The Folly of Sacrificing Integrity to Kindness in Competitions

"Great idea, Mandy! Let's elect President Obama our school Homecoming Queen! He could use a a boost."


Violate it at your peril. This is especially true if you are running a competition, no matter how trivial it might be.

Not only may a momentary waiver of integrity for what seems like an admirable cause permanently render a competition and the honor of winning it meaningless, it well may inspire the well-meaning and misguided to stretch the questionable logic of your decision to the breaking point.

Almost everyone has seen the heart-tugging TV ad from the mysterious Foundation for a Better Life, in which a high school girl with Down Syndrome is crowned Homecoming Queen. (“True Beauty. Pass it on!”) It bothered me the moment I saw it—at least after I wiped the tear from my eye. Based on a real incident in Missouri in 2008, the spot illustrates an ethical conflict between kindness and caring on one side and fairness and integrity on the other.

Of course this was a nice thing to do. It was undeniably kind, and the student involved will surely regard it as a high point in her life. But what does the Homecoming Queen title mean now, once it has been awarded for purposes completely divorced from its original purpose? If there is another Down Syndrome student in future years who doesn’t get a crown, will this indicate to her that she is less deserving of the award, and somehow lacking, since, after all, a girl like her won in a past year? Aren’t the students, by giving a distinction almost universally reserved for the most popular, accomplished, beautiful high school student to a Down Syndrome student, engaging in classic do-gooder grandstanding, using a flamboyant and high-profile “kind deed” to make themselves look noble and selfless? Once you have given the Homecoming Queen title to a girl with Down Syndrome, what is the accepted and established criteria for the honor going forward? There isn’t any. The title no longer has any integrity.

I agree that Homecoming Queen competitions, like beauty pageants, are inherently silly, and an argument could be made that if the Missouri incident gave one mentally disadvantaged teen a thrill, that was worth undermining the whole tradition. I was never a teenaged girl, however (well, only for a little while.) Thousands of girls have looked upon their own Homecoming Queen honors as a high point in their lives, as they assumed that they were not crowned as an act of pity or charity. Now what does the award mean to them?

The misguided willingness to undermine the integrity of an honor has appeared in far more weighty competitions: President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize for having done exactly nothing in the realm of world peace has succeeded in making everyone on the planet a potential recipient of future Prizes, depending on the political bias the Committee want to flaunt in any given year.  The willingness to sacrifice integrity for awards and distinction that are supposed to be based on established criteria and merit  is implicated in affirmative action programs, and the increasing tendency of schools to use minority and handicapped status in choosing valedictorian, or determining athletic teams. The smoking gun that proves the ethical error in giving awards to be nice and fair and generous— rather than to meet the appropriate criteria of the competition—just turned up in an Australia child beauty pageant, however….something undeniably even dumber than picking a Homecoming Queen.

On awards night, the consolation prize of Best Personality was given to Tahnee Myles, a nine year-old entrant who is autistic. Tahnee has many charms, but an outstanding personality is not one of them. Her own mother was outraged, seeing the award as shining a cruel spotlight on the girl’s disorder, and the equivalent of mocking her. (Mom, we should not forget, was the one who entered an autistic nine-year-old in a beauty pageant.) One of the event’s promoters, Carmen Powell, of Pageants Australia, stood by the decision to give Tahnee the award. “It’s about making the children feel good about themselves, feel worthy,” she said.

Oh…is that is what the competition is all about, is it? If so, then that criteria needs to be disclosed at the outset, with a statement like this:

 “To all Competitors: Awards will be given according to the judges’ assessment of which children most need affirmation and a sense of self-worth, and all other qualifications, such as attractiveness, talent, poise and charm will be secondary, tertiary, or ignored altogether. In some cases, this will mean that the least qualified and least successful entrants will be honored, ironically, as the most successful, and henceforth losing the competition may come to be regarded, with some justification, as proof that an entrant was otherwise too qualified to win it.  At such future time, if it comes, when winning an award becomes a mark of shame, inadequacy and pity, we reserve the right to again start giving awards to the fortunate girls with conventional beauty, health, poise and talent, so they will start feeling bad about themselves again—no wait, that’s not right—oh! oh! I’ve got it!—so the award will gradually regain credibility so it can be once more be capable of making a less fortunate child feel special by winning it, at which time the honors of most beautiful, most talented, and best personality will again be capriciously but kindly awarded to the least attractive, the most desperately untalented, and autistic entrants, if there are any.”

“We hope this clears up any confusion.”

Incoherence, unfairness, and grandstanding. Pass it on!

24 thoughts on “The Folly of Sacrificing Integrity to Kindness in Competitions

  1. Yep. People with certain disabilities can’t enter the Olympics. This isn’t cruel or biased. A person without legs,for instance, simply cannot run. Thanks to Eunice Kennedy the disabled have an Olympics of their own. If we want those who are normally left out of competitions to be able to really feel good about themselves then set up a competition among their peers,like Ms.Kennedy did.

    • Who says people without (natural) legs cannot run? Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who runs on artificial limbs called blades, was deemed eligible to qualify for the Beijing Olympics despite his disability by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Unfortunately, he missed the cut-off to qualify for the Beijing Olympics by less than a second. Apparently he has recently met the qualifying time for London. Hopefully we will see him there.

      See and

      • Hey, let’s just give him the trophy because he’s so courageous. I don’t think runners with flesh and blood legs should have to compete with androids, semi-androids, or bionic men. The only excuse for allowing “blade-runner” to compete is that he can’t win…and that’s absurd. He should be excluded.

        • The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that there is insufficient evidence to show that his artificial limbs give him an advantage over other competitors to the extent that he should be disqualified (they bring some advantages and some disadvantages). His record time would have placed him fifth in Beijing. Wait until 2012 to see whether or not he can win.

          Your point about runners not having to compete with “androids, semi-androids, or bionic men” is an interesting one, in that it brings up the problem of how much someone should be able to benefit from technology when in the Olympics. Swimmers can already use swimwear that is designed to make them far more hydrodynamic than a human would normally be. Is this unfair since it forces humans to compete with “fishmen”? When do we cross the line from a competitor merely benefiting from technology to a competitor becoming a “bionic man”?

            • Why was the court wrong? Your argument was based on a ruling that was originally made by the IAAF which was based on a study which the CAS deemed to be flawed. The CAS also determined that the IAAF’s interpretation of the rule was flawed as well. The CAS did not overturn the rule against devices that lead to an overall enhancement in performance but merely interpreted it differently, to mean that the device must give a net enhancement to performance, not an enhancement that may be overcome by other disadvantages. The CAS ruled that the ruling against enhancements did not violate rules against discrimination based on disabilities. If the ruling was political, it was political in the sense that all rulings are political. If you have any evidence of undue influence on the CAS, please share it.

              I understand your argument against allowing athletes with technological “enhancements” from competing, but your argument is flawed because athletes already benefit from technological enhancements like, say, the hydrodynamic swimwear I mentioned earlier. Perhaps you think that athletes should have to compete naked, like the athletes in the ancient Olympic Games?

              • The court was wrong because the issue wouldn’t even have been considered. The line is hard, and the article was clear. Competitors shouldn’t have artificial body parts that are involved in the competition. That’s an easy one. As for the swimsuits—that’s easy too. The rule should require all competitors to use equivalent equipment—golf balls, tennis rackets, swim suits—so it is the athlete, not the equipment, that’s winning or losing.These are both easy calls. The tougher ones involve enhancements of the human body or ability by medical, chemical, surgical or sub-cellular means.

                  • Well, that’s fascinating. The court is wrong, as courts often are, because it’s wrong. The requirement that racers have human feet and legs, not blades, rockets, wheels, kangaroo legs, pogo sticks, skis, stilts, hooves, or bionic devices is so clearly necessary for competitive fairness that only politically correct disability-worship could explain the result, or your admiration of it. You doubtless think it would similarly be ‘fair” to have an armless boxer compete in the Olympics with a surgically attached sledge hammer coming out of one shoulder and a baseball bat out of the other. Sure, that’s “silly.” If we let runners race with leg substitutes, I see no reason the same court wouldn’t allow that.

                    • No, I would not find that fair. The surgically attached sledgehammer and baseball bat would provide the boxer with a net advantage over boxers without such prostheses so, based on the Pistorius precedent, they should not be allowed. The blades used by Pistorius, on the other hand, do not, so they should be allowed. Actually, to be fair, the people trying to keep Pistorius out of the competition could not prove that the blades provided Pistorius with a net advantage, so that is why they should be allowed. If they, or you, can prove that they provide him with a net advantage over other competitors then I would agree that Pistorius should be disqualified,

                    • It makes no sense, Eric. So the standard is whether the artififically accessorized human’s accessories work juuuust inefficiently enough so he won’t win? Wheels instead of legs are ok, but only if the wheels are squeaky? The boxer can have a whiffle nad for an arm, but not the metal kind? The court obviously wasn’t taking injuries into consideration. It isn’t an advantage not to have to worry about blisters or sprained ankles or athlete’s foot?

                    • This is a reply to your latest comment. No, all that is required is that the blades do not provide a net advantage to the athlete. The blades might mean that the athlete has no advantages or disadvantages compared to other athletes. They might also mean that the athlete is at a disadvantage compared to other athletes. This doesn’t mean that he will lose, however. Perhaps he has other (natural) advantages that overcome his disadvantage (as an analogy, if you strapped a small weight to Usain Bolt’s back, this would disadvantage him, but he is still a good enough runner that he might win). We will have to wait until the London Olympics in 2012 to see if Pistorius can win.

                      It is an advantage not to have to worry about athlete’s foot, sprained ankles, blisters, etc., however this advantage is balanced out by the disadvantages of having to run with blades (he cannot accelerate as fast as runners with natural legs).

  2. Are there any qualifications to become homecoming queen? If it is just a free vote by students to choose someone to represent them, then they should be able choose anyone they like without being unethical. If there are qualifications or even guidelines for voting (i.e. they are told to vote for the friendliest person) then I suppose the voters are unethical if they vote for someone despite the fact that they know another candidate better fits the criteria for selection, then I suppose they are being unethical.

    In the case of Obama and the Nobel Prize, there are criteria for selecting a Peace Prize winner, but the Nobel Committee has been ignoring them for a while now. Awarding the Peace Prize has always suffered from the internal contradictions in its awarding criteria. It should go to the person who “…shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Unfortunately, the people who often fit these criteria tend to be people who start or encourage wars in the first place. Perhaps the ethical thing to do would be to stop awarding the prize, but instead it seems that the committee has just been awarding the prize to people that they like and find kind of admirable. Barack Obama’s award was just a particularly egregious example of this trend. Was the committee unethical in continuing to follow current practice?

    • There are certainly traditional qualifications and a general understanding what the Homecoming Queen honor means. We could start appointing Supreme Court justices to make people feel good too. I think you’re ducking the issue. Sure—nothing stops the students from turning the honor into charity. What does that do to the honor? Isn’t that irresponsible and unfair to everyone who came before or will come after? Hey—I bet there are no specific standards for “Best Personality”…but don’t you think it’s a fair assumption that the winner should at least have one?

      • It seems that, in the United States, Supreme Court Justices are already appointed to make people feel good (Democrats appoint Justices that make liberals feel good and Republicans appoint Justices that make conservatives feel good),

        When it comes to awarding honours by committee or by vote, there is usually politicking, ulterior motives, bias and a host of other criteria that influence the decision, along with any other qualifications involved in decision making. Perhaps you think this is unethical, but it is inevitable, especially when criteria are as subjective as those of selecting a homecoming queen. If a class wants to give the honour to a person with down syndrome, I say let them.

        A fridge, on the other hand, maybe goes too far (see and scroll down a bit).

        • I didn’t say we shouldn’t let them. If you want to debase your own standard be my guest. I said that in the final analysis, it is irresponsible, foolish, unfair and ultimately undermines the point of the honor so it no longer can even be abused. We have the freedom to do all sorts of silly things, and this is just one of them.

          • Debasement is in the eye of the beholder. When the Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government thought that it was an irresponsible, foolish and unfair debasement of the award and a betrayal of the principles it stands for. Others thought that it was a well-justified rebuke to China’s record on human rights. When the Beatles were awarded MBEs, some thought that it was a grave insult to the great men and women who had won the award in the past. On the other hand, it could be argued that it was a brilliant show of modernity on the part of a British establishment that had been too fixated on past glories and not attuned to modern realities. Disagree with the decision that the students made if you like, but don’t call them unethical.

            • Nonsense. By that standard, nothing is unethical. Sometimes debasement is in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes it is just objectively debasement. Like the autistic girl as’best personality,” do you? Go ahead—defend that one on fairness and honesty grounds. You defend a Nobel Peace Prize that was opposed by a regime that locks up critics, and compare that to objective criticism of awarding a peace prize—not a ‘we like your politics and want to stick it to the US” prize, but a PEACE PRIZE to Arafat, Carter, Gore and Obama?

              Come on.

              Sure, you can give your once valued honor to anyone for any reason, and you can turn it into a joke. If the honor had enough value to tempt you to do such a thing “to be nice”, then by definition you are irresponsibly diminishing something of community/societal/traditional value. Which is wrong, or unethical. I think it’s pretty simple.

              • Was “best personality” a specific criterion for awarding homecoming queen at the school in question? I agree that, if given criteria to decide something, a selector makes a decision that one option best fits the criteria, but then selects another option based on criteria that he or she prefers, that person is probably being unethical (like a juror who decides that a prosecutor has not proven his or her case beyond a reasonable doubt but convicts anyway because the prosecutor has the nicest tie). When either there are no criteria or the criteria are nebulous (“best personality” is a pretty nebulous concept: is it someone I would like to have as a dear friend? someone who is generally amiable and makes others feel comfortable around them? the most polite?) then choices become subjective. You can disagree vehemently with the person who made them, but they are not unethical.

                I used Liu’s Peace Prize as an example of a subjective decision that was controversial. As I mentioned previously, the problem with the Peace Prize is that it has criteria (“…shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”) but that they aren’t followed any more, so the award has basically become a subjective “who do we like and admire” contest. Actually, based on the criteria, Arafat, Carter, Gore and Obama deserve the prize more than Xiaobo (this is a criticism of the criteria, by the way). Xiaobo is not famous for peace conferences, his criticisms have mostly been directed at China and have not increased “fraternity among nations” (indeed, they have made China very cross at the other nations that have supported him) and he has not reduced or abolished standing armies (to be fair, he was in charge of PEN in China, which aimed to increase fraternity between the world’s writers, but this was not why he was awarded the prize). On the other hand Arafat (at the Camp David Summit (2000)), Carter (at the Camp David Accord Summit (1978)) and Obama (at the Beer Summit) all held peace conferences. Al Gore has devoted himself to increasing “fraternity between nations” by making a PowerPoint presentation about how all humanity needs to work together to fight global warming. Hmmm, maybe it is better that selectors not follow criteria.

  3. I run into this every semester. I can’t give anyone a C in a class. I can’t give anyone a B in a class. You have to earn it by demonstrating that you understand and can apply the relevant material. You may be the most attractive, most charitable, most loved person on the planet, but if you can’t do this work, you can’t pass. Usually, they still don’t understand, and I have to give a speech I title “What a C student does”.

    Where do my ‘C’ students go? What do ‘C’ students do after they leave? ‘A’ and ‘B’ students go to graduate school, medical, and dental school. They may hold people’s lives in their hands in their careers. But what about the ‘C’ student? Surely there is no harm in letting someone squeak by with a ‘C’? Well… they test your water to make sure it is safe. They determine what amounts of new pesticides can be used without causing harm. They run the tests that determine if you raped someone or if that really was a bag of cocaine in your car, or just some borrowed powdered sugar (as you insisted). My ‘C’ students work jobs where people die if they mess up. The ‘C’ stands for competence. If you don’t have it, you don’t get a ‘C’.

    It sounds simple, but it isn’t easy to hold when many others don’t. It means you have to tell this to 18 year olds who are crying in your office because you have dashed their (and their family’s) dreams of being a doctor, or you have to tell this to the student who has to leave college because they dropped below their scholarship threshold. People will say you are mean, they will say you are heartless, and that is the price of integrity today. Think about it next time you need an operation and next time you take a drink of water.

    • I can relate. I actually flunked law students for three straight years if they showed on their exams that they had the grasp of ethics of an illegal immigrant. I was semi-officially warned that nobody flunked ethics in law school, and I paid for it in the student evaluations. After the last few F’s, and some D’s that would have been F’s a couple years earlier, but I had compromised my standards, the school told me that several full time professors had returned to the topic—which might be true, but I doubt it—and that there was no room for me on the adjunct staff.

      Great comment, Michael. The comment of the day, in fact.

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