Topic: Society

The Ethics of Katrina
(9/2/2005)

Catastrophes have a way of separating the ethical from the unethical, and Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath have done so with a vengeance. Here is how she's sorted things out:

The Ethical

  • Generous Americans. As usual, the American public, professional associations, non-profits, sports franchises and corporations are responding with charity and selflessness by contributing time, dollars, and resources to the devastated Gulf Coast. This would be a good time for all of us to begin applying the Bedwell Principle, named after the man who decided to donate his kidney to a virtual stranger because he "had two and she had none." If we have a roof over our heads and our family and possessions safe and secure, it is the ethical obligation of every one of us to give what we can to the victims of this disaster. If history is any predictor, disaster makes Don Bedwells out of a great many Americans.
  • Wal-Mart. Of special note is the 15 million dollars pledged to the relief effort by a company whose ethics have been under fire, Wal-Mart. Its gift is especially important because it sets the standard for other large corporations, and sets it high. Wal-Mart's generosity will generate far more than 15 million by pushing other corporate boards to meet or exceed its generosity.
  • The New York Times. No fan of the Bush administration or its environmental policies, the "Grey Lady" made a point of shooting down those here and abroad who are trying to use Katrina as proof of global warming and support for condemnation of the US's refusal to sign the Kyoto treaty. In an editorial, the Times pointed out:
    Because hurricanes form over warm ocean water, it is easy to assume that the recent rise in their number and ferocity is because of global warming. But that is not the case, scientists say. Instead, the severity of hurricane seasons changes with cycles of temperatures of several decades in the Atlantic Ocean. The recent onslaught "is very much natural," said William M. Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University who issues forecasts for the hurricane season.
    This is both true and informative, but one might legitimately ask why a newspaper should be called "ethical" for simply doing what it is supposed to do. The answer would be that based on its recent track record, the Times could be expected by both its critics and its adherents to jump at any opportunity to present events in way that would cast the Bush administration in a poor light. The Times delivered information, possibly while gritting its editorial teeth, that undermined the attacks by some of the paper's favorite people. This is responsible and honest conduct, and deserves to be recognized and encouraged.

The Unethical

  • Looters. It states the obvious to note that looters are unethical, but the extreme conduct of the New Orleans looters--some of whom, incredibly, are police--has special significance. How strong can a community's bonds be when so many people run amuck as a disaster makes its property and people suddenly vulnerable? Ethics are a critical component of those bonds, and this never is more apparent than when law enforcement becomes impossible. Ethical people, those who have internalized values that continue to govern their behavior after external controls, rewards and penalties vanish, continue to think about the consequences of their actions to others and society and regard doing the right thing, or at least trying to, a priority even in dire circumstances. Unethical people devise elaborate rationalizations to justify doing exactly what they want to do regardless of the consequences to anyone else.
    The Scoreboard wants to tread carefully here, because the conditions in New Orleans are extraordinary, and any conclusions about the unique conduct of one city's residents could be instantly disproven by the public response to another disaster in a different city. But of all U.S. metropolises, New Orleans is the only one that has made a virtual fetish of its loose ethics and shaky morality, celebrating them, in fact, as part of their city's charm. The "Big Easy," Bourbon Street…it has been a culture of bribes and hustle and under the table deals, you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours for decades, with famously corrupt politics and law enforcement and periodic championships in the yearly murder category. An ethicist would predict that in such a culture, a collapse of law enforcement would provoke an unusually strong "every man for himself" response.
    Some of the excuses offered by the New Orleans looters that would be rationalizations in other situations have validity in this catastrophe. When thousands of people are trapped by flood water without adequate water and food, taking sustenance from abandoned supermarkets isn't unethical. It's necessary. In fact, it would be wise for the Mayor or Governor to make a public declaration of this, so desperate and ethical citizens won't feel like law-breakers when they do what they have to for survival. The same applies to first aid equipment and basic medicine, although it is clear that a lot of the drug store looters have other purposes in mind.
    But stealing televisions, sneakers, watches and guns cannot be justified, and the harm it does goes far beyond the loss of merchandise. Looting becomes contagious, and eventually can evolve into total chaos and anarchy, with killing, rape and other violence becoming epidemic. That is why looting sometimes is addressed by curfews, martial law and shoot-to-kill orders: if it isn't stopped, everyone is put into peril. New Orleans has already passed this point it, with resident looters shooting automatic weapons at rescuers and out-of-town looters reportedly coming into the stricken city specifically to take advantage of its plight. Shoot the looters? A strong utilitarian argument can be made that shooting a few could save the lives of a great many imperiled New Orleans residents. The government shouldn't shoot looters to protect DVD players, but protecting civilization is another matter.
  • Finger-pointers. "Hind-sight bias" is inevitable after disasters, as it is a research-proven human tendency to see unexecuted actions that might have lessened or prevented them as far more obvious after a disaster than they actually were before it. Sure: the Army Corps of Engineers took a bad gamble by not building the Lake Ponchatrain levees high enough to withstand a Level 4 hurricane. Of course: it was folly to destroy wetlands that could have served as a crucial buffer for the Gulf coast in order to make the Mississippi River more accommodating to commerce. It's all so obvious now. But these and other choices had significant financial consequences and trade-offs that many of the very same critics who now find it expedient to cast blame would not have supported.
    There are plenty of other known disasters waiting to happen, and very costly and inconvenient measures that need to be undertaken immediately to forestall them. The sewer systems in many older cities could collapse, making entire communities uninhabitable for months. According to experts, there isn't enough money in the economy to make needed improvements to our bridge and road systems; a major bridge collapse is a near certainty. The internet is too vulnerable; so is the water supply. Oil supplies, naturally. Airports are far too crowded, and the air traffic system over-whelmed; a major crash is on the horizon, maybe several. We don't have enough vaccine if smallpox re-emerges. There hasn't been sufficient planning for an East Coast earthquake, yet Boston and New York are right on a fault line. Are they really ready for "the Big One" in California? No, they aren't. But just try to address any of these, and the screams will start about priorities. What about our failing education system? That's more pressing, isn't it? What about AIDS? What about the children who go to bed hungry?
    It is a nearly invariable fact of history that nobody plans for a worst case scenario, and the people who point fingers afterwards are conveniently ignoring their own experience for political gain. In the midst of a disaster, it is citizen's duty to do what he or she can to address the problem, and not to try to exploit it by casting blame. Afterwards, there is time to dissect, reflect, analyze, learn and plan. But at this time finger-pointing does nothing but get in the way of cooperation and community when it is most needed.
  • Sharks. No, not the sharks that some claim to have seen in the flood waters. These are the predators who use direct mail and the internet to turn the misery of disaster victims and the generosity of donors into ill-gotten moolah with scams and fake charities. The ethics of such people are beyond repair, and all we can do is be wary of them, avoid them, identify them, catch then and punish them. Meanwhile, they, like the looters, create a stern challenge for those of us who endorse Clarence Darrow's motto, "Hate the sin, never the sinner."

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