Tag Archives: ethics

Ethics Audit: Write Your Own Obituary

The late, brave James Rebhorn

The late, brave James Rebhorn

It makes little sense, as I am backed up by about 30 rich ethics stories with more arising every hour, it seems, to publish this now, as it has languished forgotten in my files for almost a year. Yet I was watching “My Cousin Vinnie”—if it’s on TV, I’ll watch it every time—and I remembered that this was there, so I went to my computer files and read it again.

James Rebhorn was in the movie, you see. He was a good, solid, successful, working actor,  one of those familar and anonymous performers like Whit Bissell, whose face you recognize from hundreds of movies and TV shows playing fathers, doctors, bureaucrats, Congressmen, never in roles very large or central to the plot, always credible and well. In “Vinnie,” he played the prosecution’s expert witness on cars and tires before Marrissa Tomei stolethe movie. He’s the slimy Secretary of Defense who gets fired in “Independence Day;” he was Claire Danes’ father on “Homeland,” until he died last year.

James Rebhorn was a year older than I am today when he lost his 20 year battle with melanoma. Before he died, Rebhorn wrote his own obituary. It’s not a confessional or a stunt: it’s a genuine obituary, though it slights most of the career achievements that appeared in his obituaries published online and in various newspapers. I wonder, though, what he learned from the exercise. Having to write your own obituary must be terrifying, but perhaps only slightly more terrifying than writing it at all. What has your life amounted to? Who has made a difference in your life?  What are you proud of, and what really mattered in your life? What have you learned, and what do you regret?

And what will you never, never write down for all to read, because it’s just too painful to read yourself? Continue reading

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A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 3): When The Going Got Tough

 presidents.

The Presidents really get interesting now, as a political leadership culture in the U.S. matures, the stakes of failure become greater, and technology, labor upheaval, expanding big business and greater influence on world affairs transforms the Presidency into truly the toughest job on earth.

Grover Cleveland

grover

Another one of my favorites, Cleveland was known for telling the truth ( he as called “Grover the Good”), but he participated in one of the most elaborate deceptions in Presidential history.

As explained in historian Matthew Algeo’s 2011 book, “The President Is a Sick Man,”  President Cleveland noticed an odd bump on the roof of his mouth in the summer of 1893, shortly after he took office for the second time. (Cleveland is the only President with split terms, the hapless Republican Benjamin Harrison winning an electoral college victory that gave him four years as the bland filling in a Cleveland sandwich.) The bump was diagnosed as a life-threatening malignant tumor, and the remedy was removal. Cleveland believed that news of his diagnosis would send Wall Street and the country  into a panic at a time when the economy was sliding into a depression anyway, and agreed to an ambitious and dangerous plan to have the surgery done in secret. The plan was for the President to announce he was taking a friend’s yacht on a four-day fishing trip from New York to his summer home in Cape Cod. Unknown to the press and the public was that the yacht had been transformed into a floating operating room, and a team of six surgeons were assembled and waiting.

The 90 minute procedure employed ether as the anesthesia, and the doctors removed the tumor, five teeth and a large part of the President’s upper left jawbone, all at sea. They also managed to extract the tumor through the President’s mouth while leaving no visible scar and without altering Cleveland’s walrus mustache. Talking on NPR in 2011, historian said,

“I talked to a couple of oral surgeons researching the book, and they still marvel at this operation: that they were able to do this on a moving boat; that they did it very quickly. A similar operation today would take several hours; they did it in 90 minutes.”

But the operation was a success. An artificial partial upper jaw made of rubber was installed to replace the missing bone, and Cleveland, who had the constitution of a moose, reappeared after four days looking hardy and most incredible of all, able to speak as clearly as ever. How did he heal so fast? Why wasn’t his speech effected? He endures doctors cutting out a large chuck of his mouth using 19th century surgical techniques and is back on the job in less than a week? No wonder nobody suspected the truth.

Then, two months later, Philadelphia Press reporter E.J. Edwards published a story about the surgery, thanks to one of the doctors anonymously breaching doctor-patient confidentiality. Cleveland, who in his first campaign for the White House had dealt with Republican accusations that he had fathered an illegitimate child by publicly admitting it, flatly denied Edwards’ story, and his aides  launched a campaign to discredit the reporter. Grover the Good never lies, thought the public, so Edwards ended up where Brian Williams is now. His career and credibility were ruined.

Nobody outside of the participants knew about the operation and the President’s fake jaw until twenty-four years later, after all the other principals were dead except three witnesses.  One of the surgeons decided to  publish an article to prove that E.J. Edwards had been telling the truth after all.

This is a great ethics problem. Was it ethical for Cleveland to keep his health issues from the public? In this case, yes, I’d say so. Was it unethical for the doctor to break his ethical duty? Of course. Was Edwards ethical to report the story? Sure.

The tough question is: Was Cleveland ethical to deny the story and undermine the reporter’s credibility? I think it was a valid utilitarian move, and barely ethical: it was better for the nation to distrust one reporter than the President, especially when his secret was one he responsibly withheld, and his doctor unethically revealed. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Government & Politics, Health and Medicine, History, Journalism & Media, Leadership

A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 2): The Good, The Over-matched, And Then There’s Abe

presseal

The Presidents between #7, Jackson, and #16, Lincoln, are almost entirely unknown to most of the public: not one in a hundred can name them all, and of those almost none can name them in order. Eight one-term Presidents, all trying to stave off the civil war in various ways, and all failing that mission.

I will never understand why learning the Presidents in order isn’t a standard requirement in the public schools. It’s not hard; it is a useful tool in placing events in American history, and it prevents embarrassments like the Cornell law grad I once worked with who couldn’t place the Civil War in the right century. Besides, we’re Americans, damn it. The least we owe the 43 patriots who have tried to do this job, some at the cost of their lives, many their health, and many more their popularity, is their place in our history and their names.

On with hailing the Chiefs with some of my favorite facts about them:

James K. Polk

“Hail to the Chief,” which had been sporadically in use since Madison’s day, became the official anthem of the office during the Polk Administration. Polk was a small, unimpressive man, and it was said that he needed the musical announcement when he entered a room or no one would notice him. Looks can be deceiving. James K. Polk was as wily, tough and as ruthless as they come. One reason may be that he was another Presidential survivor of an ordeal that would kill most people: as a teenager, he underwent a bloody frontier operation for gallstones with no anesthesia, tied to a table, biting on a rag.

Zachary Taylor

zachary-taylor

General Taylor, who was pursued by both the Whigs and the Democrats who both wanted to nominate him for President, was a great experiment  He was not a member of any political party, had never held public office prior  to becoming President, and had never even voted before becoming Chief Executive. He was also nearly illiterate. We often long for an apolitical President, a true, rather than a pretend, “outsider.” Taylor would have been an interesting test case, though the pre-Civil War political and social chaos was hardly the most promising period to try out the theory. Unfortunately he died of cholera less than half-way into his administration.

And he wasn’t even elected in a year ending in a zero! Continue reading

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The Sixth Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Best of Ethics 2014

abstract door grand jury room

The Ethics Alarms Awards for the Best in Ethics 2014—sorry for the tardiness— are about 30% of the length of the Worst. Does this mean that the nation and the culture, not to mention the world, are doomed?

Not necessarily. I am well aware that most of the country is ethical, substantially fair and honest, diligent, and embodies ethical values in their every day dealings with you and me, and the world. We primarily hear, and to some extent, take note of, the corrupt, the irresponsible, the manipulative, the untrustworthy and the foolish. The Best Ethics list is smaller in part because only exemplary ethics gets publicity. I also should note that calling attention to unethical conduct and discussing it often does more to advance the mission of Ethics Alarms than confirming that right is right, though I sure wish there was more exemplary ethics to celebrate. Maybe the dearth of award winners here is my fault, and the result of my biases.

Boy, I hope so.

Here are the 2014 Ethics Alarms Awards for the Best in Ethics:

Most Important Ethical Act of the Year:

The Ferguson grand jury resisted public and media pressure to deliver a verdict of no indictment against police officer Darren Wilson, upholding the integrity of the justice system despite the injection of emotion, politics and race into a tragic incident where none of these belonged. Though the available evidence could never have supported a guilty verdict, it would have been easy and popular for the grand jury to make Wilson stand trial anyway, just as George Zimmerman did. Their reward has been to be attacked as fools and racists, but they did the right thing, when the wrong thing must have seemed very attractive.

Outstanding Ethical Leadership

The New York Yankees. (Bear with me now.) The Yankees are the most famous team in professional sports in the biggest sports market in the world. They make money without even trying. Yet when the team had a bad year and missed the play-offs in 2013, it committed nearly a billion dollars to re-building the team, a move that only makes sense in the quest to win games, not to maximize profit. Thus they prominently chose loyalty, mission and sportsmanship over greed. (The Yankees still missed the play-offs in 2014, too.) Then all year long the team placed a spotlight on Derek Jeter, their retiring hero, whose career and character single-handedly refutes the cynicism of sports critics fed up with the lack of character displayed by the Armstrongs, the Rices, the ARods, the Belichicks, the Winstons, the Paternos, and so many, many others. Finally, when two New York City police officers were assassinated after Al Sharpton, and the “Hands Up!” protestors, with the city’s own mayor’s support, had vilified the profession as violent, racist and untrustworthy, who will pay for the fallen officers’ children to go to college? The New York Yankees’ Silver Shield Foundation.  Add charity, compassion, civic duty and gratitude to the list of ethics values the New Your baseball club modeled for us. I know it seems odd and even trivial to follow up last year’s winner in this category—the Pope— with a sports franchise, but to paraphrase Babe Ruth’s famous rejoinder when the Yankees balked at his salary demands in 1930, saying he wanted to be paid more than then-President Herbert Hoover (“I had a better year that Hoover!”), the Yankees has a better year than the Pope.

Outstanding Sportsmanship

Jose Altuve, Houston Astros secondbaseman and American League batting champ….the right way. He began the final day of the 2014 season hitting .340, three points ahead of the Tigers’ Victor Martinez. If Altuve didn’t play in Houston’s meaningless last game, Martinez would have to go 3-for-3 to pass him, giving the DH a narrow .3407 average compared with Altuve’s .3399. By playing, Altuve risked lowering his average, providing Martinez with a better chance of winning the batting championship. Many players in the past have sat out their final game or games to “back in” to the prize, rather than give the fans a chance to watch a head to head battle injecting some much-needed drama into the expiring season.  Altuve, however, gave Martinez his shot. He played the whole game, had two hits in his four at-bats, and won the American League batting title on the field, not on the bench, as Martinez went hitless. The conduct, simple as it was, embodied fairness, integrity, courage, respect for an opponent, and most of all, respect for the game.

Best Apology

JESSICA_URBINA

 The Level #1 apology, according to the Ethics Alarms Apology scale, issued by Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep in San Francisco.The school had cruelly and needless embarrassed graduating senior Jessica Urbina (above), rejecting her inclusion in the yearbook because she chose to be photographed in a tuxedo rather than a dress, as the school’s dress code, which had not been previously made clear, demanded. I wrote…

“The rule is sexist, archaic, unthinking, prejudicial, arbitrary, cruel and wrong. The best way to change a rule that is sexist, archaic, unthinking, prejudicial, arbitrary, cruel and wrong is to break it, and see if those in charge have the sense and compassion to do the right thing. The administrators of Sacred Heart Cathedral High School flunked. I doubt that Jessica was even trying to provoke a confrontation: like any normal student, she wanted her image in the most important piece of memorabilia of her high school years to accurately portray her as she was, not as some alien ideal dictated by the Catholic Church. There was nothing to be achieved by banning the photo.”

The school reversed itself with grace and compassion. The apology is long, but a more humble or complete one would be unachievable. It achieved an ethical end to an ugly episode. You can read it here. Runner up: Writer Henry Rollins lovely and wrenching apology for his initial reaction to Robin Williams’ suicide.

Hero of the Year

Michael DeBeyer.  De Beyer has decided to sell his restaurant, which he opened more than 15 years ago and is worth an estimated  $2 million, to pay for whatever medical treatments are necessary to save the life of Brittany Mathis, 19. Brittany works for De Beyer at his Kaiserhof Restaurant and Biergarten in Montgomery, Texas, and  learned, in December 2013, that she has a 1.5 inch brain tumor.  She couldn’t afford the operation to find out whether the tumor was benign or malignant, and didn’t have health insurance. “I couldn’t live with myself; I would never be happy just earning money from my restaurant knowing that she needs help,” Michael told local reporters.

That’s what makes ethics heroes; really, really loud ethics alarms, combined with courage and caring.

Parent of the Year

NBA Star Kevin Durant’s Mom.

Most Ethical Celebrity

Matthew McConaughey. In a field notably sparse on exemplary ethics by celebrities, the 2013 Oscar winner for Best Actor stands out for a speech that was inspirational, thoughtful, and rife with ethics wisdom. It is worth recalling. Here it is:

Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you to the Academy for this—all 6,000 members. Thank you to the other nominees. All these performances were impeccable in my opinion. I didn’t see a false note anywhere. I want to thank Jean-Marc Vallée, our director. Want to thank Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, who I worked with daily.

There’s a few things, about three things to my account that I need each day. One of them is something to look up to, another is something to look forward to, and another is someone to chase. Now, first off, I want to thank God. ‘Cause that’s who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand. He has shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates. In the words of the late Charlie Laughton, who said, “When you’ve got God, you got a friend. And that friend is you.”

To my family, that who and what I look forward to. To my father who, I know he’s up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there. He’s probably in his underwear. And he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite and he’s dancing right now. To you, Dad, you taught me what it means to be a man. To my mother who’s here tonight, who taught me and my two older brothers… demanded that we respect ourselves. And what we in turn learned was that we were then better able to respect others. Thank you for that, Mama. To my wife, Camila, and my kids Levi, Vida and Mr. Stone, the courage and significance you give me every day I go out the door is unparalleled. You are the four people in my life that I want to make the most proud of me. Thank you.

And to my hero. That’s who I chase. Now when I was 15 years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say “who’s your hero?” And I said, “I don’t know, I gotta think about that. Give me a couple of weeks.” I come back two weeks later, this person comes up and says “who’s your hero?” I said, “I thought about it. You know who it is? It’s me in 10 years.” So I turned 25. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, “So, are you a hero?” And I was like, “not even close. No, no, no.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because my hero’s me at 35.” So you see every day, every week, every month and every year of my life, my hero’s always 10 years away. I’m never gonna be my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not, and that’s just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.

So, to any of us, whatever those things are, whatever it is we look up to, whatever it is we look forward to, and whoever it is we’re chasing, to that I say, “Amen.” To that I say, “Alright, alright, alright.” To that I say “just keep living.” Thank you.

Most Principled Politician

Thomas Menino

The late Thomas Menino, Boston’s beloved Democratic mayor for two decades (the longest in tenure in the city’s history), who retired last January and  died of cancer nine months later. Somehow I missed giving him the ethics send-off he deserved. Amazingly, he was the first Italian-American mayor in Boston’s history: the job has always been won by the city’s Irish machine. While mayors around the nation were embroiled in scandals and embarrassments, Menino undeniably improved the city, led it admirably in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and left office with the admiration of conservatives as well as liberals despite being an aggressive agent of progressive policies.  His passion caused him to make some ethical missteps, such as joining other liberal mayors in telling Chick-Fil-A that it “wasn’t welcome” in Boston because of its owner’s anti-gay marriage sentiments. He joined Michael Bloomberg in creating Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and must share responsibility for some of the dubious tactics and misrepresentations of that organization. He also had a scandal or two involving political favors, but in 20 years, by my count, he had fewer than most Boston mayors had every year. In 2012, polls found that he had an approval rating over 80%, and left his position more popular than he entered it.  Boston is liberal, but it isn’t that liberal.

Most Ethical Company

Don’t ever let me do that again.

I just reviewed over a hundred posts about businesses and corporations from last year, and not one of them celebrated ethical conduct. The closest was, believe it or not, the Washington Redskins, for having the guts, orneriness and principles to stand against the forces of censorship and political correctness to refuse to change the name of their team and organization. It has been targeted as a symbolic scalp that race-baiters, grievance-hucksters and progressive bullies are determined to have hanging from their belts; the opponents of the team have recruited the U.S. government, and the pressure is tremendous. It would be so easy to change the name now, when support for the perpetually rotten team is at low ebb in Washington, D.C., but the principle is worth the battle. However, my gag reflex will not allow me to give this award to an NFL team, since by definition it must be engaged in so much else that is wrong.

So for a second straight year I’m going to send you to Ethisphere’s list of the most ethical companies in the world. Their criteria isn’t mine, but there’s got to be a genuinely ethical company of two on there somewhere. Let me know if you find it. Continue reading

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Ethics Alarms Encore: “Aesop’s Unethical and Misleading Fable: The North Wind and the Sun”

north-wind-and-the-sun-story-oil-painting

[ I vowed that the next time I got a comment on this post, I would publish it again. It hails from four years ago, when  Ethics Alarms got a quarter of the traffic it gets now. I confess that I wrote it on a whim, having been talking with my wife about how Aesop’s Fables were joining Mother Goose stories,  Edward Lear limericks and American folks song in the Discarded Bin of our culture and then stumbling upon a fable I had either never read before or forgotten about.  To my surprise the post attracted intense criticism from fans of the story—I even had to ban a commenter who got hysterical about it—and the post joined a very eclectic group of early essays here that get considerable and consistent readership every week. Apparently there are a lot of Sun-worshipers out there. Anyway, since you probably missed it the first time, here it is.]

Today, by happenstance, I heard an Aesop’s Fable that I had never encountered before recited on the radio. Like all Aesop’s Fables, at least in its modern re-telling, this one had a moral attached , and is also a statement of ethical values. Unlike most of the fables, however, it doesn’t make its case. It is, in fact, an intellectually dishonest, indeed an unethical, fable.

It is called “The North Wind and the Sun,” and in most sources reads like this:

“The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.”

The moral of the fable is variously stated as “Persuasion is better than Force” , or “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

The fable proves neither. In reality, it is a vivid example of dishonest argument, using euphemisms and false characterizations to “prove” a proposition that an advocate is biased toward from the outset. Continue reading

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Filed under Around the World, Childhood and children, Education, Literature, Religion and Philosophy, War and the Military

And Now, How A RIGHT Wing “Watchdog” Views The World…

PRinc_rm_photo_of_jaundiced_eye

In commenting on today’s early post about Mediaite inexplicably neglecting to mention that the “ethics watchdog”now accusing Rep. Louis Gohmert of skimming off his campaign funds is in fact part of the Media Matters left-wing hit squad, commenter Steve-O-in-NJ observed…

“As has been pointed out many, many times on this site both by yourself and others, most Americans have some shade of partisan goggles on that makes it harder to see ethical violations by those they are sympathetic to and easier to see them by those they are not. It doesn’t help that there are any number of partisan dyes (racism, sexism, patriotism) we can release to further cloud the waters we swim in with these goggles on. Eventually there’s so much dye in the water and the lenses become so tinted that everyone forgets what clear water actually looks like.”

Truer words were never uttered. To prove Steve’s point from the other side of the political spectrum, I present Newsbusters, which holds a higher level of esteem from me than CREW by being transparent about its skewed perspective: the site, part of arch conservative Brent Bozell’s empire, acknowledges that it exists to show liberal bias in the news media, and Lord knows, there is plenty to show. Unfortunately, Newsbusters is addicted to the same silly routine its counterpart Media Matters employs, the “X spent this much time on this story but only this much time on this story that exposes the rank incompetence and corruption of a politician/program/party we hate” bit. The complaint has legitimacy when the news media is deliberately burying an important development and hiding facts from the public, as the mainstream media has done with the IRS scandal and attempted to do with Jonathan Gruber’s revelations, or as Fox did with results of the Congressional investigation of Benghazi. More often, however, the real complaint is “Why don’t the biased news sources adopt our biases instead of their biases?”

Today brings a classic example on Newsbusters: Continue reading

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Ah, Mediaite? CREW Is NOT An “Ethics Watchdog Group,” It’s A Partisan Media Matters Hit Group

See, Congressman, it works this way: if you were a Democrat, CREW would ignore your junket to London, and so would Mediaite. Fox News, however, would be all over your ass...

See, Congressman, it works this way: if you were a Democrat, CREW would ignore your junket to London, and so would Mediaite. Fox News, however, would be all over your ass…

Did Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Tx)*, one of the prominent conservatives in the Republican-led Congress, misuse over $6,000 in campaign funds on a speaking trip to London? Maybe; it sounds like one of those typical gray election law controversies, and one of the lesser ones, except that Gohmert is on a lot of partisan hit lists. If he did misuse the funds, I’d want to see him fined, or whatever the violation warrants, and chastened too.

That’s not my concern right now, though. What interests me is that the alleged misuse of funds was flagged by Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and in reporting it, Mediaite said, in a story headlined, Ethics Watchdog Accuses Gohmert of Misusing Campaign Funds:

“An ethics watchdog group has filed a complaint against Rep. Louie Gohmert, accusing the Texas Republican of misusing campaign funds to foot the bill for a trip to England that included a 5-star hotel and a $200-plus taxi ride.The complaint, filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), was addressed to the staff director and chief counsel of the Office of Congressional Ethics and demands an investigation into whether Gohmert violated House rules by using campaign money for a trip that seemingly had nothing to do with his campaign.”

CREW, as I have repeatedly pointed out for years, is no “ethics watchdog.”  Continue reading

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