Sunday, October 9, 2011

Gift Horses

A colleague, Michael Crosbie, wrote an editorial in the fall 2011 issue of the magazine he edits, Faith & Form ( about a parishioner who wanted to donate a water-intensive irrigation system to his church. While the church wanted to accept the gift, Michael, who is an architect, raised questions about the wisdom of accepting such a gift when better and more efficient alternatives existed. The church had to decide what to do with a gift that it could use, but that may not be in its best interest to accept.

The phrase “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” generally applies to the presents we sometimes receive as individuals that we may not want or like, but that we accept with gratitude because of the giver’s good intentions. Such gifts often get stored or given away, with no harm done to the feelings of those who gave them. It is another matter, though, when we must use and, as in the case here, depend upon the gift in our daily lives, without the ability to pass it on or put it away. This raises the ethical question of what matters more: social harmony or personal integrity? Do we do what we think is right in such a situation, regardless of the possible negative consequences to our relationship with others, or do we do what those relationships demand and not look the gift horse in the mouth?

This becomes particularly problematic in a professional relationship. People commission a professional like an architect in order to have their needs met in the best way possible and have their best interests attended to even if that means facing some disappointment when told that they cannot have all that they had wanted or do all that that they had hoped. Professionals differ from ordinary businesses in this way. The latter often try to please their customers as much as possible within what the law allows in terms of health, safety, and welfare. Profits flow to businesses by giving people what they want, even when that runs against the best interests of the purchasers, as we have seen with producers of tobacco products or the purveyors of high-calorie food.

Professionals have a higher bar to meet. Society expects professionals to do what is in the best interests not only of the individuals seeking professional advice, but also of the larger communities affected by it. That may mean, in situations like this, that professionals have to say or do things that others may not want or like, if that is in the best interest of all those involved. Here, the architect has an obligation to speak the truth to the church about the downsides of accepting and installing the system offered by the donor. The church, of course, can ignore Michael and insist that the system get used, keeping the donor happy but possibly alienating a knowledgeable member of the congregation. Or the church can take Michael’s professional advice to heart and thank the donor offering the gift, but decline to accept it because it does not meet their needs or goals.  

A third way almost always exists for such dilemmas, however, through the use of design. Unlike other professions with a “win-lose” view of conflict, designers seek “win-win” solutions. In this case, there remains the possibility of accepting the gift and installing the system as the donor wishes, while also providing a less costly and more sustainable alternative if it proves too expensive or wasteful to operate in the future. The resiliency that multiple, redundant systems provides can also help keep the peace.

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