When Routine Deadens Ethics

"Good boy!!!"

A Niagara County, New York coroner just resigned as he faces possible imprisonment after taking a fresh body part from the carnage of a local plane wreck and using it to train his personal cadaver-sniffing dog.

How, you may ask, could anyone, particularly a public coroner, be so callous and ethically numb? “Hey! Here’s a leg! What luck! Now I can train Rex!” How can a professional—or a human being— treat some grieving family’s loved one like a piece of meat?

I think it’s natural, really. Coroners, morticians, medical examiners, rescue workers, military commanders and doctors all have to detach themselves from the human beings whose deaths are a routine part of their daily work, or they risk being unable to do their work at all. Objectivity and independent judgment are crucial elements of professional conduct, and emotion, including sorrow, sympathy, and revulsion, is the enemy of objectivity. The danger is that in order to deaden one’s emotions through repetition and routine, one risks unplugging an ethics alarm. For these emotions are also part of the ethical value of caring.

The coroner might have been excellent at his job, but he lost all human connection to his work. The mangled body part that had once been a living, breathing, loving person seemed like a piece of meat, because to the coroner, like his dog, it was just a piece of meat.

When feeling gets in the way of a professional’s  duties, it is only normal for the professional to try to eliminate them, and even prudent, except that the absence of feelings can cause a deficit in ethics. Building those callouses over normal human emotions are matter of survival in some professions, but doing so creates what I call a “pre-unethical condition” requiring awareness and vigilance.

The Niagara coroner wasn’t sufficiently vigilant, and he fell into a career ending trap.


Facts: WGRG New York

Graphic: Greenwich Roundup

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of  facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

6 thoughts on “When Routine Deadens Ethics

  1. I’m not supporting or condemning the defendant in this story. Even though I live in Buffalo and listen to a lot of NPR, somehow this story got by me so please forgive my ignorance. (I don’t own a television either. Thank God.)

    But still, I have to ask this question: Aren’t lawyers walking a similarly thin line every day? Mary Frances whats-her-name notwithstanding, most professions that deal with humanity in one way or another are presented with certain uncharted ethical territory regularly. People make mistakes when certain issues aren’t beaten to a pulp in the classroom, media or professional development.

    Social workers often have to deal with tricky, never-been-done situations. Like performing a mental health arrest on violent children under the age of ten. So much in life is a judgment call…on or off the job. When you feel passionately about your work, I can see how easy it would be to step out of line with public opinion.

    I enjoy most of what you cover (in my short time of knowing/loving your writing), but this post felt like ruminations on a slow news day.

    (I so hate commenting publicly on blogs. It challenges MY ethics to snort about genuine efforts to inform and enlighten. Similarly, in my resume writing practice, I have never been able to develop the needed indifference to charge clients more than what I need, even though the market says I could. Life is weird. Can I comment privately from now on?)


  2. The danger is that in order to deaden one’s emotions through repetition and routine, one risks unplugging an ethics alarm. For these emotions are also part of the ethical value of caring.

    Would it not be simple to follow a set of objective rules?

      • I don’t like it. Everyone has the right to think anything about how the meat should be treated. How about: “Meat that certain people have the rights to control. Those people may not want it to be treated as just meat, and so care needs to be exercised by everyone in the chain of custody.”

        Coroner’s have specific responsibilities when dealing with the bodies in part because the people who have the rights to the bodies expect certain care. My great uncle’s antique pocket watch from Slovakia is just metal, but I expect the jeweler I bring it to to treat it with respect. Coroners have more regulations and expected proprieties as the rights holders don’t get to choose the coroner that handles their property.

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