Ethics and Incompetence
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Edward Queen, Director, D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics
and Servant Leadership, Center for Ethics

Vol. 8 No. 3
December 2005/January 2006

Return to Contents

Library Past, Library Present
The age and angst of digitization

Comparing Libraries

Copyright foul or access fair?

"You can never let up on the acquisition of printed materials. Print is fundamental to the humanities, and the visual images are far better than anything yet available through an electronic purveyor. "

"The pressure is on from our scholarly communities, who for certain tasks want print, but for convenience, access, and other reasons want electronic."

Reading Reading Lolita
Memory, memoir, and history

Ethics and Incompetence
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Science Study Abroad
The Whys and Why Nots



There is a scene in Shaw’s Major Barbara when Lady Britomart has become so disgusted with everyone around her—her estranged husband, her son, her daughters, and their suitors—that she blurts out, “Lomax: you are a fool. Adolphus Cusins: you are a Jesuit. Stephen: you are a prig. Barbara: you are a lunatic. Andrew: you are a vulgar tradesman. Now you all know my opinion; and my conscience is clear, at all events.”

In response, her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, responds, “My dear, you are the very incarnation of morality. Your conscience is clear and your duty done when you have called everybody names,” and, by implication, assigned blame.

There is an appropriate level of caution in this vignette. The ability to call everyone the appropriate name, assign the requisite level of blame, and then feel that one has done her or his moral duty is not what is called for in a situation like this, particularly if the goal is to clear one’s “conscience,” in the words of Lady Britomart, if it is to absolve oneself of responsibility and to make political points. It is especially inappropriate here given the magnitude of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina and the failings, which were markedly well distributed, from the lowest to the highest levels—from those who could (and should) have left and did not (and the sheer number of private cars inundated by the flooding well demonstrates that many could have fled who did not), to the looters who preyed on innocents (and here I am not speaking of those who sought the necessities of life), to New Orleans’ local government, to the highest levels of the federal government. My goal is to speak of competence as an ethical reality and to ask what we reasonably ought to expect from individuals.

Incompetence is immorality. This statement has several dimensions. First, to continue in (and perhaps even to accept) a position that one lacks the competence to fulfill is immoral. For that reason Michael Brown, the discredited director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, perhaps not only should have resigned but maybe never even have accepted such a post. Not because he is bad, but because he was a man who, through no fault of his own, had been elevated above his competence, and now both he and the world know it. To continue in a position knowing that one is unable to meet its obligations is wrong (and please note that I am not referring to mere mistakes, I am talking about the ability to fulfill the overall duties of an office. I am speaking about competence, not perfection).

Second is the obligation of systems to accomplish the purposes for which they exist and of those supervising those systems to ensure that the mechanisms and personnel are there to accomplish those purposes. That is what moral leadership is about—the ability
to deliver the goods as well as the good.

Nothing can be good that does not work, and good intentions, as the saying has informed us all, pave the road to hell. The importance of competence in public leadership has been recognized by individuals as diverse as Martin Luther and Hunter S. Thompson of blessed memory. Luther is purported to have claimed, “Better to be ruled by a wise Turk than a stupid Christian.” While Thompson, in one of his columns written during the 1976 primary campaigns when discussing the democratic hopefuls, noted that his wife “liked Mo Udall.” “I like Mo Udall too,” he quipped. “I also like Jerry Jeff Walker, the notorious New Orleans scofflaw and musician and a helluva lot of
other people I would not want to be president of the United States.”
Unfortunately, the increasing ideologization of politics and the failure to recognize that a major question is not whether one likes someone or her or his policies ought not to be the touchstone of choice. The question is, can the individual do the job?

Events like Hurricane Katrina provide all of us with learning opportunities—not for the purposes of blaming, although those who failed should be held accountable, but to learn how to do better. And therein lies an ethical question: What do we need to do to minimize such failures in the future? For we cannot end them. This also is an important thing to learn. Are there events over which human beings have no control, that cannot be solved but can only be managed?

I want to end with a quotation from an essay by Edward Rothstein in the September 8, 2005, New York Times Book Review, for while incompetence may be immorality, not all tragedies are due to incompetence. Much discussion taking place about Hurricane Katrina identified the failures of procedures and planning and focused on determining responsibility. While none of that should go undone, as Rothstein noted, “it is remarkable how this natural disaster slowly has come to be seen as a result of human agency, as if failures in planning were evidence of causality, as if forces of nature were subject to human oversight. The hurricane has been humanized.”

While human actions may be crucial, such a focus represents a major shift in our views of the natural world. It inflates human knowledge. It extends scientific and political power into the realm of nature. It doesn’t really explain catastrophe, but it attempts to explain why we are forced to experience it: because of human failings.

Rothstein continued by pointing out that there is a theodicy at work in such actions, in the ways in which the reaction to natural catastrophe becomes political. Nature becomes something to
be managed or mismanaged; it lies within the political order, not outside of it. The problem is that all theodicies, if successful, do not overturn beliefs but confirm them. They ultimately reinforce our preexisting beliefs and presumption. Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath confirmed people’s previous doubts, whether they were about the inefficiencies of bureaucrats and government, or of the current administration, or even economic or social systems.

Such responses, however, do not help us get at an understanding of how to do better next time. They only may make us feel, like Lady Britomart, as though our consciences are clear and our duties done.