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.

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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.

Death Photo Ethics

Even before Achilles dragged the corpse of Hector behind his chariot through the dust around the walled city of Troy, the tradition of demoralizing the enemy by degrading and displaying the bodies of its dead heroes was well-established. The United States was horrified when this was done to our fallen servicemen in Somalia, and it is one of the most barbaric and unnecessary practices of war.  While the Geneva Convention doesn’t mention the displaying of enemy corpses, a 2005 publication by the Red Cross called Customary International Humanitarian Law does. It was written to address issues that international treaties omitted, and its Rule 113 reads:

“Each party to the conflict must take all possible measures to prevent the dead from being despoiled. Mutilation of dead bodies is prohibited. Continue reading