Here are some ethics issues to ponder from the recent news and around the Web:
- Who says it pays to be ethical? The astounding insistence, under oath, by Goldman Sachs executives that they had done nothing wrong in selling admittedly “crummy” investment products to clients while using the company’s own money to bet that the same products would fail will not be sufficiently punished or contradicted by the S.E.C.’s cynical cash settlement of its suit against the firm. For a $500 million penalty, Goldman Sachs is off the hook for the equivalent of four days’ income, as the Obama Administration claims to the unsophisticated public (“Isn’t $500 million a lot of money?”) that it is “getting tough” with Wall Street. The fact is that Goldman Sachs’ unethical maneuvers paid off handsomely, and nothing has happened that will discourage it from finding loopholes in another set of regulations and making another killing while deceiving investors legally and, by the Bizarro World ethics of the investment world, “ethically.” You can read a perceptive analysis here.
- Pity trumps integrity and fairness. “The Ethicist,” Randy Cohen, has been on a hot streak lately, and he correctly attacks the logic of community softies who think putting an inferior player on a Little League All-Star team is the kind, generous and “right” way to show everyone’s sympathy that the kid’s father just died of cancer. Cohen explains that giving someone an undeserved honor unfairly penalizes those who earned it, and this instance compounds the offense by putting a child in a situation that will embarrass him and make him a likely object of resentment. I would add that the people agitating for the “pity honor” of awarding the boy a place on a team he isn’t good enough to make on merit should show their concern by giving away something of their own, rather than another child’s chance to be an All-Star. Incredibly, the local Little League ultimately did put the grieving son on the All-Star Team. Similar logic would have dictated that everyone vote for John Edwards to be the 2008 Democratic nominee for President because his wife was dying of cancer. That would have worked out well.
- An Ethics No-Win Situation: The New Jersey Supreme Court has overturned a D.U.I. conviction because the police’s warning about the consequences of refusing a breath test was administered in English, and the drunk driver didn’t speak English. By a 4-3 vote, the Court ruled that simply reciting a warning in a language a suspect doesn’t understand can’t protect his rights against self-incrimination. This seems completely fair, legal and logical. It also would seem to guarantee that a foreign visitor who speaks a sufficiently obscure language can drink and drive without fear of arrest. There is no way to preserve the rights of non-English speaking D.U.I. suspects and keep the laws that make the refusal to take a breath test the equivalent of a confession and not force police departments to maintain budget-busting teams of linguists and protect the public from drunk-driving Norwegians and Mongolians. One solution: make speaking and understanding English (or Spanish)—or having an interpreter in your car— a prerequisite for driving on U.S. streets and highways and still having the option of refusing a breath test. Sometimes a reasonable interpretation of a law still makes fairness to all parties impossible, and this is one of those times. If we a choice of being unfair to police, the public, or the non-English speaking drunk, I pick the drunk.
- And I thought the Washington Post’s Excuse Was Lame: On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” today, host Howard Kurtz asked CBS’s “Face the Nation” host Bob Shieffer why he interviewed Attorney General Eric Holder for 30 minutes last Sundaywithout questioning him about the New Black Panther voter intimidation controversy. Shieffer’s jaw-dropping answer was that he just returned from vacation and wasn’t aware of the recent developments in the story! What, Bob, no staff? CBS doesn’t have an AP feed? Isn’t it your responsibility to get up to speed on what happened while you were getting a tan before you go on the air? The translation of Shieffer’s explanation is this: “It’s absurd to suggest I’m biased. I’m just lazy, unprepared and incompetent!” Good to know, Bob. Then Kurtz got to what was really bugging him: the fact that the mainstream media wasn’t reporting on Mel Gibson’s threatening, sexist and racist rants taped by his estranged girl friend. He devoted a longer segment to this disgraceful failure of journalism than he did to the media shrugging off possible Justice Department racial bias. Note to Kurtz: one reason the media might have ignored Mel Gibson’s tirade is that he is completely irrelevant to the lives of Americans.