Ethics Quiz: If This Is Wrong, Why Does It Make Us Cheer?

Robert Harding, post Holly. The Duke would have been proud of her. Should we be?

In Des Moines, a man who told police later that he “likes young girls” tried to lure one into his clutches, and ended up with a black eye and a several bruises. Robert C. Harding attempted to coax Holly Pullen’s 13-year-old daughter into an alley outside the Pullen home.The teen got her mother to go into the alley instead, and when Holly Pullen asked what he wanted, Harding said he wanted to marry and have sex with her daughter. Then he offered to buy her. Holly promptly beat the the snot out of him. (Harding was later tracked down by Pullen’s husband and others, and turned in to the police.)

This was violent, vigilante justice. It was also technically assault and battery. Your Ethics Quiz question is this:

Given all of these reasons why Holly’s conduct was unethical, why do we viscerally approve of it?

American culture, and to some extent all cultures, retains some ethical exceptions to the usual rules of right and wrong. The exceptions are deeply rooted in our human experience, and go back to the caves. When parents defend their child from a genuine threat, we tend to believe that the law of the jungle trumps the rules of civilization. It doesn’t, of course, but woe to the district attorney who brings assault charges against Holly Pullen.

John Wayne, last I checked, still polls among the top 10 most popular Hollywood stars, despite the fact that his primary genre is Westerns, which have not been popular since the Sixties, and the even greater handicap that the Duke has been dead for almost 40 years. He is popular, I think, in part because he made a lot of movies that have held up remarkably well, but mainly because he routinely deals with bullies, crooks, turncoats, and various other bad guys by punching them right in the mouth.This basic appreciation of limited  violence in defense of family, country and apple pie is very much part of the American character. It can get us in trouble, and is not unrelated to the crime rate, our fondness for guns, and the fact that we get into a lot of wars. On the other hand, as in the case of Holly and her young daughter, our lack of an aversion to violence well-applied has its uses.

Was Holly wrong to take matters into her own fists, rather than passively allow the legal system to deal with the pervert in the alley? Yes, she was wrong. Yet I would never want to see what our nation would turn into if our citizens, or a critical number of them, lost the desire, and sometimes the willingness, to punch evil in the chops before the police arrive. It is an ethical paradox, but as an American, I’m proud we have it.


Filed under Family, History, Law & Law Enforcement, Popular Culture, Quizzes, U.S. Society

14 responses to “Ethics Quiz: If This Is Wrong, Why Does It Make Us Cheer?

  1. Tim LeVier

    Jack, forgive my ignorance, but I’d like to know more. If I whistled at a girl and she was offended and came up to me and slapped me, could I bring assault and battery charges against her?

    I presume the answer is yes, but what is her defense and would it hold up?

    • No defense. Whistling is rude,but a slap is unconsented to battery. Indeed, touching someone in any way without consent or implied consent is battery, and a civil tort. A slap could be a criminal act.

      • Tim LeVier

        Is there any verbal provocation that could justify a physical act of aggression?

        I guess the point I’m getting at is that in our country, the law suggests no tolerance for physical altercations. In the mean time, whether things result in charges seems to be hit or miss, luck of the draw.

        Can two men of disagreement agree to settle their differences in a fist fight?

        • Use of physical force can only be justified in response to a physical threat, not a verbal one. Any violence not in defense of self or another is unethical and criminal. Any sense that criminal charges are ‘luck of the draw’ comes from the legal challenge of ‘reasonably suspecting’ and proving who is wrong, not from any uncertainty that smacking someone without justification is wrong.

          Two consenting fighters does not alone make a crime, sometimes it even makes a spectacle of a pay-per-view sporting event. However, it could be a crime if you pick the wrong venue, say the public library instead of a boxing ring. Or it might look like a crime if the loser withdraws his consent. This is where the aforementioned challenge comes in.

        • Chris

          “Simple assault by mutual consent”

  2. Lianne Best

    We viscerally approve of it because the guy threatened Holly’s daughter, and she acted on her immediate instinct to protect her kid. Maybe justice would NOT have worked. Maybe justice would have worked, but too late, after some other daughter was molested. Maybe the man needed to be stopped Right Now, not in months, or a year. And maybe we all just wish we were as strong as Holly’s mother! I’m very disappointed it’s unethical, and very proud of Holly.

    • swilson

      The guy Holly got to punch was a sorry sack of refuse, for sure, but here’s something we might be missing: she left a mark on him and when they ran him down he was readily identifiable. And that, for the record, is EVIDENCE.

  3. swilson

    Here’s my dilemma and feel free to join me in it: I want to immediately raise the awareness in the Des Moines community of an oddity in this case that deserves tracking down, and I have emailed the Des Moines Chief of Police about it, and am hoping to raise other local hackles about it (local to Des Moines, that is — we live in the town where Jaycee Dugard and her two children were finally discovered by a similar oddity): why is a man — who LOOKS hispanic and talks broken English, proffering a very American name with a criminal record attached, and claiming to be a resident of Des Moines but acting just like a transient (or, arguably, a serial killer) while “the circus is in town” at the state fair (is he a carnie?) — being blindly identified as “Robert Harding of Des Moines”? Is he a homeless entity in Des Moines? Has anyone ever tried to track the source of his “identity” as “Robert Harding”? If he’s not Robert Harding, where is Robert Harding and who knows where Mr. Harding is? There’s more to this tale that needs to be told. Years ago I ignored an impulse on a Sacramento news item that involved a “returned” child who did not “match” his parents in speech or clothing or complexion, the “parents” looked furtive and the child looked frightened — and no one spoke up about that oddity in any relation to the news item. I wish I had, because I suspect nobody else did. Who else to contact in Des Moines? I’ve tried CFS and now the county prosecutor, and I’ll try the PD investigations unit next — but I have the feeling this question and others like it that appear in the newsworld need to be asked, loudly and by multiple voices, in cases that don’t “make sense.”

    • Curmudgeon

      As a law abiding ciizen I say, “That’s a no-no.” As the father of a daughter, I say, “Good on ye, Holly, and give him one for me.”

      As to whether mere words can ever excuse violence: no, they can’t. But the law does recognize “fighting words” which, while not excusing violence, can ameliorate the the punishment for it.

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