The Ethics of Katrina
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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
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.”
on this article