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Sunday, April 13, 2008

THE RIGHT THING: QUESTIONING `NO QUESTIONS ASKED'

Susan Simpson, a reader who lives in Windsor, Ontario, noticed an article in her local newspaper.

The story described an incident that had occurred in a nearby city.

"To my mind," she writes in a letter to me, "there is an ethical question involved, and I'd be interested in your opinion."

The story, as Simpson tells it, involved a Toronto man who for several years had paid someone to walk his dog on a daily basis.

"On one of these walks," Simpson writes, "the handler tied the dog to a tree while she ran a quick errand inside a store. When she came out, the dog was gone.

"The gentleman was devastated and had fliers put up around town," she continues. "Ads were taken out in the paper offering a $15,000 reward upon the return of the dog, `No Questions Asked."'

After the posters and ads started appearing, two men responded and returned the dog. Originally viewed as heroes, the two were subsequently arrested for involvement in the dog's theft.

The incident, which occurred in February, was reported widely in Toronto newspapers and by CBC News.

"It was negligent of the dog walker to leave the pooch unattended," Simpson writes, "and it was absolutely wrong of the two men to steal the dog."

Both are obvious -- but she wants to know where I stand on the idea of "No Questions Asked." To Simpson the phrase suggests, "I don't care when, where or how you got my dog. Just bring him back, and I'll reward you with $15,000."

Simpson believes that the dog owner was ethically wrong to include the phrase in his ads and fliers, since clearly questions would be asked, and were.

"What say you, sir?" she asks.

Well, for one thing, I say it was illegal.

There's actually a statute in Canada's criminal code that makes it illegal to publicly advertise "a reward for the return of anything that has been stolen or lost, and in the advertisement (use) words to indicate that no questions will be asked if it is returned."

Really. You can look it up in Section 143 of the Criminal Code. It falls under the category of "Misleading Justice."

Nonetheless, regular readers of my column know that I'm not of the mind that something is ethical simply because it's legal. And the authorities apparently don't plan to press charges against the dog owner, so the legalities are beside the point. The question is, was his conduct ethical?

As anyone who has ever lost a pet or something treasured will attest, a reward can be a great motivator for people to keep their eyes open. Nothing wrong with offering one in this case -- it's his money to spend as he sees fit.

Where he stepped over the line, ethically, was in his willingness to turn a blind eye to someone who might have broken the law. There's no value in rewarding criminals who might very well turn around and pull the same scam on other pet owners. To regain your own dog at the cost of others losing theirs is clearly unethical.

The "no questions asked" promise is unethical because it places the promiser in a position in which there is no entirely ethical way to proceed. His choice is to keep faith with other potential victims and call the police, at the cost of breaking his word to the dog thieves, or to keep his promise -- and get his dog back -- while likely placing others in the same awful position he's found himself in.

If there's no ethical way out of a position, the right thing is not to place yourself in that position. The owner should have advertised the reward and left it at that. If someone had responded and the owner had suspected them of involvement in the theft, he could then have turned to the police with a clear conscience.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

yawningdog said...

Putting aside the reward problem, lets go back to the dog sitter.

Basically, I am a dogsitter. I run a dog kennel. It is my most important job to make sure the 'kids' are safe. Because to most owners the dogs are their 'kids'.

I am not saying that stuff doesn't happen on my watch. Over the years, I have had run aways, dog fights and have been bitten myself. I just make sure I am not doing anything that will obviously end badly. Tying a dog up, unsupervised, was a disaster waiting to happen. The owner and dogsitter are just lucky that they only had the dog stolen. They could be facing a suit over a dog bite or worse.