An ethics debate on how to handle unearned credit


Harry S. Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Or maybe it was theologian Benjamin Jowett. Or perhaps author, historian and minister Edward Everett Hale is the source of the quote. Depending on which quotation book or website you consult, these or several other people could deserve credit for saying you shouldn’t take unearned credit.

Of course, most people want recognition for the good things they accomplish, but sometimes they take unearned credit for the accomplishments of others. You don’t have to look far to find examples of academic plagiarism, patent infringement and even wrongful claims of battlefield heroics.

By exploring the ethics of unearned credit, you can help your Scouts learn to take credit only when credit is due — or to avoid it altogether. Here’s a story to get you started.

The Dilemma
Ever since he earned his Readyman badge as a Webelos Scout, 14-year-old Brad Alford had dreamed of helping out in a real emergency. His chance came in a surprising setting: a high-school gathering at a local park.

It was spring break, and Brad and some friends had gathered at Gardiner Park to grill burgers, toss around a Frisbee and hang out. As Brad manned the grill, he saw his friend Paolo Guerrero dive for a Frisbee and do a face-plant on the parking lot pavement. Brad ran over to help, yelling for his other friends to follow. But that’s about all he did. When he saw blood streaming down Paolo’s face, Brad felt faint and had to sit down. Bethany Wilberforce — who wasn’t even a Venturer or Girl Scout — took over, applying direct pressure and sending someone to find a first-aid kit. Eventually, Brad did pitch in to help with bandages, but he felt like a failure.

Somehow, word got back to his Scoutmaster, Janet Hannibal, that Brad had acted bravely and appropriately. Mrs. Hannibal even gave him a certificate at the next troop meeting and held him up as an example of living the Scout slogan.

For Discussion
After reading the scenario with your Scouts, discuss the general idea of getting credit for good deeds:

  • Is it OK to take credit for the good things you do? Why or why not?

According to the Boy Scout Handbook, the Scout slogan means “doing something to help others each day without expecting anything in return.” Does that mean you shouldn’t be recognized for your Good Turns? Explain your answer.

Next, discuss these questions:

  • Brad feels like a failure. Is he?
  • Does it matter that he failed to help only because he grew faint at the sight of blood (something that happens to lots of people)?
  • Is his failure less significant because someone else was able to help Paolo?
  • Brad did rally his friends to Paolo’s aid and ended up helping with bandages. Does that make his failure less significant?
  • Discuss the misplaced credit Brad received:
  • Brad feels bad about what he did and didn’t do, and he certainly didn’t brag about being a hero. How responsible is he for the misplaced credit he received?
  • Should he have rejected the award from Mrs. Hannibal? Explain your answer.
  • Would it make any difference if the award were more significant, say a BSA National Certificate of Merit or a cash prize of some sort? Explain your answer.
  • Assume for a moment that he decides not to reject the award. What might happen if word gets back to Bethany that he is taking responsibility for what she did? What should he say to her?

1 Comment

  1. I really HATE this example! So he didn’t do everything himself but that doesn’t make him a failure. He didn’t ignore someone in need. He called for help when he saw someone get injured. Is that somehow less important than the job the person who took control did? Would his contribution have been less valid if he’d been on a mountain and unable to reach those in need, and he’d called 911? Or if his cries for help had brought an EMS running and he’d stood back to let him or her take over? Of course not! He still acted and came to the aid of someone in need. Just because the girl in the story took over at some point still doesn’t make his actions less valid. If he had been alone he might have fought past his uneasiness right away. He did fight past it and ended up helping with the bandages. Even if he hadn’t he did “earn” credit. What he didn’t earn was all of the credit. So if he is acting like he was the only one who helped the other child that would be wrong. But it would be just as wrong to do if Bethany had simply helped with the bandages at the end. It would also be wrong for Bethany to take all of the credit and not share it with him. A better example of someone who took credit for something they didn’t do would have been a bystander who heard the calls for help and ran over to watch (maybe at the most handed them a bandage) who was then given credit.

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