Ethics Quiz: What Do the Gulf Oil Spill, Pearl Harbor, Bernie Madoff, 9-11,Tyler Colvin’s Chest Wound Have in Common?

Answer: They all are the inevitable consequences of the human conduct known (on “Ethics Alarms,” at least) as the “Barn Door Fallacy”—the irresponsible and unethical tendency to allow a dangerous situation to persist until it actually causes catastrophic damage, thus giving the decision-makers sufficient support to spend the money or cause the systemic disruption necessary to address the problem, too late, of course, to save the victims of the catastrophe. They lock the barn door, but after the horse is gone, and perhaps has trampled someone to death while leaving.

Who is Tyler Colvin? He is a major league baseball player in the employ of the Chicago Cubs. His season, and almost his life, ended yesterday:

“Tyler Colvin is in stable condition at a local hospital after being impaled in his upper left chest by a piece of broken bat during Sunday’s game at Sun Life Stadium. Colvin was scoring from third on Welington Castillo’s RBI double when a piece of bat hit him in his chest. He was transported to the Ryder Trauma Unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where X-rays are being taken and the wound is being sutured.There was no immediate word on the depth of the wound, though it was only a few inches from his heart and could’ve been much more serious. The sharp end of the larger piece of Castillo’s broken bat is what went into Colvin’s chest.”

Colvin wasn’t actually killed, so there is an appreciable chance that Major League Baseball will still keep the barn door open and refuse to ban maple bats, which the sport has known for years shatter easily and jaggedly, risking the lives of players, coaches, umpires and spectators. But no one has actually been killed yet, so like the lax airport security policies that everyone knew were an invitation to terrorists well before nearly 3000 people died; like the casual regulation of deep-water oil drilling that was bound to cause a disastrous spill someday; like the chummy, conflict-ridden Securities Exchange Commission in the Bush Administration, which was never going to diligently check on the dealings of a well-respected investor like Bernie Madoff; and like the United States public, which was content to let Hitler destroy Europe and Japan savage Asia in the crackpot hope that the two voracious predators would leave us alone, until we finally were attacked, MLB may once again allow the potentially and inevitably deadly bats to persist until all doubt is removed…by a completely preventable tragedy.

The Barn Door Fallacy is deeply ingrained in all of us. We don’t replace the bald tire until it blows and almost kills our family; we don’t stop smoking until the lung spot shows up on the X-ray; we don’t get computer virus protection until we’ve lost all our documents once. Law firms don’t get serious about ethics training until they endure a reputation-destroying scandal; charities don’t adopt a Code Of Ethics and financial oversight until their treasurer embezzles the endowment; national governments don’t get serious about controlling deficits and entitlements until everyone is speaking Greek. The Barn Door Fallacy is lazy, cowardly, reckless and irresponsible. It is going on right now, in thousands of ways, in every government agency, national, state and local, in every business, and every household. I am engaging in it, and so are you…and it is unethical.

The real question is: how do we train ourselves and our institutions to recognize this, and stop a destructive, deadly pattern of conduct that is centuries old?

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