Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Call My Friend Out for Her ‘Service Dog’ Scam?

December 4, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Call My Friend Out for Her ‘Service Dog’ Scam?


My friend got a service dog solely to circumvent the “no pets” policy in her building. She does have the disability this dog is trained to help with, but she doesn’t use him for this purpose and even jokes about how long it took her to “deprogram” him. But she takes full advantage of his service-dog status, taking him with her to restaurants and stores that otherwise don’t permit dogs.

This seems unethical on many levels: the time and money the nonprofit spent to train the dog and the additional wait time for disabled people who needed a service dog. I think she has wronged her landlord as well. I talked to my friend about this, and she justified her behavior by saying that this was the only way she could get a dog and that the affection she gets is more valuable to her than the duties the dog was trained for.

I feel that I ought to do something, but I have no idea what. I could let the nonprofit know, but that wouldn’t allow them to recoup what they’ve lost. I could cut off my relationship with my friend, but that wouldn’t help the other disabled people. I have to decide whether or not to continue this friendship — she does tend to do things that I find sketchy — but I can figure that out for myself. My question is: Do I have an ethical responsibility in a larger sense? Relatively speaking, misappropriating a service dog is pretty minor. Even so, it really bothers me. Claudia, New York, N.Y.

My response: Amid all your explanation of what prompted your message, your one question is if you have an ethical responsibility. Your friend believes her behavior is ethical, so she would believe you have no ethical responsibility to do anything. You think you may. I’m sure you could find someone who is sure you do. Ultimately, everyone can have a different opinion. There is no book in the sky that gives you an authoritative answer everyone would agree with. What does a label based on opinion matter?

You seem to feel a responsibility but you aren’t sure what to do. It sounds like you want justification to act so you can later say, “but the New York Times told me I was responsible to act.” That is, you look like you’re trying to absolve yourself of responsibility for acting. I suggest that if you thought of something you could do, you wouldn’t ask about the ethics.

You want to influence your friend not to do something you think is wrong. You probably don’t want her punished. It seems to me that you lack leadership skills. I recommend learning to influence people without authority. Then you can act to change a situation instead of passively analyzing and judging without being able to do anything about it without risking a friendship.

I also recommend learning skills to handle your emotions. In a case like this, it sounds like your ability to influence her, given how happy she seems and how she doesn’t seem to agree with your perspective, is limited. In other words, you may have to live in a world where people do things you consider unethical but they don’t.

You feeling miserable won’t make your life better, nor increase your chances of influencing her.

The New York Times response:

It might be worth trying to identify the harm here. Your friend is entitled to the dog, even if she’s not using him for the intended purpose. And there are worse offenses. But you’re right to be bothered.

As a rule, we think it’s morally acceptable, and sometimes desirable, for buildings, restaurants and other public establishments to exclude animal companions. Federal law carves out an exception to the rule, which seems fair when you think of a seeing-eye dog, or a trained service animal helping someone with severe psychological difficulties participate in social life.

Still, the system is wide open to abuse. There’s no national method for certifying service animals or for identifying them: You’re not required to prove you’ve got a service animal to buy special harnesses or tags. A business is legally entitled to get answers to just two questions: Is this animal required because of a disability? What work or task is it trained to do? But most restaurants and landlords aren’t likely to ask even these questions; they rightly don’t want to offend people with disabilities.

Airlines aren’t any stricter. The relevant Department of Transportation regulation says: “Carriers shall accept as evidence that an animal is a service animal identification cards, other written documentation, presence of harnesses or markings on harnesses, tags or the credible verbal assurances of the qualified individual.” This effectively means that airlines must accept most animals with a “service animal” harness.

Given the needs of the genuinely disabled, there’s good reason to have a presumption in favor of allowing service animals. But people who abuse the privilege are breaking a fundamental social principle: They’re taking unfair advantage of the compliance of others. In doing so, they undermine the legitimacy of the system. As more and more people take advantage, genuinely disabled people with real service animals will face increasing skepticism. (This isn’t likely to happen with seeing-eye dogs, because it’s not so easy to fake being blind.) And support for the statutory accommodations may wane.

You could point some of this out to your friend. It might at least discourage her from boasting about her bad behavior. Of course, she might also resent the reproach, in which case she may be the one to end the friendship, not you.

My friend supervises 100 employees at a factory, mostly Latino immigrants working for minimum or near-minimum wage, who speak little if any English. She is a native speaker of Spanish herself and is rising in the company, earning good wages. However, she despises one of her tasks: She is asked to speak to the workers she supervises only in English, and to reprimand them if they speak Spanish on the job. I let her know that such an English-only workplace requirement is quite possibly illegal on both the state and the federal levels.

So now she’s in an ethical dilemma. Is she ethically obligated to confront her bosses? Would it be O.K. to contact a local newspaper or a state or federal agency? And if she doesn’t want to be implicated, can I do it for her? If she asks me not to do anything, is it ethical for me to remain silent? There is no union at the workplace. Lisa, Amherst, Mass.

My response: The basic premise is the same as above. You think they are doing something unethical. They think it’s ethical. You getting the New York Times to say it’s ethical, if they do, wouldn’t reduce the risk of your friend losing her job.

It sounds like what would improve the situation for you is not more labels from authorities the company wouldn’t likely recognize as relevant, but a plan to act that would create a response that as many people as possible would agree on. Philosophical labels won’t help. Problem-solving will. What resources do you have access to? What outcomes can you expect to create? What choices of action can you think of? What are the results of each to the relevant parties? Answering questions like these will help you create outcomes you want.

They may also lead you to conclude that no matter what you do, you can’t create the change you want within a level of risk you accept for yourself and your friend. You wouldn’t be the first to feel frustrated at the risk to a project you want to take being greater than you’re willing to take on.

So it sounds like philosophical answers won’t be as useful to you as practical problem-solving or emotional skills to manage yourself should you find yourself unable to solve the problem.

The New York Times response:

One way that legal protections are abused, we’ve seen, is by being claimed by those who aren’t entitled to them — by being overapplied. The more typical way that protections are abused, though, is by being neglected or ineffectively enforced — by being underapplied. That’s the case here. What to do?

Let’s start with your last question. You shouldn’t proceed without your friend’s consent, if there’s any chance she’ll be blamed for the revelation. When she shared her concerns, she assumed that you wouldn’t pass them on without her permission. If you are, as you say, writing on her behalf, you should protect her interests.

Still, some action ought to be taken, and you two need to agree on a strategy. You’ve informed your friend that these demands could be illegal. Even if they weren’t, it would be wrong to impose this burden on these workers. There’s no apparent business necessity here; the workers’ speaking Spanish to one another doesn’t get in the way of their doing their job properly. Insisting that they don’t is therefore exploitative: The company is using their vulnerability (they are easily fired) to get them to do something it has no moral right to require.

One question is whether the bosses would penalize your friend for telling them she has discovered that what they’ve asked her to do may be unlawful. Any supervisor with the company’s interests at heart would have reason to alert her bosses to the legal risks. If an employee were to file a complaint, the company could find itself pursued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Nonetheless, given the realities of her workplace, such counsel may not be welcome. If your friend thinks that even raising the issue will get her into trouble, there’s no reason not to take the steps you mention (provided, again, you can protect her). She would be able to say truthfully, if asked, that she wasn’t the person who revealed what was going on.

See what you and your friend can figure out. We do civil rights no favors by stretching them beyond their proper bounds, but nothing weakens them faster than a lack of exercise.

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