Do good. Don't harm.
This two-step ethic is something we learn as children and try, more or less, to follow as adults.
In any number of circumstances in our daily lives, it's easy to tell what is ethical: The good and the harm are obvious.
You return the dropped wallet, you leave a note when you bump into the empty parked car. You don't gossip. You don't lie, cheat or steal.
But what about those situations where the math is harder? Where the calculation of good versus harm isn't so easy?
Sometimes we are called to make bigger ethical decisions.
Sometimes for a few of us, these are soul-shredding situations where it isn't good versus harm; it's harm versus harm. And the lesser of two evils is almost impossible to decide.
Take the recent “murder” case staged in a mock trial in downtown Omaha.
A pretend bridge operator named Dmitri must make a split-second decision about whom to save.
A passenger train is barreling toward a river, and the drawbridge is up. Dmitri's 8-year-old son, Lada, has fallen into the bridge works.
If Dmitri lowers the bridge, his son is crushed, but 300 train passengers are saved.
If he tries to save his son, the train falls into the chasm and, presumably, everyone on the train dies.
Such is the dilemma that two Omaha organizations presented on a recent rainy night at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center downtown. The Business Ethics Alliance — a collaboration of Creighton University's business college, the Better Business Bureau and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce — and the Scottish Rite organized the event, called “Ethics on Trial.”
It offered the public a chance to weigh in on what Dmitri should have done. And whether he was right in accusing “Ethics” of murder.
For the “accused” was not Dmitri, the man who had to let somebody die.
The amorphous, ageless entity, Ethics, was charged with murder for its role in Dmitri's decision.
The case was based on a 30-minute Czech film called “Most” that we watched before the trial.
It set the stage for the arguments to come.
In the 2003 film, the camera opens on father and son. We see little Lada pointing out the North Star to his father, cracking his dad up with a joke, nestling with him at night, begging to go to work with his father for a shift at the bridge.
But it's dark, Dmitri protests. But it's cold. Lada has a solution: Flashlights! And hot chocolate!
The next morning, Dmitri and Lada stroll through a crowded train station. We see passengers about to board: a brokenhearted man whose girlfriend dumped him, a stone-faced soldier and a troubled young woman in a red hat who has a drug problem. The red-hat woman makes funny faces at Lada, and the boy smiles.
After school, Dmitri and Lada practically run to work. Dmitri gives his son a fishing pole and tells him to stay put at the river's edge. They will lower the bridge together for the train, which is not due for another hour.
Then distraction: Phone rings, Dmitri must raise the bridge for a passing barge. He doesn't see what Lada sees: smoke on the horizon. The train's coming too soon!
Lada hollers at his dad to lower the bridge, but Dmitri doesn't hear. Then Lada scrambles onto the trestle to do it himself. At that moment, we see Dmitri eyeing the empty riverbank and hollering for Lada. He sees his son fall into the bridge works, sees the train's smoke and screams, “My God! My God!”
Minutes later the train blows across the lowered bridge, passengers oblivious to their near-death experience. Dmitri, who by lowering the bridge has crushed his son, is screaming the whole time.
It's an awful scenario, one that “prosecutor” Matt Ellis, a vice president at Woodmen of the World, reviewed as he launched into his opening argument against Ethics.
It's all Ethics' fault that Dmitri lost his son, Ellis said. Had he not followed Ethics, his son would still be alive.
“(Dmitri) has paid the ultimate price for following Ethics' influence,” Ellis argued.
Dmitri, played by Chris Carter, an operations officer and manager at First National Bank of Omaha, sobbed into his handkerchief on stage at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center as he took some liberties with the film.
“I couldn't save them both,” Dmitri said.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Old Ethics was to blame.
“She kept saying,” Dmitri said, “that the loss of one life to save 300 was the right thing to do.”
For her part, Ethics, played by Bev Kracher, director of the Business Ethics Alliance, said she empathized with Dmitri but never forced his hand.
“I'm guilty of telling him what his choices were,” she said. “I'm not guilty of helping him make his choice.”
This “murder trial” was over in less than an hour.
U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp gave our “jury” just 90 seconds to decide Ethics' fate.
Before the trial, the 180 people in the “jury” each had been handed a device about the size of a pocket calculator and were told to press 1 for guilty and 2 for not guilty at the trial's end. Now we got out our clickers and pressed buttons to register our votes.
Eighty percent of us let Ethics off the hook. Not guilty.
Kracher then led us in a discussion about ethics and the circumstances of this case. It made for interesting — and thankfully, theoretical — discussion.
But I left with little resolution and more questions than answers.
Is it really ethical to consider numbers — the single life versus 300?
Does the quality of a life matter? Is it relevant that the red-hat woman on the train, the one with a drug problem, cleans up her act? Or that Lada was a loving, good kid and not a stinker?
“I have never promised you will feel good,” Ethics had said on the stand. “I have promised the moral life is worth living.”
In this specific case, I'll have to take that on faith.
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