Monday, August 28, 2006

The Agony of Ethics

Ethical decisions are, by their very nature, excruciating and painful. A code of ethics, by definition, must exist above and outside of your own personal desires and beliefs; otherwise, you're a sociopath. That code, that comes from some external source -- religion, parents, society, or whereever -- must sometimes come into conflict with other wants and desires. You want to take action X, but your code of ethics tells you that X is wrong and you should do Y instead. You may still do X, but, even if you believe it was important, essential and maybe even right to do X, you'll feel badly about it, knowing that you violated your ethics.

This Sunday's New York Times had a fascinating article about ethical decisions. Written by a journalist, the article explored his ethical dilemma about whether to feed the starving people about whom he was reporting:

How to respond to it is a moral dilemma that lurks in the background of many interviews. Reputable journalists are indoctrinated with the notion that they are observers — that their job is to tell a story, not to influence it. So what to do when an anguished girl tells a compelling story about her young brother, lying emaciated on a reed mat, dying for lack of money to buy anti-AIDS drugs? Is it moral to take the story and leave when a comparatively small gift of money would keep him alive? If morality compels a gift, what about the dying mother in the hut next door who missed out on an interview by pure chance? Or the three huts down the dirt path where, a nurse says, residents are dying for lack of drugs? Why are they less deserving?

In reputable journalism, paying for information is a cardinal sin, the notion being that a source who will talk only for money is likely to say anything to earn his payment. So what to do when a penniless father asks why he should open his life free to an outsider when he needs money for food? How to react to the headmistress who says that white people come to her school only to satisfy their own needs, and refuses to talk without a contribution toward new classrooms? Is that so different from interviewing a Washington political consultant over a restaurant lunch on my expense account?


There are few fixed rules to cover such situations. My own code is simple: I never give people money in advance of an interview, even when the person is clearly in need. I argue that the value of educating the world about their problems is reason enough to talk. When I am personally moved by an individual’s situation, I sometimes offer help after completing an interview, and tell myself that I cannot also help all his neighbors and friends without impoverishing myself.

An interesting article in its own right, but it brought to mind an even more painful ethical question, also involving a journalist. A few months ago, I went to an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, and was deeply troubled by this picture at top, taken by South African photographer Kevin Carter.

Carter's story is a sad one. According to Wikipedia:

In March 1993 Carter made a trip to southern Sudan with intentions of documenting the local rebel movement. However, upon arriving and witnessing the horror of the famine, Carter began to take photographs of starving victims. The sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering near the village of Ayod attracted Carter to a young emaciated Sudanese toddler. The girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, wherein a seemingly well-fed vulture had landed nearby. He said that he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn't. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. However, he also came under heavy criticism for just photographing — and not helping — the girl:

"The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene."
The decision to leave the girl to her fate haunted Carter. He decided as he did for two reasons: One, the standard journalist imperative to not intervene in the goings-on being reported, and two, because journalists were being warned not to touch the starving for fear of disease. However justified or not his decision may have been, Carter killed himself just over a year after the photo was published.

Did Carter make the right choice? Very difficult to say. One one hand, he had a dying girl in front of him, likely with good odds that minimal intervention could have saved her. On the other, journalists shouldn't get involved with their subjects for a host of very good reasons.

Shouldn't saving a life have overwhelmed the other considerations? Maybe. But it's too easy for someone not in the situation, with all of the moral and ethical reponsibility for the decision, to say. Should a defense lawyer not get a client known to be guilty freed on a technicality? Should a doctor refuse to treat a criminal? Each situation is fraught with its own ethical dilemmas. And the only one who can truly judge are those who make the decisions and are forced to live with the consequences. In Kevin Carter's situation, I very well may have decided differently; but then I would have to live with the knowledge that I violated my professional code. Should a journalist who is granted an interview with, for example, Osama bin Laden reveal bin Laden's location? What would that do to the profession?

How is this related to international politics, which is, of course, the general theme of this blog? It's least not directly. But, it's sometimes important to remember that policy makers are often faced with agonizing and impossible decisions just like these. Do you think Bill Clinton was happy to see 800,000 Tutsi Rwandans hacked to death by their Hutu neighbors? Does George Bush revel in the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq, let alone the Iraqi civilians killed daily? Both men, and all people in similar positions, must make distasteful decisions every day on the job. They have to balance their own ethical codes, personal opinions, and beliefs against the needs and responsibilities of their jobs.

This is not to say that we should excuse leaders of moral responsibility. That's not how our society works. We expect our leaders to hold to some moral and ethical standards; we, as a nation, do not practice pure realpolitik, nor should it. But, we must realize that the decisions made in international politics are every bit as agonizing as that faced by Mr. Carter. It's easy for us to blame our leaders for their decisions; it's much harder to explain why a preferred alternative is so much more moral or ethical.

One of things I do in my courses here at the University of Puget Sound, which just started up again today, is prepare my students for making such decisions. Want to protect the people of Darfur from their genocidal government? Fine, but justify why the norm of sovereignty should be violated in doing so and explain why the consequences of eroding sovereignty are worth bearing to protect lives. Want to blame Israel for using cluster bombs in Lebanon? Fine, but explain why a government, which exists to protect its citizens and promote their well-being, should risk the lives of its citizens and soldiers to save the lives of another country's citizens and why adhering to the laws of war should mean more to a state than winning the war with as little cost to itself as possible?

Ethical decisions are agonizing.

1 comment:

Martin said...

Your article makes a worthwhile beginning on a difficult and important question. It is my personal belief that each person in such a situation, and each leader faced with such questions, should ask themselves what answer would benefit the whole of humanity in the long term. Then they should balance this against their own or their nation's own short term needs and desires.

That sort of honest choice is far better in my view than seeking to hide behind codes of ethics or notions of realpolitik. I've heard Clinton say that Rwanda was the biggest mistake of his Presidency. I think it's clear that short term beliefs about political necessity caused him to make a poor long term choice in that instance.