Ask not what your country can do for you….

I try to not judge people, but I once took a Myers-Brigg personality test and one of my letters came up “J” for “judging” as opposed to “P” for “perceiving.”  Oh well, guess it’s an uphill battle for me.

When I have the upper hand in that battle, however, I usually succeed in putting myself (the judger) in the other person’s (the judgee’s) shoes and gain their perspective.  When I can control my judgmental self, not get too hot-headed and see things objectively, I feel I can gain a lot of knowledge and insight which will then lead to a better ability to properly assess, or “judge,” a situation.  Maybe the person that passes me on the street with tons of piercings, tattoos and dark clothes had a rough upbringing or poor role models.  Maybe there are endless facts about a situation that I can never know, therefore making any judgement I pass based on incomplete knowledge.  Maybe there’s an excuse or explanation for all inequities in this world that can be traced back along a cascade of misguided causes and effects.  I try to not go in with guns blazing and instead give people the benefit of the doubt for as long as I can until it’s been proven to me that they knowingly have done wrong and are in need of penance, somewhat reflecting the code of the American justice system, “innocent until proven guilty.”

What I’m getting at here is that I try to look at these issues presented in class objectively and give those involved the benefit of the doubt until I’ve thoroughly investigated their stories and can then adequately assess the situation.  I hesitate to point fingers and scandalize someone before I know their whole story, mostly because I would hate to pass the wrong judgment on someone, making the fact that I’m judging even worse, and I don’t like looking foolish (who does?).  I know that it’s easy for those who know the stories already to emit a vibe reflecting their attitudes toward the responsible parties, but even when I hear a story knowing some background information I like to keep a level head, ask questions, and listen.  I’ve developed this approach because I think it’s fair and objective, which is how I think one needs to behave when passing judgment.

This idea of fairness is the last thing I’ll mention here.  We’ve been reading and discussing a lot about governmental officials doing, or not doing, their jobs of serving and protecting the American people, and yesterday I enjoyed the privilege of having a conversation with one.  One of my main questions was about the relationship among the governmental organizations, the general public, and the industries that run the economy.  The case in point was the TCC case where the EPA had to crack down on TCC at the urging of local residents.  The thing is, the EPA is required by law to be a fair and unbiased investigator of TCC and their alleged crimes.  Their only bias is the protection of public and environmental health, but the company has the right (deservedly) to due process and is permitted to exercise that right.  The laws must be structured this way so that a company who is behaving ethically can defend its actions, just like an innocent defendant in a court case (again, being innocent until proven guilty).  A lot of flak is shoveled at the EPA because of its slowness to act, but the resources necessary (time, money, authority) to adequately investigate is often not enough for our governmental servants to move as fast as we would like.  Therefore, I err on the side of cutting those who are responsible for investigations like in the TCC case some slack.  I don’t like passing judgment until I know all the facts (which may never be entirely known – we are dealing with people here and people lie, make mistakes and have biases), and instead of passing that judgment at all it would probably be a better use of my time to investigate further and even help with the cause.  As I said in an earlier post, voting is the minimal civil service we’re all called to do.  If we feel passionate about something, we should educate ourselves as much as possible and from that platform help in doing what’s necessary to right any wrong that may have occurred.  I’ll end with the line from JFK’s inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”  We are all called to be servants, because when we can all serve each other we can call benefit.

2 thoughts on “Ask not what your country can do for you….

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog this week, mostly because I feel like I can relate with your method of objectively evaluating a case. I work for the EPA and after the last few classes, I walk away feeling like there is no appreciation for the work that does get done. Out ethics analysis tends to focus on regulatory and public breakdowns where something slips through the crack. Unlike the DC Lead in Drinking Water case, I have not encountered any wrongdoing on the part of the NY DEC or the EPA in how they are handling the Tonawanda Coke case. I agree and sympathize with the citizens who are directly impacted that the process is so slow and seemingly unproductive at times. But, as you said, they have the responsibility to not just point fingers. I think the Clean Air Coalition is a necessary entity and maybe represents a gap in general represents the gap in public participation that is needed to ensure government accountability and efficiency.

  2. A very important blog. Fair judgment in controversial cases like TCC is important indeed. As we’ve seen in several of the cases we have discussed or read about this semester, painstaking research must precede every response to a controversy for the response to be effective and for the respondent to have an impact. The question you seem to raise is at what point we can consider ourselves knowledgeable enough to pass judgment. Also, maybe by extension, at what point we can consider ourselves justified or even obligated to take action. Is judging too soon and being proven wrong something we would want to avoid as much as acting too late (or not acting at all) and realizing later that harm we could have helped prevent was done?

    In the TCC case, how do we assess if EPA acted in a timely and public-health-protective fashion? I know that from the outside the agency seems to have moved surprisingly slowly, but for our purposes what we are interested in finding out is if the stakeholders involved (including the EPA, but also other key stakeholders and especially those who were exposed to environmental contaminants or harmed by them) share this view. From your conversation with EPA, do you know if the official you spoke with feels satisfied with the agency’s performance? If so, and if other stakeholders feel differently, then you will have discovered a difference of expectations that would be very important for our class to explore. If not, then maybe there are systemic constraints (like for example the limits in resources you mention in your entry) that prevent agencies like EPA from doing the job they are supposed to do (and that the public expects). In this case too you will have discovered a potential institutional limitation that can have serious societal implications. Once again, this would be very important for our class to explore.

    Most (if not all) stakeholders in a case like TCC will have logical explanations for their actions (whether those actions are considered “adequate” or “inadequate”). It seems to me that what’s important in one’s fair assessment of a case where preventable harm was indeed done, is to try and understand if these explanations reflect fundamental differences in stakeholder worldviews (e.g., differences in philosophies, understandings of obligations, expectations, etc.) and/or if they reflect limitations in a system that no party wants but that can indeed lead to harm. Depending on what the case is, different solutions might be advisable.

    What do you think? Does this make sense? Does it not?

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