Thinking Out Loud

Man, by virtue of evolution, is programmed to learn by swapping tales around the campfire. Welcome to my fire.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Matter of Order

"Don't do anything that is ILLEGAL, IMMORAL, or UNETHICAL, or might appear so."

Many years ago I made a choice to change jobs. The job change cost me income, but the corporation I was going to work for seemed to have strong values. The quote was their directive to managers. Mistakes do get made, decisions turn out to have faulty premises, and the business environment might change. A manager could always ask for forgiveness provided a decision was in keeping with the directive.

For its time, it was one of the strongest value codes I had ever encountered outside of the military. Yet in retrospect, the very order of the words indicates a fatal flaw. That flaw is placing the law ahead of morality and ethics.

I recently saw this in practice by a government agency. They had taken an action which permanently and irreversibly altered an environmental sanctuary. An old and very large landowner had established a large section of pristine prairie and wetlands as a trust. She realized even then, when the county was still primarily rural, that we were in danger of losing all that remained of America's virgin lands. She established a trust out of that part of her holdings that had never been plowed or timbered, added money to keep it preserved, and gave current and future generations a place to appreciate the land she had loved as a child in the 1800's. In October of 1967, her legacy Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary officially opened.

Old Bessie Heard was right, and 50 years later the county has changed from primarily rural to primarily urban. It has been one of the fastest "growing" counties in America as ranches and farms give way to suburbs and cities. Less than 100 miles of its roads are unpaved, and it has been almost two decades since traffic jams were caused by livestock changing pastures or running loose. Still, her gift to future generations remained unspoiled.

That is, until this week. Work began on a sewer line through this sanctuary under the jurisdiction and authority of the North Texas Municipal Water Department. The prairie has been torn apart, and the placement of sewer line beneath wetlands begun.

Which brings me back to the quote. You see, NTMWD acted legally at the state and county level. They were within the law in deciding to route the sewer through the sanctuary, within the law in using eminent domain to take ownership of a right of way of their choosing, legal in determining when and how the pipe placement was done. In fact, that is their response to any public inquiry as to "Why?"

The problem is that this legality has trumped morality and ethics. The board members are not evil, they aren't uncaring. None of them is inclined to litter, or abuse animals for fun, or even to trespass on a neighbor's property. I would bet all of them share most of the same morals and ethics as the rest of us. The problem is that what should have been the final hurdle in any decision was the only hurdle seriously considered.

I suspect we would solve most of our social issues if only we changed the order. The law should be the last consideration, after we have made our moral and ethical determinations. It should address compromise for when our individual moral or ethical values conflict.

"Do nothing that is immoral, unethical, or illegal, or might appear so."


The Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary side of the issue is published at Be Heard and with an impact statement.

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