John's family owns a small farm in the Midwest. After graduating from high school, John decided to gain experience working on a larger farm. He had always hoped to work with Mr. Riley, owner of the largest breeding farm in the area. Riley is well respected by everybody and known to be open and straightforward, with a genuine concern for the people he hired. John was very pleased when Mr. Riley offered him a job. The two developed a friendship quickly, and John found that each day his admiration for Mr. Riley grew.

John learned about many aspects of farming that hadn't entered into the picture in the management of his family's much smaller operation. While John was familiar with the agricultural considerations involved in animal husbandry, Mr. Riley's job also included the challenge of projecting the amount of money he would have to bring in to cover employee salaries and benefits, and liability insurance. On top of that, there were more EPA regulations to consider than on John's smaller farm, and federal, state, and local ordinances with which to comply.

In the fall, John decided to enroll in a night class at the local community college. The course covered just the kind of red tape that Mr. Riley dealt with every day. Mr. Riley had indicated that John could take on some new responsibilities as soon as he'd completed the course.

One requirement of the course was to study waste disposal on large farms. The Riley farm had an efficient system in which animal waste was stored in large lagoons and then sprayed as fertilizer on the crops, which in turn fed the livestock. John knew just by glancing at the newspaper that waste disposal was a controversial issue in their community. He had read about recent lagoon spills into aquatic systems that had caused economic hardships to other businesses.

One day, as part of his classwork, John took a water sample from a river running near the waste storage area of Riley's farm. The result indicated that trace amounts of waste were leaking from the lagoons into the river. Significant environmental damage could occur as a result.

John immediately approached Mr. Riley with his concerns. John was excited about the research he had done and felt sure that Mr. Riley would thank him for bringing such an important problem to his attention. But John had a bewildering surprise in store for him: Mr. Riley did nothing to address the issue. Instead, he described the rising costs and smaller profit margins under which the farm was increasingly forced to operate. John left the discussion feeling he'd done something wrong by taking that water sample. He found himself wishing he'd never signed up for the class.

Mr. Riley did not volunteer to fix the leakage problem and made it clear that such repairs would create a financial hardship for the farm. John knew his own job depended on the farm's financial success. Should John keep quiet about the problem or take the next step and inform the local EPA inspector?

The Outcome

We regret to say that we do not know the outcome of this dilemma. Though we have tried to reach the person who brought this real-life dilemma to one of our seminars, we have not been successful. Instead, here are samples of responses we have received about this dilemma:

From Colorado: "John [ should] continue his research [ to let Mr. Riley know] what it will cost him if he does nothing and is inevitably found in violation. Now that he is aware of the problem, John may be legally bound to proceed, else he become an accessory and fully liable."

From Long Beach, Calif.: "John cannot in clear conscience continue to work on Mr. Riley's farm. ... [ He] could write an anonymous letter to the local newspaper stating that there is a problem in the local water supply and then let the community take care of the problem. Chances are Mr. Riley's farm is not the only farm with such a problem."

Copyright 1999 Institute for Global Ethics. All rights reserved.