Jostling with Ethics – 7 : Rights and Privileges


It is amazing how some lessons get reinforced over and over again as we travel on in life. I never cease to wonder at how every one of us in this world enacts multiple roles constantly and effortlessly. I use the word effortlessly here because, to me, it is amazing how most of us solve conflicts inherent in our multiple roles through mutual give and take without any special effort. How often have we given an extra hug to a child because we cannot give her something else that she has set her heart on? How many times have we put on our uniforms and pushed off for our duty on the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) at an unearthly hour on a holiday morning when we would rather stay in bed and cuddle? We decide between two desires or two duties so often and so regularly. But alas, our paths are not always strewn with rose petals. Some times conflicts do arise when we face two conflicting desires that are equally strong or we have a call from two divergent duties equally important. Conflicts can also erupt when we fail to perceive our own rights in conflict with someone else’s, or we misjudge the boundary between our rights and our privileges. In such cases, it is rather difficult to decide which action would be ethical and which would not. My tale today is about discovering and identifying such a conflict even before it arose.

In our younger days, in the sixties and seventies, we lived in a controlled ‘command economy’ regime. For all so called ‘luxury’ goods like a scooter or a car or a telephone connection, one had to wait in a queue. Banking had not yet been nationalized. It was nearly impossible to obtain a loan for the purchase of such a luxury item from a bank. For underpaid soldiers like us, the Government threw in a few privileges; a shortened queue for the allotment of a scooter through the Canteen Stores, a loan to purchase of a car and the like. For these too, there was an internal queue system prevalent. Typically, each unit maintained a list of officers desiring a car loan. In each financial year the Air HQ allotted money for a certain number of car loans. These loans were distributed to the units through commands and stations. During one of the years when I was in command of a fighter squadron, my unit was allotted the authority for one car loan. I had a list of 5 or 6 officers waiting for a car loan. The top name of the list was sent up to the station. I signed the letter and thought no more about it.

A few days later, I sensed a loss of social binding within the unit’s officers. There was something that was making them unhappy. I had to find out what the problem was, though no one had openly spoken about any problem. I looked at all the input present. It then struck me that the officer who had applied for the car loan already owned a car! He had applied for it a year ago when he was a bachelor. He then got married. He was from a wealthy family. His father gifted him a small car for the occasion. He had not removed his request for a loan and his name had remained on the list. Was this a cause of disaffection amongst his friends? I did not know for sure, but perhaps it was. I thought the matter over. The rule book did not insist that an officer requesting for a car loan be a non-owner of a car when he applied for the privilege. It was within the rights of an officer to buy a second car or trade in his old car for a new one. The only stipulation was that an officer could not use this privilege any more than once in five years. The concerned officer in my unit was within his rights to apply for a loan. A debate now raged in my mind as to whether there had been any breach of ethics in this situation. Was the eligibility for the loan a privilege or a right? More importantly, even if an ethical slant was to be admitted, would I have a moral right to judge and grade the officer’s conduct for this incident? After a long debate within myself, I came to the conclusion that an element of ethics was indeed present in the situation. And No, I had no call to decry the officer in this instance. I did not know whether the person was aware of the existence of the ethical element of the situation. I also did not know the full background why the officer had asked for the loan in the first place. I decided to have a chat with the person concerned.

The young man was called into my office. He was completely unaware of the reason why the Commanding Officer had become interested in talking to him. He was ill at ease. I began the discussion by mentioning his request for a loan. Yes, he said. He had applied for a car loan some time ago. He had been informed that his sequence for a loan had matured. He had therefore applied formally for the loan. I then asked him that since he possessed a fairly new car, whether he was thinking of selling it and buying a newer car. He informed me that he was quite happy with his car and had no intention of selling it. In fact, the car stood registered in his father’s name. His old man had multiple vehicles and had gifted this car to him after he got married and set up a home. When the loan came through, he intended to give the money to his dad and transfer the registration to his own name. The situation seemed to have become complicated. I asked the officer whether his father had asked him to pay for the car. No. Of course not. On mentioning of his intent to pay for the car, his father had asked him to keep the money as he had no need for it. I then asked the officer whether he saw any ethical conflict in the situation. He was taken aback. He was happy to have received a gift of a car from his father. But he was a big boy now. He did not want to sponge off of his big hearted dad. His own pay was too small for him to pay back the price of the car to his dad immediately. He therefore needed and wanted the loan. His father was reluctant to take that money from him, but he fully intended to press the money back to him. I was now convinced that the young man was totally unaware of the possibility of an ethical conflict in the situation.

My own conflict became more acute. All-round development of character for an officer under my command was clearly my responsibility. I was therefore obliged to draw the officer’s attention to the fact that indeed there was an ethical angle to any decision that he might take in relation to his application for a loan. At the same time, there was a clear possibility for the officer to take any pedagogy on my part to be a subtle play of favoritism by me against him. I could ill afford to let that happen. Of course it would have been simple for me to just ignore the situation. No one in the unit had brought the subject up to me. The general level of empathy within the unit was high. Heavens, as the saying goes, would not have fallen if I just looked away. However, in my own eyes, it would have been a failure of command responsibility on my part. I decided to speak to the officer once more.

The officer was somewhat surprised as I broached the subject. The way I approached the subject was new for him. He was, I explained to him, using a Service Privilege open to him to make some cash available to his dad. This was within the law laid down. His father was not in need of this money, but being able to give this sum to him would make the young officer feel good. The young man nodded. What I was telling him matched with his own views on the subject, though he had not examined his own feelings in such detail. I then asked him whether he had considered his relationship with his friends together with his relationship with his father. The officer’s eyes grew large in surprise. Indeed, he had not considered his relationship with his family and his relationship with his friends as related in any way. My words made him think about relationships in a new light. I let the young man think about the situation in this new light. If you are confused, I said, you can always consult with your parents or your friends. He nodded his head and left my office.

Two days later the officer withdrew his application for car loan. The slot for the unit was passed on to the next person. Now, when I think about this incident about forty-five years later, I still do not know whether the person concerned acted after conscious thought or was emotionally/psychologically coerced to do what he did because I was his Commanding Officer. Grappling with one’s ethics is often tough.


6 responses »

  1. This is a very interesting case study on “Problem with Abundance”.Any system which creates abundance, poses problems for any process which existed to benefit from scarcity.
    As an Airman, unlike officers, had no abundance of system privileges. DKD had faced similar problems with men .Men in Air Force lie at the bottom of the pit as far as privileges are concerned. Their problems get resolved by themselves. No wonder.
    To me the ethical standard of the young officer was very high.The car belonged to his father.You had denied him the privilege of owning his own car from his own earning.He was punished for being a son of a rich father.

  2. TKS Sir,

    I follow your blogs keenly and always look forward to the next one being posted.

    I feel in the above case you made a mistake. I see nothing unethical in the conduct of the officer as it was well within his rights to request for a car loan and to use the money to give back to his father. Your speaking to him in fact forced his hand – I doubt he could have taken any decision but to withdraw the application for the loan. The crazy socialist economy and the need to allocate the scarce resource of a loan definitely was an attenuating factor in your decision to talk to him, however, at the end of the day he was forced to give up an earned privilege just because he appeared to be more well off than the others.

    If this were to happen to me I would view it as bullying.

  3. Bullying is the force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. The behavior can be habitual and imbalance of social or physical power. It can include verbal harassment or threat, physical assault or coercion and may be directed repeatedly towards particular victims, perhaps on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, or ability. (Reference:Wikipidia).
    This case may not come under “ Bullying “ at any stretch of logic or reasons. It was at the most a judgmental error which TKS Sir partially admits in the article.
    However I completely agree with your assessment of the case.
    And “ Bullying “ does exist in Air Force.

  4. Sir,
    I was too traditional and simplistic in response to this beautiful article. Broad based leadership has two dimension, transactional and value based. Transactional leadership deal with production, profit, efficiency etc. And value based leadership deal with teamwork, nurturing subordinate, ambition, honesty, efficiency, quality , accomplishment, dedication and art of giving away for a greater cause.
    In this case TKS, gave direction to a young officer “ the art of giving away” a privilege which he may not require to help one of his buddy . As a result this young officer surely had gained the respect and admiration of his colleagues.
    Sir, your leadership style is visionary and has far reaching impact on advancing organizational capabilities and culture.
    I take back my earlier remarks with apology.

  5. I am far too junior in age and belong to a different service and therefore not really competent to comment. Having said that, I am somehow not in agreement with the action taken by Air Cmde Sen.

    It is indeed true that it is important for any CO to have good cohesion and team spirit in the men he commands, but should this be at the cost of an individual’s rights? That is the question and I had acted differently when faced with a somewhat similar incident. I recount that incident which happened on my watch at a training school.

    I was then commanding a Type ‘A’ training establishment. We have a system whereby the CO can give his recommendations for accelerated promotions to a few. In this case we had a sailor who had met ALL the tasks, given to him and therefore I had made it clear that in my eyes that person richly deserved the recommendation for accelerated promotion. My Number One and the whole officer team was not convinced and nor was my lady PA who had been in the School for the longest time. We had many sessions and the officers finally but reluctantly saw reason that to do otherwise than what I proposed to do would amount to giving in to the tribal instincts and unfair.

    Before I could settle back in my seat, I had the School’s senior most sailor ushered in MY PRESENCE and he made a emotional tribal pitch for denying the deserving one his due. I now realised that it was a bigger issue and I had to take on the ‘Tribe’. I called for a meeting of all the Heads of different wings of the school and let the feathers fly. I made pretty much the same pitch but which was made easier by talking to those who were really affected. I simply asked them how would they feel if and when they were posted to a school belonging to a different discipline and were they to be treated to the kind of discrimination they were proposing? Each one of them agreed with me. I gave them 48 hours to talk to each instructor and I had around 110 of them, and to get back to me individually if there was even one dissenter. There was none.

    The final up shoot of the incident was that in my two odd years of command, we won not only all the sports trophies in the command, wrote/revised the largest number of books and made the largest number of emulators/simulators by the school until then and ever since!! It was one of the most satisfying commands I have had. Today when I meet some of the blokes with whom I worked those days, it is a matter of immense satisfaction that a small step that I took way back in 1996 against all advice has resulted in the creation of a Flay officer at NHQ to handle that aspect of warfare.

    I therefore feel that it is necessary to ensure that officers and men one commands must be sure that the boss man will never sacrifice their interests, come what may.

    An interesting after event incident- my successor to the unit asked me the secret of achieving what we had achieved in my watch at the time of taking over. When I replied that having trust of the men is what mattered. He thought that I was BSsing him!

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