The Compassion Bullies Strike Again!

(I know everyone is going to hate this.)

"Be compassionate, damn you!!! This thing is loaded"

Having a terminal illness does not justify bullying corporations into waiving fair and valid contracts, and using the media and public opinion to extort money out of companies that they have no obligation to surrender is unethical.

Sorry. But it’s true.

US Air has capitulated to a classic example of compassion bullying and agreed to refund the non-refundable airline ticket Lynn McKain purchased as part of a family vacation to Belize. This occurred after the McKain family sicced the media on the airline when a recurrence of breast cancer caused Lynn to cancel the trip on doctor’s orders. She requested a refund based on her misfortune, although there was nothing in the deal that suggested that there were exceptions to the ticket’s non-refundable features. Then, after the airline politely declined to waive the terms the McKain’s had agreed to in order to pay discounted ticket fees, the family alerted the media, with predictable results. There were heart-wrenching stories about McKain’s cancer treatment, making out the airline as an avaricious, mean-spirited cabal of inhuman monsters.

Finally, the airline gave in. It had no choice; the media and the McKain’s would keep the pressure on, making the episode a full-fledged public relations catastrophe, unless it did. The Compassion Bullies won, as they almost always do. Don’t think for a moment that this is good triumphing over wrongdoing, however. It is the opposite.

This was a shakedown to the tune of $4200. Instead of a gun or a hostage, the media and the McKain’s used the sympathy of people who were perfectly willing to demand compassionate behavior that wouldn’t cost them a thing. It’s a corporation, after all. Why shouldn’t it give away money to a family that is enduring a crisis? Make it hand over the money. Condemn it if it balks at surrendering the money. Even though the family has no right to it, and even though everyone in a free society is supposed to have a choice under which circumstances they engage in charity, with what and for the benefit of whom. Give the money to us, demanded the McKains of US Air.

Or you’ll be sorry.

The $4200 became the airline’s cash as soon as the tickets were purchased. It didn’t matter whether the tickets were used to fly to Belize, or to start a barbecue. But because everyone—yes, with reason—feels sorry for a young mother battling Stage 4 cancer, this gives Compassion Bullies a sense of entitlement and power. Their misfortune means the rules shouldn’t apply to them. That a company which fulfilled every aspect of a contractual arrangement the family entered into with its eyes wide open—non-refundable means non-refundable—wants to hold on to what is legally and ethically its property is regarded as selfish and  irrelevant. The company has to do what everybody else thinks would be kind and generous. The principle: “Make Others Do Unto Others What You Would Have Them Do As Long As It Doesn’t Cost You Anything.”

As I wrote the last time I confronted the Compassion Bullies (Remember  Enzo and “The Barefoot Contessa“?):

“Do all of us have an obligation to do a favor for a stranger simply because they asked for it? No. Do we have an obligation to do the favor if the stranger is sick? Young? Old? Dying? No, no, no and no. Accept any other answer, and we are declaring that whenever [a sympathetic party] delivers a request, it is really a demand, backed by the threat of public humiliation….dictatorship of the desperate, attack of the compassion bullies….Being kind and generous is ethical, but saying no when there is no ethical duty to say yes is not unethical.”

But forcing someone, yes even those evil corporations, to give up what is rightfully theirs, as the McKains and their media allies did to US Air is unethical. And the public should stop letting the Compassion Bullies get away with it.

10 thoughts on “The Compassion Bullies Strike Again!

  1. Jack, on the merits of your argument you’re correct, as far as it goes. But it WAS stupid on USAir’s part.

    Fact is that with this case the airline has ample time to re-sell those seats, and the simple courtesy extended would likely turn the family into lifelong USAir customers. From an ethical standpoint, the airline was under no obligation to do so. But from a good customer service standpoint, the rigidity they demonstrated was problematic.

    If USAir employees were empowered to be a little more customer-responsive, this could have been an event that easily worked in everyone’s favor – and it would never have made the front page of Drudge. Or been a topic here.

  2. The question now is: how does US Air like its position on the proverbial slippery slope?

    The debate of whether or not the original enforcement of the non-refundable agreement was a good business decision, ethical considerations aside, will rage on no doubt, but what kind of Pandora’s Box has been opened?

    Stage 4 breast cancer is certainly a serious situation and probably grounds for aborting a vacation trip, but where is the line now? Should the refund on the non-refundable ticket be granted for stage 2? Carpel tunnel flare-up? Plantar warts? No matter where the line is drawn today, tomorrow will give us someone with their own version of a “serious” medical reason not previously addressed for which they feel entitled to relief from their contract. One can only imagine what “social emergencies” will be presented as a basis for waiving the contract.

    There had to be a business advantage to offering a discounted, non-refundable ticket. If the non-refund aspect becomes moot so, most likely, will the discount. In the long run the flying public will be paying full fare.

  3. Compassion bullying goes on *inside* corporations too. I feel blessed to have an employer which, for as well as I can discern, conducts an annual United Way campaign without measures such as 100% participation goals.

    Then, there is good ol’ compassion bullying, government-style, aka tyranny of special interests…I’ll say no more.

      • As someone who once worked for a company that ran a United Way campaign that stopped just short of sending enforcers to your office to break arms or legs if you didn’t contribute, I am sympathetic to your statement, Jack. My question is, would it be unethical of the company to run a UW campaign where they simply said “Hey, United Way is collecting money, and we think they’re doing good stuff with their money so please, if you’re so inclined, contribute to them. To make it easy, we’ve provided some simple and handy collection venues. But again, all this is voluntary.” ? Is such an appeal possible in the real world, that is, one where the Compassion Bullies seem to have the upper hand?

        • Yes, I think it’s unethical. There is inherent coercion when your employer asks you to support its/his/her idea of a worthwhile charity. And coercion, even for a good cause, is unfair and disrespectful of autonomy and free choice.

  4. There’s another side to this: the airlines have long had an unwritten policy of compassionate waivers to their ticket restrictions. The McKain’s request was understandable; USAir’s hard line refusal was less so, as Arthur has suggested.

    • The question is, which airlines have which unwritten policies, and being unwritten, are they obligated to give waivers based on the demands of the waivees? Unless there is a all-fours precedent the McKains could point to, I’d say an unwritten waiver can be employed any way a company chooses, and that forcing one to be used by outside pressure is unfair.

      • I think all airlines (except Southwest) have unwritten policies, which of course they’re not bound to follow. Problem is, when you have a written policy that’s often waived you create a kind of public nuisance that people are drawn to. I said there are two sides to this: both USAir and the mcKains contriburted to the ruckus.

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