TGIF Ethics Round-up: Killer Whales, Palin-Hatred, MagicJack and More

Brief ethics notes on a wild week…

  • How dare the killer whale be a killer?…Tilikum, the killer whale who either playfully or maliciously killed his trainer at Orlando’s Sea World this week, will apparently stay in the facility. Some pundits (the ones I have heard were of the foaming-at-the-mouth conservative fanatic variety) regard it as absurd not to put down a murderous whale when a dog, bear or tiger that similarly ended a human life ( Tilikum may have ended three) would routinely be destroyed. One doesn’t have to be a PETA dues-payer to see this as advocacy for blatantly unfair retribution. Let’s see: Sea World takes a top-of-the-food-chain predator out of the oceans out of its natural environment, earns admission fees by making it perform tricks for the amusement of humans in a theme park, pays relatively tiny and fragile trainers to interact with the three ton beast, and when the predators does what it is naturally designed to do—kill—we blame the whale? The party at fault for the whale attack at Sea World is none other than Sea World itself. There are good ethical arguments for putting it down, perhaps, but not its captive performers. (Most executions of human-killing bears, dogs and tigers are also unjust, but that discussion is for another time.)
  • What climate change scientists need to hear: For a superb, well-reasoned and thought-provoking essay on why the climate change scientists have a serious crisis of trust and trustworthiness, read “Judith, I love ya, but you’re way wrong” by Willis Eschenbach. If you have ever questioned whether skepticism about global warming certitude has a solid intellectual foundation, this should convince you.
  • Palin derangement epidemic: The Valentine’s Day episode of the Fox animated sitcom “The Family Guy”  revealed the tip of the cultural iceberg that is the irrational, disproportionate, gratuitously cruel and indefensible abuse of Sarah Palin and her family. In the episode, a character with Down Syndrome (voiced by a Down Syndrome actress) said that she was the a daughter of “the former governor of Alaska.” Palin and her family pronounced the pointless reference to her Down Syndrome son, Trig, mean-spirted without being sufficiently funny, and anyone who is not a card-carrying Palin-hater would have to agree. Series creator Seth McFarland responded with the shrugged response that the series is an “equal opportunity offender,” which ducks the point: how can essentially jeering, “you have a disabled baby!” be defended as professional, prime-time caliber humor? Series regular Patrick Warburton, to his credit, has been the one Hollywood figure to declare the line unfunny and inappropriate.

But this is pea-shooter stuff compared with the wild-eyed Palin-hatred in the blogosphere. I had no idea  how deranged the Palin-haters were until I ventured into Palin conspiracy country, where the Left-wing “birthers” make their loopy Right-wing counterparts seem rational. Did you know that Palin faked last her pregnancy and has used two…or maybe three!… different babies to pass off the fiction that she gave birth to Trig? Yes! Because…well, because she’s just evil, I guess. I’m no Sarah Palin fan, but the lack of fairness, proportion and decency on the part of her tormenters is indefensible, and even gives some credence to Rush Limbaugh’s oft-made assertion that liberals are more vicious to their perceived enemies than conservatives.

  • MagicJack and SLAPP: One of the most unethical uses of the legal process is threatening lawsuits to silence legitimate critics. MagicJack, the makers of that gadget that lets you make phone calls cheaply by using the internet, tried to intimidate the site BoingBoing when it reported legitimate unethical tricks and maneuvers being used by the company in the fine print of its user agreement and on its website (for example, the website claimed to be able to detect MagicJacks, saying that “Your MagicJack is functioning properly” even when none were present.) BoingBoing didn’t back down (Bravo!) because everything it reported was true, and MagicJack not only lost but had to pay $50,000 in court costs to BoingBoing because the suit was determined to be a SLAPP: a strategic lawsuit against public participation.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get unethical: Finally, you can download a fascinating survey by the Ethics Resource Center here, documenting how recession-inspired belt-tightening measures by companies tend to greatly increase the frequency of unethical conduct on the job, as employees, especially younger ones, decide that they have a right to “get even.” (They don’t.)

9 thoughts on “TGIF Ethics Round-up: Killer Whales, Palin-Hatred, MagicJack and More

  1. Jack,

    About Tilikum, it’s now being reported by some that he was an attraction at Sea Land in Canada. After he was involved in the death of a trainer in Canada, he was sold to Sea World. The sellers are saying he was a fertile whale that produced many offspring and that they expected Sea World to only use him as a “stud”, not an attraction. I’m not advocating for putting him down – but apparently one death wasn’t enough for Sea World to keep him out of the Attraction Booth – will 2 be enough? 3?

    • Oh, Sea World is not going to be able to duck a lawsuit on this, I’m sure—not should it. It may be strict liability anyway–I’m not sure there is such a thing, legally, as a “safe” killer whale.

      • Jack –

        I ‘m surprised to hear you sound so litigious.

        The trainer was working with very large, powerful carnivorous animals. Surely, she knew the risk that the animal could turn on her.

        As for the audience? I’m sure it was horrific. But again, there is always the risk that these wild animals will act true to their wild nature. Whether its the whales attacking their trainer or monkeys throwing poo.

        As you sure there is a safe killer whale.

        • There is a very old, common law doctrine of strict liability for anyone who keeps wild and dangerous animals on their premises. I haven’t checked, but I’d assume it still applies here. If the whale’s victim/toy didn’t know the full extent of its prior background, I think Sea World is very vulnerable. As is often the case, the victim herself would never want to sue. But her family? Count on it, unless SW pre-empts with a generous, private settlement. That’s almost certainly what will happen.

  2. Regarding the essay on global warming, this quote from Stephen Schneider (an believer in global warming) simply blew me away.

    “To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

    Double ethical bind?!?

    Each of us has to decide what the right balance is?

    I thought it was primarily people my age that had embraced a postmodern fuzzy minded logic and lack of absolutes.

    My guess is that Stephen has no ethics alarms.

    • Thanks for that quote—I’ve been looking for something like that from someone other than Al Gore (who has said similar things) or op-ed writer Anne Applebaum, who wrote a column last year endorsing fear-mongering as a legitimate way to make governments and the public take aggressive action on the H1N1 virus. Schneider’s comment represents the most arrogant, virulent and dangerous form of utilitarianism, and it is rampant. But I’ll give him credit for admitting it.

  3. I sometimes think us humans are the ones who need to be in a cage. The manner in which we abuse, mistreat and misrepresent the rest of the animal kingdom is appalling. It is my sincere hope that God turns out to be a dolphin. If so, I hope he has some pity for humankind.

  4. Anybody interested in tracking down the state of the law on liability for injuries caused by pets, potentially dangerous animals, farm animals, and wild animals (an area of considerable confusion, because these laws are almost always state-by-state) might consult Kenneth W. Simmons, “The Restatement (Third) of Torts and Traditional Strict Liability: Robust Rationales, Slender Doctrines”, 44 Wake Forest Law Review 1355 (2010) for a good recent summary. It’s online at

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