Tag Archives: hindsight bias

Carolyn Hax And The Unanswerable Ethics Dilemma

secrets

My favorite advice columnist, innate ethicist Carolyn Hax, courageously and wisely addressed an ethics problem that is the equivalent of squaring the circle or finding the end of pi. The question posed by a commenter:

My mother says she will not tell me who my father is and will take the secret to the grave with her. Is there ever any good reason for not telling someone who their father is?

This is not merely a difficult question but also a portal question leading us to a myriad of specific ethics dilemmas. Hax offers a few, some of which aren’t very good:

  • If she doesn’t know for sure herself.

Well, of course: also if she can’t communicate due to her mouth being sewn shut, her arms amputated, she never learned Morse Code and it lousy at charades.]

  • If he committed crimes so heinous that she fears they would change the way you see yourself.
  • If he was and is still married to her sister, cousin, best friend.

Or if the mother is the father…?

  • If revealing his name would reveal something embarrassing about her or her past choices or the circumstances of your birth.

Nope. Embarrassment about the truth is not a valid reason for withholding it from someone who has a legitimate and justified reason to know it.

  • If she promised him she would take the secret of his identity to her grave.

Too bad: that’s never a good reason. A commitment to the dead does not, can not and must not have priority over obligations to the living. That’s an unethical promise; the daughter cannot be ethically made to suffer for it.

If he’s a sperm donor and she thinks there’s something wrong with admitting that.

  • The mother thinking it’s a good reason isn’t the same as it being a good reason. Come on, Carolyn.

My favorite is if the father is Satan, and the mother wants her daughter to have as normal and happy a life as possible until the inevitable day when Dad calls on her to assume her destiny as the DARK EMPRESS OF THE DAMNED! Continue reading

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Filed under U.S. Society

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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Filed under Daily Life, Family

The Jeb Bush “Gotcha!”: Unfair Question, Dumb Answers

Enough about Iraq, Jeb: When did you stop beating your wife?

Enough about Iraq, Jeb: When did you stop beating your wife?

In the vast history of unfair questions, even including such immortals as “When did you stop beating your wife?,”none is more unanswerable in a substantive way than the question Jeb Bush was asked on Fox News—yes, that’s the same Fox News that supposedly lobs softballs for any Republican. The question: “Knowing what we know now” would he have authorized the Iraq war?

What possible use is that question, other than as an exercise in complete hindsight bias? If the answer is no, it appears to validate the dishonest criticism of the war decades ago, by those who attributed new knowledge about the infamous WMD’s to the original decision, which wasn’t about weapons of mass destruction in the first place. If it is yes, it is evidence of insanity.

Now we know that the invasion would be botched, the U.N. would cravenly and irresponsibly withhold support for enforcing its own resolutions, that our hillbilly soldiers would torture Iraqi prisoners and take photos of it, that the new Iraqi government would be incompetent and corrupt, that the news media would assist Democrats in re-writing the history of the decision, and most of all, that even after the situation in Iraq had finally been stabilized, an incompetent President would prematurely pull out our troops, causing the government to implode and ISIS to thrive.

George W. Bush had even said when he was President that if he had known that no WMD’s were there, he would not have invaded Iraq. That was also a dumb answer at the time, and I believe a dishonest one. But today, W. would give the same answer, and knowing what we know now, it would be both correct and honest. That’s if he were silly enough not to say, as his younger brother was too dim to say, this:

“I’m not answering that. It’s pointless. Would Lee have ordered Pickett’s Charge, knowing how it would turn out? Would I have left the dock as captain of the Titanic, knowing that it would hit an iceberg? Would I have approved the Space Shuttle program, knowing that two shuttles would meet with disaster? “Would you still go to see ‘Our American Cousin,’ Mrs Lincoln?” A decision can only be judged based on what the known situation is at the time. It cannot be fairly judged based on the results of the decision, immediately or years later. That’s consequentialism; it’s a logical fallacy.

and

“Nor can I answer the question of what I would have decided in my brother’s place, because I do know how things worked out, and he, of course, could not know. So asking that question is unfair to me, and answering it would be unfair to him. “

But Jeb was too dim to say that. So first he answered… Continue reading

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Filed under Around the World, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Train Wrecks, Government & Politics, History, Journalism & Media, Leadership

Southwest Airlines And The Suicide Threat

Not exactly "friendly skies"

Not exactly “friendly skies”

We tend to assume someone was at fault when a terrible event results from the execution of a standard policy that was not appropriate to the crisis at hand. Who’s to blame in this nightmarish scenario?

Karen Momsen-Evers was on a Southwest Airlines plane about to take off from New Orleans to Milwaukee, where she lived. Then her husband Andy sent her a text asking her for forgiveness for his imminent suicide. “I go to sleep at night thinking what could I have done, what should I have done,” Evers said. She texted back “No,” but the text arrived as flight attendants were doing their final cabin checks. She wanted to call him. The flight attendant ordered her to turn her phone off, and when she insisted, was told that the FAA regulations prohibited any further use of her cellphone. “The steward slapped the phone down and said you need to go on airplane mode now,” Momsen-Evers told reporters.

Once the flight reached cruising altitude, the desperate woman explained the situation to another attendant. She begged her to have someone make an emergency phone call, but the attendant insisted there was nothing she could do.

So Karen Momsen-Evers sat in her seat, looking at the text and sobbing, all the way to Milwaukee. When she arrived home she was met by police officers, who told her Andy had killed himself. Continue reading

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Family

Wasting A Heart

Heart transplant patient

I don’t have a solution to an ethics fiasco like this or know how it could be avoided, but there have to be some lessons buried here somewhere.

In 2013, 15-year-old Anthony Stokes was denied a place on the waiting list for a life-saving heart transplant  at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston because, the hospital explained, he had “a history of noncompliance, which is one of our center’s contraindications to listing for heart transplant.”

This means that doctors doubted that Anthony would take his medicine or go to follow-up appointments. In other words, he was too unreliable and irresponsible to be entrusted with a heart that could save the life of someone else more likely to make good use of it. When a doctor told the family that Anthony’s low grades and time spent in juvenile detention factored into the assessment, however, that gave the family an opening to save the boy’s life. They played the race card. Anthony was being sentenced to death because he was poor and black, and a white patient would naturally be a better risk. The media ran with the narrative, and there was national outrage. Fearing a public relations disaster, the hospital reversed its decision, and Stokes got his heart.

From the Washington Post today:

Tuesday afternoon, [Anthony] Stokes died after a vehicle he was driving jumped a curb, hit a pedestrian and collided with a pole in a car chase with police, according to WSBTV. The pedestrian was hospitalized for her injuries, but Stokes’s car was nearly split in half by the sign, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Police said he had to be cut out of the Honda by first responders and rushed to a hospital where he later died…Stokes was driving a car that matched the description of one used by a person suspected of breaking into an elderly woman’s home. The chase began after officers responding to her 911 call attempted to pull Stokes over, according to WXIA.

Pensive and Rueful Observations: Continue reading

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Filed under Bioethics, Character, Childhood and children, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Health and Medicine, Race

Instant Ethics Train Wreck: The Alabama Gay Marriage Stand-off

What does Dred Scott have to do with the Alabama gay marriage mess? Absolutely nothing.

What does Dred Scott have to do with the Alabama gay marriage mess? Absolutely nothing.

This summer, the Supreme Court will again take up the issue of the Constitutionality of state gay marriage bans, having left the question open (why, I don’t know) after striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013. Since that ruling, the states have been busy little bees, some passing laws banning same-sex marriage, some doing the opposite, then fighting out multiple appeals at various levels of the judicial system. Three things are certain: the cultural and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage looks unstoppable; all states need to agree on what a legal marriage is; and some faith-based same-sex marriage opponents will not give in until the last dog dies.

Beginning at the end of last week, a messy situation in Alabama involving all of these factors burst into a full-fledged ethics train wreck. The links in this post will let you immerse yourself in the mess if you choose: I’m going to try to be clear. Here is what has transpired so far:

1) A federal judge, District Court Judge Callie V. Granade,  struck down the state’s ban  on same-sex marriages in January and said that Alabama could start issuing licenses last week unless the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and stayed her order. A stay was immediately requested by the Alabama Attorney General, who properly defended the state’s law.

2.) The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to step in and stop her order from going into effect.

3) The U.S. Supreme Court also refused the stay request, allowing marriages to proceed in Alabama.

4) Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, reminded everyone that probate judges report to him, not the federal judge and not the Attorney General, and do not have to issue marriage licenses to gay couples until he tells them to. He told them not to.

5) Some Alabama probate judges followed Moore, and some went ahead and issued the licenses. Mass confusion reigned.

6) Meanwhile, the refusal of the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay pending its ruling on state same-sex marriage laws later this year was widely interpreted as tantamount to SCOTUS deciding the case before it was even argued.

7) Justice Clarence Thomas, in a dissent from the  majority’s rejection of the stay (we don’t know what the vote break was), argued that “This acquiescence may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution of that question. This is not the proper way to discharge our . . . responsibilities.”

8) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, meanwhile, appeared to endorse gay marriage in an interview.

9) Attempting to break the impasse, U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade ordered Mobile County, Alabama to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, paving the way for resistant officials across the state to follow suit, in a decision stating that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage had been struck down and that ­Mobile County’s probate judge had to adhere to that decision.

10) Chief Justice Moore remains unmoved, but now most of the probate judges are following the federal order.

Got that?

Good, now you can explain it to me.

What a mess.

Here are the ethics verdicts on the participants so far: Continue reading

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Filed under Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Train Wrecks, Government & Politics, History, Incompetent Elected Officials, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, Religion and Philosophy, Rights, Romance and Relationships, U.S. Society

Accountability Check: No, Sarah Wasn’t “Sacrificed” And She Has Nobody To Blame But Herself

Yeah, that's all you need, Sarah...

Yeah, that’s all you need, Sarah…

When one woman who drives me crazy sets out to defend another one using ethics-crushing illogic, I cannot withhold my hand.

Or gorge.

The wimpiest pseudo-conservative op-ed columnsit who ever roamed the Earth, Kathleen Parker, has delivered a column titled “The Sacrifice of Sarah Palin.” Its thesis? “Blame for her general collapse beginning in 2008 can be placed in large part upon her own party, which used her and cast her aside.”

Well, Parker proves with her fatuous essay that blame can be placed on Republicans, but she doesn’t prove that it should be. Sarah’s reputation is on life support after delivering a speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit that included passages like these… Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Leadership