Tag Archives: moral luck

Have A Happy Thanksgiving Everyone, And Don’t Forget To Review The Ethics Alarms Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide Before The Annual TV Screening!

It’s right here!


Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Family, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership, Love, Popular Culture, Romance and Relationships

Tesla’s Seat Belt Recall, Moral Luck, and Ethics Chess

Jaws victim

Ethics Alarms Chief Ethics Scout Fred found this one. Tesla was alerted to one seat belt failure in its Model S, and  recalled them all. This involved a huge cost, of course, and that cost will be eventually passed on to consumers and investors. Fred asks,

“Abundance of caution” is the phrase they used, one I gather is familiar to lawyers. Could they have justified some other response that was less catastrophically expensive? Would they have had a fiduciary duty to do so? Or would that duty lie in maintaining the brand image of meticulous quality at almost any short-term cost, building a reputation that could command premium prices for decades to come?
The issue was simply this: how much did the company want to bet on moral luck? Tesla was aware of a possible design or manufacturing flaw that could kill passengers. It could have been a fluke, and it could have been widespread. If the cars were not recalled—and I don’t know enough about Teslas to presume that there would be any other way to check every single car or replace the seat belts without the expense of a recall, so I will assume for this discussion that there is not—and one or more passenger was killed, then Tesla management would have suddenly become Sheriff Brodie and Mayor Vaughn in “Jaws,” as articulated, with a slap, by the mother of a little boy who became shark bait while playing on his yellow raft. They knew there was a possible danger, and decided that chancing it was a better call than risking the summer tourist business. They balanced the risks, and did nothing.


Filed under Business & Commercial, Law & Law Enforcement, Popular Culture

Ethics Hero, I Guess: High School Runner Zach Hougland

cross country

Today got an e-mail from an Ethics Alarms participant who hasn’t been by in a while. He commented that he was finding the blog too depressing. Almost immediately after that, another reader sent me this story.

In Iowa, Davis County High School runner Zach Hougland had already won his race, thereby becoming district cross country champion, his school’s first. As he was taking congratulations from his coach and track team mates, he saw another school’s runner stumble and fall, then remain motionless. Hougland rushed back on the track, scooped him up and tried to help him to the finish line.  He said, “It was about 15 meters from the finish line.  I did it for seven meters, so he had about eight left.  I knew I couldn’t help him finish so I just gave him a push and told him ‘You can do it!'” Continue reading


Filed under Character, Education, Sports

Ethics Observations On The Spring Valley High School Arrest

1. After a 48 hour review, Ben Fields, the school resource officer who was caught on camera violently flipping the desk of a disruptive South Carolina high school student, was fired for violating police department policy. Naturally, he and his lawyer claim otherwise, but that’s just posturing for the inevitable union challenge. He had to be fired for many reasons, including terrible optics and bad judgment. The worst of the defenses offered for his conduct was that the girl, treated like a professional wrestler by the much larger male officer, wasn’t injured. If true, that was pure moral luck: from the violent nature of the arrest, it is a miracle he didn’t break her neck. (The student’s lawyer claims that her arm is broken, among other injuries.)

2. The news media immediately declared this a racial incident. The New York Times, for example, began a report like this:

A white sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina was fired Wednesday after county officials concluded he had acted improperly when, in a videotaped confrontation, he dragged and then threw a female African-American student across a high school classroom this week.

I can find no evidence that race had anything to do with this incident, unless one accepts the Black Lives Matter assertion that the colors of participants in black-white confrontations prove that the white individual is a racist and the black individual is a helpless victim who has no racial biases whatsoever. Continue reading


Filed under Childhood and children, Education, Law & Law Enforcement, Race, Social Media, U.S. Society

Baseball, Moral Luck, And Ike’s Big Lie


Dwight D. Eisenhower lied in  a signed pledge in order to play football as a West Point student. Had the false assertion been discovered, the Allied Forces would have had a different commander, and the Cold War would have been fought on the U.S. side by a …Adlai Stevenson, if not Herman Goering. Ike never mentioned his ethical and very uncharacteristic breach of military conduct in his memoirs, but the incident seems to have haunted him all his life.

President Eisenhower played the outfield for Class D Junction City, a professional minor league team, in 1911. Ike  used a false name—“Wilson”— to maintain eligibility for collegiate athletics. He was 20 years old and  hit .355,  but he wasn’t aiming for  the big leagues.  “I wanted to go to college that fall and we didn’t have much money,” General Eisenhower told the Associated Press in 1945. “I took any job that offered me more money, because I needed money.”

When Eisenhower joined the Army’s football program at West Point, he had to sign a form saying he was never compensated for playing a professional  sport. The assumption is that Ike signed, but the document has never been found. Had his lie been discovered whgile he was at West Point, he would have been kicked out of the Academy. Had the falsely signed document surfaced while he was President, it would have been a serious embarrassment for both Ike and the military.

My guess is that it was “lost.” Continue reading


Filed under Character, Education, History, Sports, War and the Military

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