Flexible Ethics in the Wake of Disaster

What do businesses in the tourism industry in areas affected by the BP oil spill owe to customers and potential customers? Or, to put it another way, just how closely do businesses in the stricken region need to adhere to the “usual” ethical rules of commerce?

Many businesses along the Gulf Coast have of course been very hard-hit. At this point, large stretches of the Gulf Coast are essentially unthinkable as vacation destinations, unless you happen to be into eco-disaster tourism. As a result, businesses there are fighting for their lives — all due to circumstances beyond their control, but very much within the control of a certain oil company whose name, by now, is all too familiar.

In such circumstances, businesses are likely to do just about anything to draw what tourists they can. Though I don’t know of particular cases, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see some companies cutting corners, ethically speaking. For example, imagine a potential vacationer calls up a resort on the fringe of the affected area, wanting to know whether that particular stretch of beach is still vacation-worthy. And imagine that the usability of the beach is borderline. What answer should the owner of the resort give, over the phone? How scrupulously honest does she have to be, when the survival of her business (and the livelihood of her employees) is on the line?

The problem posed by the expectations of tourists and the way those are handled by resort owners is illustrated in this article by Mike Esterl, for the Wall Street Journal: In Alabama, a Fight for Tourists

“This is not what we expected,” said Clint Pope, 27, who drove his family to Gulf Shores from Thomasville, Ala., Friday for a weekend at the beach.

Mr. Pope’s 10-year-old son, Drew, and nine-year-old nephew, Nathan, still swam in this stretch of the Gulf on Friday afternoon, along with other tourists. But nobody was going into the water Saturday.

Now it’s tempting to say that the obligation of businesses to deal honestly with customers (and potential customers) is unchanged by current circumstances. But compare: many people thought that the looting that took place in the aftermaths of both Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti was morally excusable. Some said it doesn’t even count as “looting” at all, when you’re fighting for survival. Does that principle hold true when the party in question is a small business owner, rather than an individual consumer? If stealing (within reason) is ethically permissible in the aftermath of a disaster, is bending the truth (or even lying) ethically permissible, too?

Now there are of course differences in the two cases. In the Katrina and Haiti cases, people were literally fighting for survival — it was literally life-or-death. Presumably no one in the Gulf Coast tourism industry is literally going to starve to death. But still, the general question remains interesting: to what extent can ethical rules legitimately be bent, when someone’s interests are seriously threatened?

3 comments so far

  1. Tom Herrnstein on

    I think the ethical rules can be bent depending on the nature of the interests being threatened. In this case, the tourist businesses do not gain permissibility to bend the truth. The nature of their interests is one of economic survival in a certain industry, and that is not life and death. Like a lot of Americans I’ve worked seasonally in tourism and it is a great job and a gratifying industry to be a part of: people pay good money for an experience so they’re there to have a good time—and you get to be a part of that. So it’s a genuine shame that this is happening to the people and the businesses on the coast, but in this case, life is tragic.
    The reason you don’t gain permissibility to bend the truth is that you have such a advantage when it comes to information it puts you in the ethical position of the relationship to be truthful. Because your guests can’t know what you know, they are depending on you to get accurate information. That places a fairly strong ethical duty on you who has the information to be accurate so that in the business deal the transaction is fair. One could argue that your responsibility to truth is even a little more stringent for this reason—you owe more to your guests in this kind of transaction than people close to you. (Although when it comes to other things, such as giving care or concern, those close to you trump those who you do not know or are far away). As a business you’re inviting others into this asymmetrical relationship, so you have a specific duty to make sure the relationship is right.
    One could hold the opposite position, like Mandeville: “These were call’d Knaves, But bar the Name, The grave Industrious were the same.” But the problem here is that you can be industrious in other ways, and some of those ways are ethical. And practically things have changed since Mandeville: if you gain a bad reputation by bending the truth to too many people too many times your business will flounder eventually. Getting precise information on the condition of one stretch of beach may not be easy, but looking at the negative feedback and doing business elsewhere is becoming standard practice.

  2. […] other entry is for June 14th. Here he discusses whether or not ethical obligations appear differently under conditions of […]

  3. Randy on

    Its a hard question to answer, long term its a very bad idea to bend ethics. A customer will remember as will all of their friends next time they want to take a vacation however the business owners need to eat.

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