Topic:

On Cold Feet and the Chili Finger
(5/4/2005)

Anna Ayala, the woman who appears to have set out to defraud Wendy's by planting a foreign finger in her chili, and Jennifer Wilbanks, the runaway bride, appear to have little in common except that the ethical problems with their respective activities both seem pretty obvious. But both also fell prey to a serious and common ethical pitfall, which is to seriously misjudge the potential damage that your actions may cause others.

For her part, Ms. Ayala had reason to believe that she could spit out the severed finger, make a complaint, and count on a quick pay-off from the fast food franchise before there was any fuss. After all, she was experienced at this sort of thing…just not with fingers. Her plan was wrong, of course, and she knew it, but she also was undoubtedly emboldened by some powerful rationalizations, primarily the ever-popular "This company is big and rich; they won't even miss the money" and the seductive "My family deserves to have more money than we do, so this just evens things up a little."

What Ms. Ayala forgot is that we now have the internet, the web, blogs and multiple 24 hour news cable channels, and anything more unusual than a parking ticket is likely to be publicized to the voyeuristic world whether it deserves to be or not. So instead of being able to write a modest check to deflect the finger scam, Wendy's found its reputation being unraveled by late-night jokesters and web-wags who made the Finger in Wendy's Chili tale a national sick joke. The restaurant chain lost millions, and decided to play hardball. Ms. Ayala was suddenly not a two-bit felon, but a big one. She withdrew her lawsuit, but it was far too late. Now she faces criminal charges.

It's too early to tell what Jennifer Wilbanks' state of mind was when she decided to take off to Las Vegas rather than go through with her planned wedding. Still, it is fair to conclude that while she was willing to traumatize her family and disappoint the wedding guests, she hadn't counted on diverting the resources of the FBI and the Duluth, Georgia police, being treated by the cable news establishment as the new Lacy Peterson or having her pop-eyed photo on the front page of every newspaper in the country. She hadn't counted on her fiancée, whom she presumably cares about, being viewed by the public as a potential killer. No, she just wanted to "get away by herself for a while."

Brides and grooms-to-be have gotten cold feet from time immemorial, but in time immemorial there was no CNN, CNBC, Fox News, Drudge Report and a million blogs. Jennifer didn't think about that. So what was once just a rotten and cowardly thing to do to your fiancée and family is now potentially an injury to the community, the nation's law enforcement resources, and the nation.

Does that make her actions more unethical that they would have been in a different time and place? Absolutely. She, like Ms Ayala, is responsible for the results of her unethical actions, and the worse they are, the more culpable she is.

Ethics is about consequences and balancing; it is about the effects actions have on others. It is quite possible, even likely, that both Ayala and Wilbanks understood that their actions would cause some measure of harm, but they calculated that the amount of harm was acceptable, compared to their own needs. They each made a utilitarian judgement, and each was an ethically unsound one even if their calculations had been correct. But had they foreseen the true consequences of their planned actions, perhaps Ayala would have never stuck the finger in her chili; perhaps Wilbanks would not have jumped on the bus. Both were willing to cause harm to others for their own ends, and by that measure were unethical. Neither, in all likelihood, was so unethical that she would willfully cause the harm that her actions actually caused.

In analyzing the consequences of a contemplated unethical act, we cannot ignore the magnifying effect of the communications media. As these two events demonstrate, it can turn a private misdeed into a public one, a minor wrong into a catastrophe, and a selfish act into a multi-leveled calamity. The irony is that the annoying intrusiveness of these voracious communications mediums may ultimately promote more ethical behavior. Most Americans are a lot more willing to be unethical on a small scale than a large one. Anna Ayala and Jennifer Wilbanks are walking proof that in today's America, being unethical on a small scale is much more difficult than it used to be.

Being honest is not only the ethical course; it's also the safest.

 

   
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