questions one should consider in making an ethical decision: the geese were going to try to cross the highway, one way or the other. Vamosi acted, spurred by concern for the geese, but he is also likely to be a man who would have called the police or even run out into the street to attempt a rescue when someone was killing Kitty Genovese outside her Queens apartment in 1964. He is, ultimately, an ethical citizen who tries to do the right thing.

"I think we have to be careful when we do a thing we think is for the greater good," the Washington Post quoted Gallahue as saying, "that the consequence isn't more dangerous." I will resist the cheap shot of “Duh!” here, but Judge Gallahue was stating both the obvious and the impossible. In an emergency, by the time one has analyzed a situation enough to make a decision “careful,” it is often too late to do anything at all. Society should encourage citizens to act.

It cannot, however, encourage citizens to break the law. Thus Judge Gallahue suspended sentence for Vamosi, and if he doesn’t stop traffic or rob any banks in the next six months, Gallahue will dismiss the charges. That’s a fair decision.

Vamosi thinks so too. He also says that he’d do the same thing again.

Let’s hope the Canada geese can fly soon.


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