Sunday, November 25, 2012
In real life as in fictional life, one value can trump another
A recent episode of the CBS television series Blue Bloods raised the question of how far you would go to help a friend and colleague when you know rules must be broken to help him.
The show revolves around a family of New York City cops. Granddad is a former police commissioner. Dad is the current commissioner. One son died on the job. Two sons are currently on the job. A daughter is an assistant district attorney.
Dad, played by Tom Selleck, is a by-the-book sort of commissioner. It's clear from the storyline that he's made some delicate choices as he worked his way up the ranks, but he's a rules-based guy. His father, on the other hand, is what Selleck's character refers to as "old school." Sometimes the rules applied and sometimes he and his minions took matters into their own hands to get things done.
But Selleck's character occasionally finds himself in a pickle. Such was the case in a recent episode when Selleck's DCPI (deputy commissioner of public information), a hefty fellow in his early 50s, turns in his letter of resignation. It turns out that when he was separated from his wife, the DCPI spent a "lost weekend" in Atlantic City where a woman in her 30s came on to him in a rendezvous that ended with a hotel room tryst. After the DCPI gets home, he receives a letter from the woman's lawyer saying she will sue him for sexual assault unless he pays her $50,000. Viewers are assured no assault was involved, but that the DCPI doesn't have the cash to pay even if he was so inclined. Rather than bring negative attention to the NYPD, he decides to resign.
Selleck's character is torn. He wants to honor his DCPI's wishes, but hates to lose such an upstanding, loyal colleague whom he thinks is being treated unfairly.
So the question becomes: Does the police commissioner accept the resignation or does he find a way to make the DCPI's problem go away? Ultimately, he confides in his father and asks him to lean on his buddies to make contact with the blackmailer, using whatever old-school ways they must, to resolve the matter. The commissioner doesn't want to know the details, just wants it done. "Are you sure?" his father asks him, knowing his son's proclivity for playing by the book. He is and so the deed is done. By the next morning, the blackmailer's lawyer contacts the DCPI and the matter disappears.
"What would you have done?" my wife asks me, recognizing that I am neither a fictional police commissioner nor Tom Selleck. The truth is that I don't know. But the choice the commissioner made seemed true to his character. He valued helping the DCPI to retain his job and escape the blackmail more than he valued sticking to his code of always going by the book.
For the commissioner placing that one value over the other was the right thing to do. But he must rest with the fact that he has gone from being a black-and-white kind of guy to one who now operates in shades of gray like his father had.
Ultimately, each of us may find ourselves facing such decisions where adhering to one value results in violating another. In such stark moments, the question in real life becomes whether or not we are prepared to make such decisions as well as how we live with them afterward.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.