Sunday, May 10, 2009


Your town has been hit by a natural disaster. Many area residents have been evacuated from their homes, and outside support quickly arrives. At various spots around town, residents can receive free assistance ranging from blankets and clothing to food and tickets to performances and recreational outings. All you need to do is to show identification proving that you're a resident of the disaster-stricken town.

You've got the right identification, but as it happens your home was spared, you lost relatively little in the disaster and your life is continuing much as before. Still, free stuff is free stuff and no one is asking any questions.

Well, no one except me: Do you go to get some of the relief that's being offered to everyone in town? Or do you decide that, because you weren't as hard hit as others were, you'll pass?

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Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

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Phil Clutts said...

Of course a person is not entitled to relief from a disaster that spared him/her – at least not in terms of food, blankets and other physical materials. However, assuming that person experienced the same dread as everyone else, empathized with his or her fellow citizens’ pain and losses, and/or experienced a degree of inconvenience because of closed roads or businesses, say, I wouldn’t fault him/her for accepting free tickets to events. They could be welcome sources of stress relief and a chance to mix with friends and neighbors to hear their stories and maybe offer some advice.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC

Cynthia said...

I agree with Phil that just being in a disaster area is traumatizing, and to be out and having some much needed stress free entertainment can rejuvinate the soul. My niece was in a hurricate torn region of FL and although her place was not distroyed, she was hard pressed to find an open store or gas station for miles, and had to drive past an exposed dining room set, with dishes still set on the table, from a blown away trailor park--each time she left for work. That scene alone was very upsetting. I would hope that people would not take any supplies that they did not need, but I also do not think that red tape set up to stop the "non-needy" should be in place--better to have a few take what they don't need than to have the needy be too overwhelmed to get what they should have.

Cynthia Dodd
West Haven, CT

Charlie Seng said...

I will go Phil and Cynthia one better with regard to use of free stuff, with reservations. I believe we all may be assuming that, while this tragedy may have directly spared the subject of this exercise, any use by the lucky person of free stuff would be strictly unethical. However, I really don't see anything unethical about him using some selected things available free, subject to some clarification. Assuming an inability to find any necessities of life (food, water, blankets, etc.) and that conditions at this critical time are confused and in upheaval, making all persons equal in need for necessities of life, it would not be unethical for the lucky person to use some of the free supplies for comfort's sake. Of course, nothing should be accepted that he could take care supplying by himself.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC