Category Archives: Daily Life

Anti-Gun Zealots Must Reconcile Their Rhetoric With This, Or Concede That Their Adversaries, And All Citizens, Have A Right To Protect Themselves

In Macon, Georgia, a coordinated mob of teens attacked a Walmart like a scene out of “Dawn of the Dead.” Surveillance cameras revealed this:

The Macon Telegraph reports that a group of about 50 teens swarmed the store and began destroying property, apparently for the fun of it. A customer in a motorized scooter was pulled from his seat and dragged on the floor, police say.  17-year-old Kharron Nathan Green entered the store at about 2 a.m. last Sunday morning and flashed “gang signs.” At his signal, a group of about 50 people, apparently teens or a bit older, charged into the store. They departed when police arrived. Green, was the only one arrested, not because he was the ringleader, but because he is an idiot. He returned to the scene of the crime to fetch a dropped phone.

That nobody was seriously hurt or killed is moral luck, nothing more.

Is it relevant that all of the teens appear to be black? Sure it is, though many news outlets—like the Macon Telegraph, in fact— didn’t think so, because that creates inconvenient implications. For one thing, it was very relevant to any police officer trying to deal with the onslaught, as having to shoot one of the mob if he was aggressive would have the cop branded as a racist killer  and possibly railroaded into a murder trial by the Georgia equivalent of Marilyn Mosby. Continue reading

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Filed under Citizenship, Daily Life, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Train Wrecks, Facebook, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Race, U.S. Society

Warning: The Companion Rule To “Bias Makes You Stupid” Is “Immunity To Bias Makes You Dead”

terrorist

The picture above shows Denis Cuspert, a German rapper and the enterprising creator of the T-shirt he is holding in the shot on the left. The photo on the right shows Denis in his current incarnation, Abu Talha Al-Almani. He formally joined the Islamic State sometime in April 2014. It is believed that he has become the Islamic State’s chief propagandist in the German language, inspiring disillusioned young Germans to become jihadists. In November 2014, he appeared in an Islamic State video holding a severed head.

I saw the photo above online this morning, and it reminded me that I have never made an important point about bias explicit here. Bias causes a lot of problems, in society and in the life of individuals, but those who furiously condemn bias  and demand that we should eradicate it from human nature are reckless and ignorant, and often dishonest as well. Bias is a crucial evolutionary feature that allows human beings to avoid making the same mistake twice, or a hundred times. It is linked to trust, and leads to wariness. Without the ability to form biases, every one of us would be fatally naive, and a victim waiting to be harmed. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Daily Life, Ethics Scoreboard classics, Ethics Train Wrecks, Law & Law Enforcement, Race

A Lesson In Moral Luck And Consequentialism

car-key

If I accomplish nothing more through Ethics Alarms than to cure some intelligent readers of the seductive fallacy of consequentialism and the insideous influences of moral luck, then the long, aimless trail of squandered opportunities, under-achievement, diffuse focus, quixotic quests, Pyrrhic victories and lost causes I call my life will not have been entirely in vain.

Last week I was again in the throes of consequentialism hate. The Boston Red Sox, in the midst of a terrible start to their season, brought up minor league prospect Eduardo Rodriguez for a spot start. He was spectacular, allowing no runs and looking like the team ace Boston has been searching for all season. Immediately after the game, articles popped up in the baseball media excoriating the team for not bringing him up from the minor leagues long before. It was obvious back in Spring Training, said unnamed scouts, that he should be with the big club. It was negligence and stupidity, said other pundits, that it had taken this long to promote him. Strangely, there had been no published arguments to this effect before his impressive debut. And would any of these “I could have told you so” pieces have been written if Rodriguez had been bombed out of the game in the early innings, as literally any starting pitcher may be in a given game?

No. That’s the marvel of hindsight bias, the human tendency to presume that what could have been known should have been known after it is known.  Consequentialism is its more destructive cousin. These same analysts will conclude that the decision to bring up the pitcher was a brilliant one, if tardy, because he performed well. If he had done badly, the decision would have been, in all likelihood, decreed ” a mistake.” This was the fallacy that Jeb Bush was recently pilloried for not embracing regarding his brother’s decision to invade Iraq.

And moral luck? That’s the phenomenon that makes hypocrites and fools of us all, pointing us to the suffocating arms of Dame Consequentialism. If two decision-makers take exactly the same course in exactly equivalent circumstances, the one who is the beneficiary of good fortune—moral luck—will be hailed as a genius. The unlucky soul whose identical plans are derailed by unpredictable misfortune will be handed the mantle of an incompetent failure.

Situations where reasonable decisions and actions are declared “mistakes,” or, as is more germane here, “unethical” according to how uncontrollable events and contingencies occur subsequent to the conduct itself are legion. I am always looking for the counter example, where wrongful conduct has a good result, and is there for forgiven, ignored, or even praised. Well, I found one, and it just happened to me.

I had an important though brief client meeting scheduled this morning, and I had managed to forget the exact time. It was either at 10:45 or 11:00, and I had to be on time, because he was on a tight schedule. My wife was annoyed at me for my scheduling, since she had to use the car to get to a long scheduled appointment of her own at noon and my meeting was 30 minutes away. To make things worse, I couldn’t reach my meeting partner to determine the right time ( a postponement was impossible). To complete the fiasco, I misplaced the car keys, delaying my departure until after 10:30. I was informed, as I left the house with my newly discovered keys (never mind where they were; it is too embarrassing), that if I didn’t have the car back by 11:45, I was dead.

I assumed I would be dead. Continue reading

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Ethics Hero Sighting At The 7-11

7 eleven

They are out there—just good, kind, ethical people who quietly do what they can to make society a little better whenever they can.

I was just at a 7-11 in Alexandria, Virginia. I was sitting in the car, waiting for Grace to pick up some things, along with Rugby, who loves sticking his head out the window and flirting with people going in and out of the store. He’s shameless and adorable, and almost every time we go there one or more shoppers will come over to the car, pat him and talk with him…and sometimes even me.

As I waited, I noticed a grim, middle-aged African American man standing quietly to the side of the store front, apparently asking people for spare change as they left the 7-11. He wasn’t having much luck. Then an SUV pulled up by my car, and a jolly, pudgy, smiley guy with curly gray hair and wearing  baggy shorts, with a loud, boisterous manner, got out. He immediately greeted Rugby, asking his name, scratching him behind the ears. “Does he have water?” he asked. I explained that we were just minutes from home. “Bye, Rugby!” he shouted, and started to enter the store.

I saw him stop as he opened the door and eye the other man. “Hi, brother!” he said loudly. “How are you doing?”

“Not too good,” was the soft reply.

“Really? Hey, come on in,” the curly haired man beckoned. The sad-looking black man followed him into the store. Grace returned, but I lingered in the parking space a bit. Sure enough, the man who had been asking for change emerged a few minutes later carrying a plastic bag that held a hot dog, a bottle of coke and some other items.

And he didn’t look quite so grim.

Nice.

In fact, perfect.

They are out there, all right.

There is hope.

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Filed under Character, Daily Life, Ethics Heroes, Philanthropy, Non-Profits and Charity

Comment of the Day: “The Eternal Ethics Conflict: Drawing Lines, Enforcing Them”

speed traps

The post generating texagg04‘s (latest) Comment of the Day dealt with the tricky and common ethics problem of enforcing reasonable rules strictly in the face of situations where compassion and sympathy pull us toward leniency, because the penalty for non-compliance seem out of proportion to the transgression. He correctly identified this as a problem involving the Ethics Incompleteness Theorem (or Principle), which is an ethics analysis concept used frequently here, and one of my favorites. The Theorem, as stated in the Ethics Alarms Concepts and Special Tools, a.k.a. “the Rule Book,” holds that…

The human language is not sufficiently precise to define a rule that will work in every instance. There are always anomalies on the periphery of every normative system, no matter how sound or well articulated. If one responds to an anomaly by trying to amend the rule or system to accommodate it, the integrity of the rule or system is disturbed, and perhaps ruined. Yet if one stubbornly applies the rule or system without amendment to the anomaly anyway, one may reach an absurd conclusion or an unjust result. The Ethics Incompleteness Principle suggests that when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to abandon the system or rule—in that one anomalous case only— and use  basic ethics principles and analysis to find the best solution. Then return to the system and rules as they were, without altering them to make the treatment of the anomalous situation “consistent.”

No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single ethical system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.

 Tex expands the discussion into such areas as test scores, speed limits, and rule-making itself.  Here is his masterful Comment of the Day on the post, The Eternal Ethics Conflict: Drawing Lines, Enforcing Them:
Continue reading

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Comment of the Day, Daily Life, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Law & Law Enforcement

The Eternal Ethics Conflict: Drawing Lines, Enforcing Them

cross-the-line

Yesterday traffic caused me to arrive a bit later than usual at my monthly gig as the instructor in the legal ethics portion of the D.C. Bar’s mandatory orientation session for new admittees. It was after 9 AM (my segment starts at 9:20), and as I approached the glass doors to the lecture hall lobby, I saw a distraught women angrily berating one of the D.C. Bar staff. I knew instantly what was going on.

You see, the courts approving the program insist that every attendee be there at the start: the doors close at 9, and anyone arriving late, no matter what the reason, is out of luck. They can’t attend the session, can’t get credit for it, and have to return the following month. That rule is on the website and in all communications with the Bar, along with the warning that there are no exceptions, and no effective excuses. Every month, someone misses the deadline; every month, that person goes ballistic. This women, however, was remarkable.

She had flown to D.C. on the redeye, she said. Her cab was stuck in traffic, and when she arrived in the cavernous Reagan Building where the day-long course takes place, she had ten minutes to spare. Unfortunately, the Reagan Building eats people. I have wandered its halls lost many times. I keep expecting to encounter a bearded, Ben Gunn-like figure who grabs my pant leg and jabbers about how he’s been trapped by the bewildering signage, and has been living off of Cub Scouts since 1992. The woman made it to the right hall in just 12 minutes, which is impressive without a GPS. But she was still two minutes late. Continue reading

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Filed under Daily Life, History, Professions, U.S. Society

Advice Malpractice: Good Advice Columnist, Bad Advice Columnist

"Go jump in a lake!"

“Go jump in a lake!”

I cannot imagine being so bereft of wisdom, friends and mentors that I would ever be moved to ask a stranger to advise me regarding an important decision based solely on a letter describing my problem. Nevertheless, a lot of poor souls apparently do, and because they do, many of them probably act on the advice they get from Beth, Abby, The Ethicist and the rest. This means that anyone with the ego and chutzpah to hold themselves out as qualified to give such advice is ethically obligated to be able to do a competent job at it, and at very least to “do no harm.” Yes, unlike the law, advice columnist is one of the professions where the traditional ethical mission of medicine is not just appropriate, but essential.

Most advice columnists in the media are not competent, and some are dangerously reckless. The worst thing an advice columnist can do is to use the trusting and needy stranger as a potential recruit to steer toward the columnist’s ideologically-driven goals. The question being asked by desperate advice seekers, after all, is not “What would you do?” but rather “What should I do?” If the columnist answers the question presuming that the advice-seeker does or should see the world as the advice columnist does, then doing harm is the likely result.

Carolyn Hax ( Washington Post) is a wonderful advice columnist, and Emily Yoffe (“Dear Prudence”) is the other kind. Two recent responses by them illustrate the distinction between competent, skilled and ethical advice, and advice column malpractice. Continue reading

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Filed under Daily Life, Gender and Sex, Journalism & Media, Love, Romance and Relationships, Workplace