Ethics and Exceptions

Over at “Asymmetrical Information”, ‘Jane Galt’ poses the following ethical conundrum:

You are a worker in a hospital. An unidentified patient dies on your ward. In his pocket are two tickets for a sold-out concert for two hours hence. You are pretty sure he isn’t going to be identified in time to use the tickets. Would you take them?

I suspect the answers to this ethical dilemma from the general M* readership will be fairly homogeneous, and thus perhaps not very interesting. What’s interesting is that the comments on the original thread are also heavily weighted towards ‘No’ despite being largely from people who are agnostic in nature. One doesn’t need religion to have an ‘absolute’ concept of ethics, of course, but the comments show there are compelling arguments against taking the tickets even if you completely ignore any issues related to religion or ‘absolute morality’. That, perhaps, is a more interesting element to discuss.

The general consensus as to why you would not want to take the tickets–and furthermore why a hospital would be justified in presenting an absolute rule against this sort of thing with no exceptions–is:

(1) If you were caught, you’d get fired…and rightly so.

(2) Why? Because it’s a very bad idea for a hospital to seem to ‘allow’ workers to lift possessions off of dead (or not-quite-dead-yet) patients, even if the items have a strict time limit for use, and could be proven to have absolutely no further benefit to the owner.

(3) If the dead person’s family ever found out about it (say, they had seats next to the dead man’s at the concert, and are then mighty curious why you and your significant other show up suddenly to sit in them) there’d be a huge controversy…and a lawsuit.

Basically, the issue is larger than just whether the circumstances on the face of it suggest that ‘no one will get hurt’–one must deal with the precedent that taking things off of dead bodies is ‘okay’ in certain situations–but not ‘generally’, of course–when everyone is obviously going to have vastly different opinions on just what those certain situations are.

You’d be criticized on one side by those who disagree with your own assessment of the harmlessness of the situation, and at the same time have to deal with those who have more liberal definitions of ‘doesn’t hurt anyone’ in similar situations now that the door has been opened.

In a general sense, the problem comes down to dealing with ‘rules’ and ‘exceptions’. In an idealistic world we have this:

where X represents the people and/or circumstances with which the ‘rule’ applies, and a minority Y which are the people or circumstances where the rule does not apply–the ‘exceptions’ to every rule. (Say, making marijuana legal for those with certain medical issues, but illegal otherwise)

In the real world, we have this, instead

where you still have those people/situations the ‘rule’ applies to (X), the ‘exceptions’ (Y), but now you have group Z–the people who believe they are ‘exceptions’ and that the rules do not apply to them, even though their circumstances are such that any objective analysis and logic would indicate they are really no different than X. (Legalized marijuana under any circumstance would have a HUGE ‘Z’ group, for example…)

Everyone knows group Z exists, and this is primarily the reason why you find many situations where an ‘extreme’ or rigid world view seems to take shape:

Quite simply, ‘no exceptions’…even though for any rule someone can come up with some ‘exception’ in the form of contrived hypothetical situations where breaking the rule seems to ‘hurt no one’. Why deal with an ever increasing ‘Z’ group if you don’t have to? Why not just set the rule (“Absolutely no taking of possessions from hospital patients”) and stick to it, even if in some one-in-a-million circumstance concert tickets get wasted.

From a gospel perspective, Church leaders often seem to take the ‘rigid’ world view above–and I don’t believe it’s because they don’t know there are legitimate exceptions to most situations (GA’s aren’t stupid), but because of the dangers of group Z above. As with mission rules, you have to be very careful when you parcel out ‘exceptions’, or else you might find other people have a far more liberal interpretation of the rules than you had originally thought…

3 thoughts on “Ethics and Exceptions

  1. We are told to “avoid the appearance of evil” and I always live by the motto, “it should only be an exception when I am the exception.”

  2. Your presentation of X & Y are flawed. In cases where there is an identifiable victim, X should be bigger than Y (as you have listed). Otherwise, in a majority of the cases that we face today X should be non-existent and Y should be the (non) rule because there is no victim.

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