Tag Archives: moral luck

A Lesson In The Dangers of Wise-assery, Hindsight Bias, And Moral Luck


Once upon a time, a fat, spectacled, pleasant amateur song parodist sold millions of records with what middle-aged college grads thought were witty musical critiques of Sixties life and culture. His name was Allan Sherman, and one of those witty songs was this:

Therein lies some useful lessons which we all should absorb:

1. What seems like a valid opinion today might well seem incredibly stupid to virtually everybody later.

2. Venturing outside your expertise is always risky.

3.  Everything seems obvious in hindsight. In most cases, it was anything but.

4. Yesterday’s wit is tomorrow’s ignorance.

5. Whether your opinion is going to make you look like a prophet or a fool is often nothing but moral luck.

6. Criticizing someone for views proven invalid by subsequent developments no one could have foreseen is consequentialism, and unfair.

7. People will do it anyway.

8. We are all Allan Sherman. We just don’t know how.

It’s hard to imagine now that John, Paul, George and Ringo are icons and deserving ones, but back in 1964 it was considered wise and clever to make fun of their hair, their fans and pronounce them untalented hacks. At the beginning of the British invasion, many sophisticates regarded the Beatles as indistinguishable from the legendary Dave Clark Five, and a passing fancy no more significant that the hula hoop.

Mock them now at your peril. Your time will come…in fact, it probably already has.



Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Character, Popular Culture

Boehner, Leadership And The Consequentialism Exception

At the end of John Beohner’s press conference responding to his sudden resignation, there was this exchange:

QUESTION: Can you talk about what you think your legacy is as you’re leaving? What are your most important accomplishments, and what are you going to do on November 1st? Are you moving to Florida?

BOEHNER: I was never in the legacy business. You all heard me say it, I’m a regular guy with a big job. And I never thought I’d be in Congress much less I’d ever be speaker. But people know me as being fair, being honest, being straightforward and trying to do the right thing every day on behalf of the country. I don’t need any more on that.

I will frequently inveigh here against the fallacy of consequentialism, the mistake of believing that whether conduct is ethical or not can be judged by its results. This leads inexorably to an “ends justifies the means” orientation and a misunderstanding of ethics. The ethical nature of an act can only be weighed according to how it was arrived at, its intent, and whether the conduct itself meets the tests of one or more ethical systems. Then moral luck takes over: an ethical decision can have catastrophic consequences and still be ethical, and the most unethical conduct can have wonderful results.

In life, however, and especially in some fields, ethics isn’t enough, and we all know it, or should. This is why consequentialism can’t be snuffed out of our thinking. There are fields of endeavor in which results are the primary standard by which we can—and should— judge whether someone was competent in the role he or she took on for themselves when others could have done the job better. In these fields being ethical isn’t enough, and often is grossly inadequate.  If one is a leader, for example, it cannot be right to lead those behind you to disaster, indeed to fail. In a field that is defined by the successful completion of a task that affects others, failure and ethics are incompatible. A failed leader is a bad leader. The objective in leadership is not just to “do the right thing,” but to succeed at ethical objectives in the right way. Continue reading


Filed under Character, Government & Politics, History, Leadership

Eight Ethics Observations On Donald Trump’s Prisoner Of War Slur…And Another New Rationalization: “Popeye’s Excuse”

PopeyeFrom the New York Times:

“Mr. Trump upended a Republican presidential forum here [Ames, Iowa] , and the race more broadly, by saying of the Arizona senator and former prisoner of war: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Mr. McCain, a naval aviator, was shot down during the Vietnam War and held prisoner for more than five years in Hanoi, refusing early release even after being repeatedly beaten.

The only news outlet that isn’t covering this is the Huffington Post, because controversies that directly affect who will be President of the United States aren’t news when they involve candidates the HuffPo ideologues don’t respect.

I thought I should remind you.

Ethics observations:

1. The statement is signature significance that Trump is a jerk as well as a fool, and not very bright as well. The latter is especially important: being an idiot should disqualify anyone for high elected office. Not that Trump’s intelligence, or lack of it, hasn’t been a matter of record for a long, long time, but this is as blazing a tell as anyone could wish for. Anyone who voluntarily places his or her life at risk for their country is a hero; circumstances and moral luck determine what other tests warfare will present to such an individual’s character. When a hero passes such a test with distinction, as McCain did in his prisoner of war ordeal during the Vietnam war, the military makes a special effort to recognize that heroism, in part to inspire others. My father refused to make a big deal about his Silver Star and Bronze Star, because he was aware that the man who was blown up by a shell while virtually standing next to him could have just as easily been the decorated war hero, and my father a statistic, had the shell landed a little bit to the right. My father regarded the man who was killed in his foxhole as much of a hero as he was. Trump would say, “I like people who aren’t killed.”

Only a stupid man could believe that.

2. For Trump to denigrate McCain’s service when he took every possible step to avoid service in the same war is especially nauseating. The ethical values being rejected here are fairness and respect. John McCain displayed courage, patriotism, devotion to civic duty, selflessness and integrity that Trump could not. It’s really that simple. Trump lacks any standing to criticize Senator McCain’s war record.

3. On ABC this morning, Donald Trump was asked about his habit of name-calling and using personal insults as his response to political criticism. He justified his incivility by evoking the Tit for Tat excuse: if you insult him, he’ll insult you, and that includes calling you fat, old, stupid, or–his favorite—“a loser.” This is playground ethics, worthy of a 12-year-old. Your duty to be fair, civil and ethical is not reduced by the unethical conduct of someone else, even when it is aimed at you. Ethical people understand this, often before they are 20. Ethically, Trump is a case of arrested development. Continue reading


Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, Journalism & Media, Leadership, U.S. Society, War and the Military

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


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

Ethics Dunce: Keith Hartley, Cubs Fan

The one-handed foul ball catch made by Chicago Cubs fan Keith Hartley was all over the web and cable TV yesterday. If you missed it, here it is:

Nice catch. Of course, it interfered with the ball in play, keeping Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from making the catch. In most circumstances, Hartley would have been thrown out of the game.

That’s the least that should have been done to him. He endangered his son—twice.

How quickly people forget that a fan in Boston is still recovering from a near fatal encounter with a shard from a broken bat that sailed into the stands during a game at Fenway Park, causing many baseball-hating pundits to call for netting to protect fans at field level. (This is how the Barn Door Fallacy works, after all.) I hate the idea of the netting, but there is no question that the seats near the action can be perilous. I once had access to season tickets by the visiting team on-deck circle at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium, and foul balls were whizzing by my head several times a game. I’m talking about line drives, not pop-ups, like the one Hartley caught.

To be blunt, his baby could have been killed. Continue reading


Filed under Childhood and children, Ethics Dunces, Health and Medicine, Journalism & Media, Sports

Carolyn Hax And The Unanswerable Ethics Dilemma


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


Filed under U.S. Society

“The Longest Day,” Darryl F. Zanuck, D-Day, And Us


Today is June 6, the anniversary of the Allies’ invasion of Normandy, the audacious military strike that changed the course of history. I’ll be interested in seeing how it’s commemorated this year, 71 years later, especially by the news media. A lot of Americans under the age of 40 know almost nothing about it, or worse, the values it represents to the United States.

Fortunately, there is an easy and entertaining way to teach a young American about what happened on this day 71 years ago. That is to have him or her watch “The Longest Day,” producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s epic film based closely on historian (and sole credited screenwriter) Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 book. (You can get it at Amazon, here.)I usually find understanding military battles nearly impossible; written accounts completely confound me, and few movies about any battle make a serious effort to explain the tactics and strategy without reducing the facts to pablum. (I remember how much my father, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, detested the big budget movie of the same name, which he found outrageously sloppy, and which he summarized as “Henry Fonda won the war.”)

Not “The Longest Day,” however. Since seeing the movie with my father as a kid, I have learned a lot about what was left out, but the movie is remarkably clear and accurate about what happened and why without being either too detailed or too simplistic. It’s also just a great, inspiring movie.

That we have “The Longest Day” is entirely due to the courage of one of Hollywood’s most dynamic, flamboyant and successful studio moguls, Darryl F. Zanuck. The original producer of the adaptation of Ryan’s book (which is terrific ) gave up on the project when 20th Century Fox refused to allow him an adequate budget. Zanuck, who was still producing films but no longer ran the studio he had built,  bought the rights, and was determined to do the story, the event, and the men who fought the battle justice by mounting a production almost as ambitious as the invasion itself. Continue reading


Filed under Around the World, Arts & Entertainment, Business & Commercial, History, Journalism & Media, Popular Culture, U.S. Society, War and the Military