Almost 20 years ago, I started off a chapter of a book I wrote on business ethics with the observation that it's very possible for someone to make a perfectly legal decision without ever exploring the ethical aspects of that decision. Sometimes, I wrote, the law gives us an excuse to ignore whether the action we are taking is right or wrong.
I was reminded of this observation while reading reporter Connor Sheets' story in The Birmingham News about an Etowah County sherriff, Todd Entrekin, who apparently managed to abide by Alabama laws by keeping for personal use whatever funds allotted to food provisions for inmates. Over a three-year period, Sheets reports, Entrekin managed to sock away $750,000 in excess funds.
Some residents wondered how Entrekin and his wife had managed to amass real estate worth more than $1.7 million on his annual salary of $93,178.80. On the surface, it wouldn't be incomprehensible to believe that someone could have saved that much over the years and manage to invest wisely in real estate, which grew in value over time. But Entrekin's ability to make such purchases was undoubtedly made a bit easier by his ability to save on food provisions for Etowah County prisoners over the past three years.
If it's a perfectly legal maneuver, then what's the harm?
That's a question that many people might find themselves asking, although typically on a smaller scale. If a community is hit by a natural disaster, such as a flood or hurricane, for example, and all residents of the stricken community are offered free food and other forms of relief, what's the harm in residents whose homes weren't affected at all from availing themselves of free stuff? Legally, they reside in the same community as those who were left homeless and possession-less.
When those who aren't in need of the relief get in line because something is free to be had, there is less for those who are truly in need. From an ethical perspective, those who choose to cash in in such situations fail to take the time to assess the intent of the relief efforts, or simply allow self-interest to keep them from caring.
In the case of the Alabama sheriff, his choice might have been legal. But how much better might the food provisions have been for the inmates in his care? Entrekin told Sheets that "we utilize a registered dietitian to ensure adequate meals are provided daily." Even if the inmates food needs did not go wanting, how far could those $750,000 in taxpayer money have gone to addressing other needs of the community if any excess were turned over to the Etowah County?
Using the law to make questionable ethical decisions, which result in enriching ourselves, raises questions about our integrity, whether we are a county sheriff or a self-interested homeowner.
It's only after we ask ourselves whether the decisions we make might do any harm can we hope to do our thoughtful best to do the right thing.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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