Category Archives: Daily Life

Encore: “Ethics Call To Arms: Fight the ‘Fuck You!’ Culture”

 

kid fu

[This happens sometimes with 5000 posts in the bank: some topic causes me to find one that I can’t even remember writing, and I realize that I still agree with it, and if I forgot about, everyone else probably did too. The previous post led me to link to this one, and I decided that the list of steps I recommended to try to halt the culture’s slide into permanent vulgarity and incivility was worth re-posting, especially since five years ago the blog got less than a fifth of the traffic it does today. Thus I am re-posting this one, slightly edited to remove a few rhetorical excesses and outdated references, from November 18, 2010.]

“Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

This was the very first edict in the list of civility rules memorized by George Washington as a child, rules that shaped his character and significantly influenced not only his life and career but the fate of America. Like most of Washington’s 11o rules, the first has universal and timeless validity, pointing all of us and our culture toward a society based on mutual respect, caring, empathy, and fairness.

Recently, however, there has been a powerful cultural movement away from George’s rules and the culture of civility that they represent. Rudeness has always been with us, of course, and public decorum has been in steady decline since the Beatniks of the Fifties, to the point where it is unremarkable to see church-goers in flip-flops and airplane passengers in tank-tops. Something else is going on, however. Like the colored dots of paint in a George Seurat painting, isolated incidents and clues have begun to converge into a picture, and it is not one of a pleasant day in the park. I believe we are seeing a dangerous shift away from civility as a cultural value, which means that we are seeing a cultural rejection of ethics. Continue reading

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Filed under Daily Life, Education, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Popular Culture, U.S. Society

Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: The Cologne Allergy

Perfume allergyEvery now and then readers think I’m Ann Landers. Today I got a “Dear Ethics Alarms: What’s right?” e-mail from a friend, and I thought I’d answer it on the blog because it raises a classic ethics conundrum.

The inquirer belongs to a social group that meets weekly. It is a weekly joy, I am told; the writer has been attending for years. Everyone convenes, on the given day, right after work. Attendance varies, and membership is informal, though individuals have been told, on rare occasions, to come no more.

Of late an infrequent attendee, but a member of long standing, has begun to attend meetings with some regularity. My friend says this is not the happiest of developments, because the two do not get along. It is a breach of long-standing, I am told and is not going to be healed. “She is an asshole,” is how the letter delicately puts it.

Last week, shortly before the end of the 90 minute gathering, the recent interloper stood up and declared that she had developed a serious allergy to colognes, perfumes, aftershave, and all chemical scents. Looking right at my friend, she declared that this allergy made exposure to any sort of commercial scent unbearable, and she asked that in the future no members should wear perfume of any kind.

“I have worn a favorite brand of cologne every day for over thirty years,” the from my acquaintance letter says. “I always get complimented on it; the scent is subtle and nobody would notice it unless they were right next to me. The asshole and I have been separated by the length of the room since she started coming. Personally, I think she made the demand just to make me miserable. She knows, from our previous relationship [NOTE: I think it was more than just a friendship], that I wear the cologne.”

The question: Is she ethically obligated to stop wearing cologne on the day of the meeting (she goes right from work) to accommodate this member’s special problem?

Add to this the broader ethics question that comes up often: Does a group member with special sensitivity have the ethical upper hand allowing such a member to demand that all other members avoid conduct that only bothers that member? Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Daily Life, Etiquette and manners, Health and Medicine, Rights, Romance and Relationships, Workplace

The Perils Of Over-Regulating The Police: A Case Study

This is Dirt Harry's badge. Seconds later, he throws it into a river. Lots of other police will be doing the same.

This is Harry “Dirty Harry” Callahan’s badge. Seconds later, he throws it into a river. Lots of other police officers will soon be doing the same.

Yesterday, for the third time in my life, I was the first one on the scene after a fellow human being’s death. This time, it was a very close friend and, though it has little to do with this post, a wonderful man. I had headed out to his home because I was worried: an unusually reliable and conscientious individual, he had missed several appointments the last few days and hadn’t been answering e-mails and phone calls. When I was told about this, I immediately suspected the worst, and sadly, I was right.

His car was outside his house, and though it was mid-day and he was supposed to be somewhere else, I could see that the TV was on. In front of his door, getting soaked in the rain,  was a package: it had been delivered there on December 2. I got no response to my bangs on the door. It was time to call 911.

The police responded quickly. I’m not going to name the department, which has an excellent reputation here, and I do not fault the officers, who were diligent and polite, and who set about investigating the scene professionally and quickly. Nonetheless, after a full 90 minutes, after which they could not discern any more than I had before they came, they would not enter the house.

They told me that they could not risk being sued, and that there were elaborate policies and procedures that had to be checked off first. The officers had to track down their supervisor (it was a Saturday), and, they said, more than one official would have to sign off, to protect the department

“He could be drunk; he could be shacked up; he could just want to be alone,” they told me. “The law says his privacy can’t be breached, even by us.”

“But he’s not any of those things,” I said. “He doesn’t do any of those things, and if he were OK, there wouldn’t be a four-day-old package outside.”

“Maybe he took a trip on a whim.”

“He would have called and cancelled those commitments,” I said. “Look, you and I both know that he could be inside, on the brink of death, with every second bringing him closer. The only alternative is that he’s died already. If you won’t do it, let me break in, chase me, and you’ll find him legally as you pursue me. How’s that?”

The police weren’t sold. Finally, after a full 90 minutes, they requisitioned a ladder from a neighbor and were able to see into a second floor window. My friend was visible on the floor, and then they moved quickly, breaking down the door. They were too late by days. They might have been too late by minutes though. All those procedures and policies that forced the police to avoid taking action that in this case, under these circumstances, were prudent and that might have saved a life imperiled.

The lesson is only this: if we cannot trust police to make decisions like this, we obviously are not going to trust them to decide when to fire their weapons. Laws, rules and procedures are rigid, and have to be examined slowly; real life operates in the shadows of uncertainty, among the loopholes, gray areas and ambiguities, and it moves fast. The protests and demands in the wake of the recent police controversies will undoubtedly result in more regulations, policies and laws, but there is good reason to believe that they will also make us less safe rather than more safe, and make it difficult to find reasonable, dedicated, ethical men and women willing to serve as police, a job which, we seem to be deciding, should be subjected to strict liability whether the officer acts too quickly, or not quickly enough—judged, of course, after the results are in. Continue reading

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Filed under Daily Life, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, Public Service, Rights

Ethics Quiz: The Beautiful Young Woman In Georgetown

beautiful-face

Late last night, the previous post regarding the video showing a woman being repeatedly shouted at by rude and intrusive males as she silently walked down New York City streets sparked an ancient memory from my past.

The incident before my career shift into ethics, indeed before I was married. I was in Georgetown on a lovely fall day (like this one), and it had been a lousty week. I was feeling lost and depressed. Suddenly I was aware of the young woman walking slightly ahead of me toward the corner of Wisconsin and M streets, Georgetown Central. She wasn’t merely beautiful, but heart-stoppingly beautiful, the kind of rare combination of perfect genetics aesthetic taste who makes one realize how dishonest Hollywood’s representation of humanity is. Maybe this young woman would have blended into the scenery in Tinseltown, but I doubt it very much. Greek myths described how mortals, if they saw a god or goddess in their true form, would be instantly burned to ash, and that was almost the effect this woman had on me.

Yet she did not have the aura of a star or a model who was aware that she was gorgeous and conscious of her effect on those around her—I have seen that many times. Beautiful people generally know they are beautiful and are used to being treated differently because of it; they sometimes have a “leave me alone” force field around them, and this woman didn’t have that either. For some reason, perhaps because the jolt she had given me renewed my flagging enthusiasm for life in general at that moment—I literally never do this, not before and not since—when we reached the corner together, I turned to her and said, as I recall it,

“Excuse me, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but your are incredibly lovely, and seeing you today has made me happy, when I was anything but happy before.  I just wanted to say thank you.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Was this wrong?

Continue reading

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Filed under Daily Life, Etiquette and manners, Gender and Sex

Matt Williams’ Blues: Consequentialism, Hindsight Bias, And Moral Luck

zimmermann

As I wrote last year about this time, the baseball play-offs make us unethical. Managers make decisions that either work or back-fire, and feed the toxic human tendency toward  consequentialism thusly: when they work, the decisions werecorrect; when they don’t, the manager was an idiot, and the choicee were obviously wrong. As with judging the ethics of an act, what happens after a baseball decision is made is irrelevant to whether it was a good decision when it was made.  This is almost impossible to keep firmly in mind. Our logic rebels at the idea that an ethical act can have horrendous consequences, or that the right tactical decision can result in defeat. But that’s life, as my father was fond of saying.

Hindsight bias further pushes us to confuse the making of a decision with its consequences. It is, not surprisingly, much easier to make a strong case that a decision was the wrong one after all the results are in. This, of course, is unfair to the decision-maker, who didn’t have the data the critics do when he or she acted. On the other hand, sometimes the reason the decision was the wrong one is that it was wrong, and the fact that the results were bad just support that verdict.

This morning, indeed since last night, Washington D.C. baseball fans and sportswriters have been wrestling this conundrum. The Washington Nationals, widely believed to be the strongest National League team in the post season, and quite possibly the favorites to win the World Series, find themselves down 0-2 in the best of five National League Division Series after a grueling, 18 inning loss to the San Francisco Giants, who didn’t even win their own division. The way the game went into extra innings will be debated for months if the Nats fail to rally and win the series. Nats starting pitcher Justin Zimmermann, who had pitched a no-hitter in his last outing, had been almost as good this time, pitching his team within one out of a 1-0 win that would have evened the series. He had dominated Giants hitters in every way, and had not shown any signs of weakening or, as they say in the game, “losing his stuff.” In the old days, that is, as recently as 20 years ago, a pitcher on a run like this would finish the game unless he had a stroke on the mound. Now, MLB managers are trained to be ready to go to their ninth inning specialist, the so-called closer, at any hint of trouble or even without it, and they almost always do.

As a reflex action, it makes no sense a lot of the time, other than “everybody does it.” A pitcher whom you know is pitching well is a known quantity, while a pitcher newly arrived to the game, whatever his skills, is not.  If the choice is between a starter who is not just doing OK but rather mowing down batters like Samson jaw-boning the Philistines, and bringing in a new arm, logic would dictate that the latter is the greater risk.

Nats manager Matt Williams acknowledged that Zimmerman was “in the zone” by not lifting him to begin the ninth, and was rewarded with two quick outs. When he walked his first batter of the game, however, on his magic 100th pitch (they count pitches now, and 100 is the number at which pitchers supposedly turn into pumpkins), and Williams lifted him, calling on closer Drew Storen. Continue reading

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Filed under Daily Life, Journalism & Media, Sports

The Blackstone Horror And The Duty To Care

"You know your house is really messy when..."

“You know your house is really messy when…”

We have been discussing, of late, the ethical duty of strangers to intervene when they get the sense that something may not be right and an individual, especially a child, may be at risk of harm. Doing this involves its own risk: being wrong. Causing embarrassment to yourself and others. Being accused of being racist, or a busybody, or a meddler.

This is what can happen when no body cares enough to take that risk.

I am in Rhode Island, having come from Boston, where a nightmarish story is obsessing the radio talk shows:

Police were setting the record straight as to how many times they’ve responded over the years to the Blackstone, Massachusetts, house of squalor, where three dead infants were discovered among piles of trash, dead animals, feces and vermin last week, as clean-up at the condemned house finally finished up Tuesday.Four children who lived in the house – a 5-month-old baby, a 3-year-old toddler, a 10-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl – have all since been removed by Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.

Their mother, 31-year-old Erika Murray, is behind bars. She’s pleaded not guilty to charges of child endangerment and fetal death concealment. Her boyfriend, and alleged father of the children, Raymond Rivera, claims he stayed in the basement. He’s only been charged with marijuana offenses at this point.

I’ll have plenty of links at the end so you can read the details of this disgusting story, if you have the stomach for it. Obviously it’s not ethical to have your children living in a home with dirty diapers are piled two feet high and dead pets are stuffed in corners. Obviously it’s not ethical to father kids, live in the basement, and ignore the squalor your children are being raised in. Obviously the parents in this case are mentally ill, or approaching evil. From the perspective of this blog, the parents’ conduct has nothing to teach anyone who isn’t demented. I am interested in the neighbors’ conduct, or rather their lack of it. Continue reading

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Filed under Childhood and children, Citizenship, Daily Life, Law & Law Enforcement

My Street Just Went Stupid: Now What?

The Stupiding is coming...

The Stupiding is coming…

For the last 34 years I have lived on Westminster Place in Alexandria, Virginia. The address, a cul de sac, was a happy accident, as a wonderful, affordable house just happened to be there and for sale the day after I asked my wife-to-be to marry me, but it has always given me pleasure. Westminster Abbey is third among my five favorite and most cherished places on earth, the others being Fenway Park, The Alamo, Disneyland, and the Gettysburg battlefield.

Protecting my address’s integrity isn’t easy. Everyone, from clerks to salespersons to the people who address our junk mail try to change the name to Westminister Place, only to be corrected by me, or when it happens to her,  my anglophile wife. “It is Westminster Place, no “i”—you know, like the Abbey,” we say politely. The number of times the response is, “Huh? What abbey?” is a fact too depressing to relate.

Nevertheless, we refuse to let this constant attempted error pass. We have seen what can happen when illiteracy and ignorance are permitted to prevail and fester.

Just a few blocks away from us is the intersection known locally as Stupid Corner, where for decades the Waffle House there has sported a sign reading “WAFLE HOUSE.” The sign immediately lowers the IQ of anyone nearby: there mothers push their baby carriages into traffic, and pedestrians mysteriously forget where they were headed. (I just made four typos even writing about it.) When they repainted the traffic lanes—I’m not making this up—there was an arrow turning LEFT painted in the far right lane, an arrow point RIGHT in the middle lane, and an arrow pointing STRAIGHT ahead in the far left lane, when in fact no lane could go straight, since the road ends there. It was like a Stephen King story. “The Stupiding.” Continue reading

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Filed under Citizenship, Daily Life, History