How to Avoid the Ethical Slippery Slope
The moral concepts of duty, honor and loyalty were on full display in the March 30, 1992, segment of Star Trek, “The First Duty.” The segment deals with Star Fleet Academy Cadet Wesley Crusher, a member of the crew of the starship Enterprise, who along with three other cadets, face an investigation into a catastrophic collision during an Academy flight training exercise that led to the death of one of the crew members of the Nova Squadron. Crusher must decide whether loyalty or truth is the first duty of a Star Fleet cadet.
The segment focuses on the ethical dilemma encountered when telling the truth conflicts with being loyal to a group of people who did something wrong. It is a modern tale of the age-old problem of honesty versus loyalty. Conflicts between these two ethical values occur all the time in both our personal lives and in the workplace. A summary of the Star Trek segment appears below.
Star Trek: “The First Duty” – Stardate 45703.9
The members of Nova Squadron face questioning about the death of a crew member during a training exercise. Under pressure from the squadron leader who wants to go out in a blaze of glory, the crew agrees to stick together and perpetuate the lie that the death of their team member was the unfortunate result of an accident and no one was to blame even though they all knew the true cause was an unsanctioned Kolvoord Starburst maneuver that had been banned by the Academy for 100 years because a group of cadets had tried it and all died as a result of an accident. Each member of the crew is questioned about their role in the incident. Each is vague in their explanation, shading the truth or omitting important facts to cover-up the true cause of the accident. As the hearings progress, Jean Luc Picard, the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, confronts Wesley Crusher, an ensign on the Enterprise and member of Nova Squadron, with incontrovertible evidence that the “accident” was due to the risky maneuver. Picard lectures Crusher on the meaning of duty and honor. He tells Wesley that he had told a partial lie by leaving out important details -- a lie of omission. Picard tells Crusher that the first duty of every officer is to the truth, one of the principles upon which Starfleet was founded. Picard gives Wesley a simple choice – either he tells the admiral the truth about what happened or Picard will. As the hearing closes and the decision made not to cast blame on the crew, Crusher stands up and tells the truth.
Loyalty is an ethical value but one that should never be placed ahead of duty, honor, and responsibility. Just imagine if the leader of a work group committed fraud by falsifying financial information and he convinced the group members to stay silent. Out of loyalty, the group may remain silent believing it is the honorable thing to do – to be loyal to one’s boss. However, the result is a group of people may be caught in a lie of commission if they are not truthful about the event or a lie of omission if they fail to fully disclose the details of the fraud.
Imagine a situation in your life where there is a cover-up of a lie or dishonest act because of the prodding of your group leader and you are part of the cover-up. Next time a similar situation occurs, but you decide once is enough so you won’t go along again. You are trying to take the “high road;” however your group leader threatens to disclose your role in the cover-up in the first instance if you refuse to go along now. If you don’t admit your mistake but perpetuate the lie by going along again, your reputation may be tarnished forever.
A word of advice: Most people are forgiving of mistakes and are willing to excuse them so long as you are open and honest about it, remorseful for your actions, and you promise never to do it again.
Loyalty has its limits as the Star Trek segment illustrates. Once the first lie is told the cover-up ensues and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the truth. One lie leads to another and sooner or later it may be too late to reclaim the moral high road. The key to dealing with situations such as in the Star Trek segment is not to take the first step down that ethical slippery slope.