Commentary: Ethically, what would you do? The Kickback Couple
In the December Ethically Speaking scenario, the fictional Ordinary Seaman Rolly Labrosse learned that a close friend admitted to wrongdoing and felt that OS Labrosse wouldn’t have a problem with it.
OS Bob Chaffey admitted he played the system by conspiring with his ex-girlfriend, which he tells OS Labrosse in hushed tones. What OS Chaffey has done is commit grand theft for personal gain (not even under the influence of financial hardship). By lying about his circumstances, he has taken advantage of the rules and money designed to ensure those who need it have access to additional financial support.
The scenario leaves us at the point where OS Labrosse has already told OS Chaffey exactly how he feels. We don’t know exactly how OS Chaffey defended his actions, but his colleague now has a dilemma. There is no way OS Labrosse can deny knowing what OS Chaffey did.
Most readers’ comments agreed that OS Chaffey needs to stop, or be stopped by his peer. The most common suggestion was for OS Labrosse to provide a diplomatically worded ultimatum along the lines of: It’s regrettable for our valued friendship, but you need to own up to your “oversight” by a certain date, or I will have to do it for you. If OS Chaffey accepts and follows through, as several noted, OS Labrosse could also advocate for him to try and lessen the severity of any disciplinary action. Because the money has been put aside, it wouldn’t be a financial strain to return it quickly.
A fewer number of readers suggested that OS Labrosse should go straight to a superior or the course director and let him or her deal with this. However, the clandestine approach may have risks. OS Chaffey might decide this underhanded behavior merited more of the same towards his peer. Maybe he can conspire with his ex-girlfriend to cast suspicion on OS Labrosse , as someone simply out to get him.
Several readers suggested complete inaction might be best, based on less obvious considerations. OS Chaffey might actually be lying to his friend in order to spread a rumour that he is “available” to the women on the course; in other words, he is open to having an affair while concealing it from his (in fact current) common-law spouse back home. If so, the above ultimatum would likely have the additional advantage of exposing the lie, since OS Chaffey would realize the negative implications of the lie for his friend, and comes clean with him right away. It is often a wise move to give someone the chance to fix their own mess first, rather than trying to do it behind their back.
This scenario reminds us of the bystander problem. What’s the difference between doing something bad, or watching someone else do it, but not intervening? Yes, there is a military legal requirement to report this crime. The choice not to intervene results in the same harmful consequences, and these may include the risk of punishment for those who knew but did nothing. The rationale for letting it go may be that the observer had no intention to do wrong and was unwillingly dragged into a lie, and these mitigate the culpability of inaction. There really is a moral difference between agency and apathy, but the integrity of the institution depends on its members doing their bit.
Thank you to those who responded to this dilemma. Suggestions for future scenarios are always welcome at: +Ethics-Ethique@ADM(RS) DEP@Ottawa-Hull.
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