A recent unpleasant visitor here sought to defend unethical conduct—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she argued that no one was qualified to assess the conduct as unethical—by citing the hoary theory that only someone who has “walked in the shoes” of the wrongdoer in question may judge the ethical nature of his actions. This is a dodge, of course, and one which I need to add to the list of rationalizations. It is an appeal to purely subjective ethics, and ultimately no ethical standards at all, since if every individual is the only one who can judge his own or her own conduct (since each individual’s experiences are unique), then everyone is free to construct their own ethics rules that seem right from their self-centered perspective. The argument is also a convenient way to shut off dissenting voices: only the poor have standing to criticize the poor, only blacks can find fault with the acts of African-Americans, and since men can’t get pregnant, how dare they have any opinion at all on abortion?
But before I added this irritating trick to the Rationalizations List—I think it will be called “The Foreign Shoes Defense”—I realized that it is also another one of The Golden Rule distortions: flawed ethical arguments that seem logical to some because they are based on a warped version of the principle of reciprocity.
The Golden Rule, usually stated as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is frequently attributed to Jesus, but in fact it is much, much older, and is a basic ethical tenet, reciprocity, of most religions and many philosophies. Here are some examples; there are many, many more: Continue reading
“We currently have a highly discriminatory system where if you’re sick, if you’ve been sick or [if] you’re going to get sick, you cannot get health insurance. The only way to end that discriminatory system is to bring everyone into the system and pay one fair price. That means that the genetic winners, the lottery winners who’ve been paying an artificially low price because of this discrimination now will have to pay more in return. And that, by my estimate, is about four million people. In return, we’ll have a fixed system where over 30 million people will now for the first time be able to access fairly price and guaranteed health insurance.”
—– Dr. Jonathan Gruber of MIT, an economics professor who is among the designers of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a Obamacare. He was interviewed by NBC’s Chuck Todd regarding the troubled law’s problems.
Could it be that the act of getting involved with this administration turns even non-politicians into deceivers and liars? For an economist to talk so deceitfully and manipulatively is distressing. He, of all people, certainly knows how insurance works, and has to work. The insurance company accepts, in essence, wagers from its insured, in the form of premiums, that they will “win” by incurring health care costs that require more funds more than the accumulated “wagers.” The insurance company gambles that it will “win” by the insured remaining relatively healthy, so that the premiums (and whatever investment income they generate) exceed what the company has to pay in medical costs for that individual. The only way a company can keep providing insurance is to win more bets than it loses.
Saying that an insurance company is “discriminating” (in the unjust and biased sense) when it refuses to accept a wager that is virtually certain to win is like saying that a poker player is engaging in discriminatory conduct by refusing to play with a new player who brings a royal flush to the table with him. It is not discrimination to refuse to lose money, and Gruber knows it. But like an expert liar, as I must presume he is, he plants a false definition of discrimination at the beginning of his discussion and then treats it as an agreed-upon description of what is occurring. Not selling something to a customer who can’t afford a fair price is not discrimination, and refusing to gamble with someone who is assured of winning is also not discrimination. But discrimination is something that everyone regards as wrong, unfair, and unlawful, so that is how the lawful operation of insurance companies is framed by this clever, learned, dishonest man.
I no longer trust Dr. Gruber, nor should you.
His statement is of additional interest, however, because it starkly defines the unique Progressive definition of “fairness,” by his repeated use of lottery imagery to describe the fact that some people, through no fault of their own, have fewer advantages than others, while those others, often through no virtue of their own, have more resources and opportunities. Progressives regard this as inherently wrong and unfair, and so unfair that it must be remedied by obtrusive government interference. The rest of America regards this as “life.” Continue reading
Before we leave the topic of the ravages of political correctness and the excessive fear of grievance bullies, let’s pause to ask the administrators of Washington University in St. Louis…What’s wrong with you?
On October 30, several students posted a photo (that’s it on the left) on Facebook costumed as three U.S. soldiers pointing super-soakers at another student dressed as Osama bin Laden, with a fifth student holding a large American flag as a backdrop. Several things are not in doubt. 1. This was a Halloween stunt. 2. Osama bin Laden masks and costumes have been relatively common since Halloween 2002, as have been all historical villains in U.S. history since Halloween became a tradition. 3. There is nothing wrong with that. 4. An Osama bin Laden costume is in no way, shape or form an insult to Muslims. 5. Osama bin Laden himself was an insult to Muslims.
Notwithstanding all this, a typical grievance bully on campus named Mahroh Jahangiri, was determined to flex her muscles on behalf of her religion and make innocent fellow-students knuckle under and bow to her will. Maybe she thought they’d even let her speak at the next Democratic national convention, who knows? She posted a screen shot of the photo on her website, and wrote,
“This photo makes a costume of the lives of the thousands of civilian Muslim men who have been murdered during our ‘War on Terror’ and the countless others who have been mutilated, robbed, and stabbed to death in hate crimes across the United States. This is disgusting and cannot be tolerated on this campus. There are very few Muslim students on this campus, and our voice is not loud enough. For those of you who had not heard of this until now, now you have. What are we going to do to change this?” Continue reading
Sister Antonia caring for a prisoner in La Mesa in 2002
Once again, someone remarkable has died whose life was insufficiently celebrated while she was alive. I had never heard of Antonia Brenner until yesterday. I wish I had.
Mary Clarke was born on Dec. 1, 1926—we share a birthday!— the second of three children. Her father, Joseph, was a prosperous business executive; the family had a second home overlooking the Pacific. After her second marriage, to Carl Brenner, she was known as Mary Brenner, and was the mother of eight children, comfortably ensconced in Beverly Hills. While struggling through her second divorce, she began doing charity work for the poor in Los Angeles. A priest friend, Monsignor Anthony Brouwers, took her to La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico, which was filled with convicted murderers, thieves, gang members, rapists and other hardened criminals, all living in brutal and inhumane conditions even by the horrible standards of U.S. prisons. Everything—her life, her name, and most of all, the existence of the prisoners, changed after that.
She became devoted to their plight as human beings, and brought the prisoners basics of comfort that were being withheld from them, at her own expense. She gave them aspirin, blankets, tooth paste, soap, even prescription eyeglasses. She carried spare toilet paper with her, and kep a lookout for other missing essentials. Brenner acquired a prison contract to sell soda pop to prisoners and then used the proceeds to post bail for minor offenders. She began spending more and more time with the prisoners, gaining their affection and trust, even singing in their church services. She treated them with dignity and kindness: when prisoners died, it was Mary Brenner who prepared him for burial. Continue reading
You can’t make stuff like this up.
Apparently I was last one in the nation to learn about the surreal dispute between the parents of the late Kimberly Walker, a 28-year-old Iraq War vet who was found murdered in a Colorado hotel room eight months ago, and the owners of Cincinnati’s historic Spring Grove Cemetery, concerning the headstones erected over her grave on October 10.
The cemetery reversed its official approval of the twin monuments, apparently bestowed by someone who had momentarily been possessed by the spirit of Chuck Jones, saying that it would be inappropriate for a traditional and historic 19th Century pastoral cemetery that serves as the final resting place of Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, several Civil War generals including “Fighting Joe” Hooker, who lost the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Hall of Fame manager of the 1927 Yankees, Miller Huggins, and many others, to sport not one but two hideous 6-foot-high, 4-foot-wide, 7,000 pound slabs of granite lovingly carved to depict SpongeBob Squarepants in military gear, one of which displays Kimberly’s name on his uniform. (For those of you who are hopelessly estranged from popular culture, SpongeBob is a fictional deep sea yellow sponge who stars in a popular Nickelodeon cable TV children’s cartoon show. Kimberly, we are told, loved the show. SpongeBob is an idiot, by the way.)
The family is outraged, and feels abused. “I feel like, and we all feel like, SpongeBob should stay there. We bought the plots, all six of them. We put the monuments there, we did what we had to do and they said they could provide that service to us,’ said Walker’s twin sister Kara, who was looking forward to eventually being buried under the second headstone. “I thought it was the greatest thing in the cemetery. I even told the people there that I think this is the best monument I’ve ever seen. It’s the best headstone in the cemetery and they all agreed. It came out really nice.”
Still, putting considerations of taste aside—-and what American these days doesn’t do that daily?—the Walkers duly purchased the plots (they have four more…and just think of what might end up on them) and properly cleared the monuments.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for this lovely Fall day is this:
Does fairness dictate that the Walkers be allowed to erect whatever monuments they choose, including giant, garish sculptures of a cartoon character, to honor the memory of their daughter? Continue reading
Now that the required joke is out of the way, I can more soberly state that the New York conviction of psychic Sylvia Mitchell for larceny and fraud opens up a welter of ethical, legal and religious issues. Law prof-blogger Ann Althouse is troubled by the result, writing,
“In my book, this is entertainment and unconventional psychological therapy. Let the buyer beware. Who’s dumb enough to actually believe this? Should the government endeavor to protect everyone who succumbs to the temptation to blow a few bucks on a fortune teller?”
Clearly not, and that’s where courts and states generally land in this matter, as in the case I wrote on three years ago, Nefredo v. Montgomery County. There the courts ruled (in Maryland) that it was an infringement of free speech for Maryland to ban what is, for most, just an exercise in supernatural entertainment. But the New York case involved a little bit more than that: Mitchell apparently bilked some clients out of significant amounts, getting $27,000 from one in an “exercise in letting go of money,” $18,000 from another to put in a jar as a way to relieve herself of “negative energy,” and thousands from other clients to purchase “supplies” for various rituals—what does the eye of a newt go for these days?
Admittedly this seems to cross the line from harmless, if stupid, entertainment into preying on the stupid and gullible, but that doesn’t convince Althouse that the conviction, or the prosecution is a legitimate use of government power. She reminds us about the Supreme Court case of U.S. v. Ballard, in which the Court upheld the conviction of a faith healer for fraud. The SCOTUS majority, headed by William O. Douglas, held that if the faith healer didn’t believe in her claimed powers, then she was a fraud, and thus could be prosecuted under the Constitution if she used a claim of false powers to take money from her clients. In a sharp and thought-provoking dissent, Justice Robert Jackson wrote in part… Continue reading
“Mom…Dad! It’s your son Messiah!”
Let us stipulate that while parents in the United States have an absolute right to name their children whatever they please, it one of those aspects of free speech that is often horribly abused by irresponsible, self-centered or just plain dumb parents who treat their children as bumper stickers or social science experiments. Naming your boy “Sue,” (You know) or your son “North West,” (Kanye West) or your daughter “Fifi Trixibelle” (Bob Geldof) is unforgivably and gratuitously cruel, virtually guaranteeing that your child will be a target, a head case, or will change his or her name the second legal majority comes around. Nonetheless, the state doesn’t raise children in America—yet—and parents can still decide what they wear, watch, learn and eat, as well as the name they have to answer to. The operative term is “free country.” Many of our fellow citizens don’t like or understand that concept, which is also their right in a free country. Judges, however, must not only understand the concept but constrain their power by it.
This is why Cocke County (Tennessee) Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew needs to be a) removed from her job and b) set on a more appropriate career path, like say, taking tolls in a tunnel or orders at Papa John’s. She ruled—it doesn’t matter how or why this came about—you can read the ridiculous story here-–that the parents of a baby couldn’t name him “Messiah,” because, she said in an interview with a reporter whose mouth had to be surgically closed afterward, “The word ‘Messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person – and that one person is Jesus Christ.” Continue reading
“All right! We can lie without simply following the rule “It is permissible to lie“ and instead, follow a rule that pertains only to specific circumstances, like “It is permissible to lie when doing so will save a life, and thus such a rule can be made a universal law without contradiction, don’t you see? No?”
From Russia comes this story:
“A “passionate argument” about 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, renowned for his treatises on ethics, “deteriorated into a fistfight” between two men waiting in line for beer during an outdoor City Day event in the southern Russian metropolis of Rostov-on-Don, police said Monday. The argument ended when one of the debaters pulled out an air gun and shot the other in the head, local police said in a statement. The shooter then fled the scene but was later detained, police said. The other man’s wound was not critical, but he was hospitalized, the statement said…”
I am fairly certain that Kant would have said that shooting someone in the head with an air gun to settle a debate over ethics violates his Rule of Universality, which has the seldom-cited codicil, “Don’t shoot people in the head, unless you want to live in a world where everyone gets shot in the head.” It is a perfect example of losing an argument by winning an argument.
And you thought the ethics debates got heated on Ethics Alarms!
Pointer: Volokh Conspiracy
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
—-Former KGB officer and Russian leader Vladamir Putin, lecturing President Obama and the U.S. public on right, wrong, and human potential, in a New York Times op-ed that neatly exploits the stumbling White House diplomacy efforts regarding Syria. And yes, it made my head explode.
Oh-oh…this was bad one…
John McCain’s tweet in response to Putin’s cheeky op-ed was on target: “Putin’s NYT op-ed is an insult to the intelligence of every American.” [Aside: Of course, so was President Obama's speech. As always these events give us a chance to gauge which journalists warrant ever regarding seriously again. On one side there are the likes of the Daily Beast's toadying Michael Tomasky, who pronounced the President's speech "great." On the other is the Washington Post's generally left-leaning Dana Milbank, who decided to be honest, pointing out how the President's speech arising out of his contradictory and incoherent statement about Syria was...contradictory and incoherent: "The president, in the space of his 16-minute address, was often at odds with himself. He spent the first 12 minutes arguing for the merits of striking Syria — and then delivered the news that he was putting military action on hold. He promised that it would be “a limited strike” without troops on the ground or a long air campaign, yet he argued that it was the sort of blow that “no other nation can deliver.” He argued that “we should not be the world’s policeman” while also saying that because of our “belief in freedom and dignity for all people,” we cannot “look the other way.” He asserted that what Bashar al-Assad did is “a danger to our security” while also saying that “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military.” In other words, "great."] It was more than an insult, however. Putin’s screed was ethics poison: dishonest, manipulative, and malign. Continue reading