I am depressed today, for it is increasingly likely that I am wasting my life.
I began writing about ethics on-line after being stunned by the letters to the editor and calls to C-Span, not to mention the articles in the press, regarding President Clinton’s conduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair. The commentary was virtually ethics-free, and I realized that the vast majority of the American public had no idea how to apply ethical analysis to an event or problem. Their judgment regarding who was right and who was wrong appeared to be based entirely on rationalizations, biases, and non-ethical considerations.If they liked Clinton, he did nothing wrong. If they opposed his policies, he was scum. Objectivity and fair analysis only occasionally surfaced in the discussion at all, and the media coverage, if anything, was worse.
Now I’ve been doing this for almost a decade, and the verdict is clear: nothing has changed. In fact, the situation may have worsened. The sad proof at hand is the public’s reaction to The Tale of the One-in-a –Million-Hockey-Shot Scam, a feel-good story from last month that just turned sour.
A charity hockey event in Faribault, Minn included a raffle to win the chance at a $50,000 prize by sending a hockey puck across 89 feet of ice into a six-inch wide cup. The winning ticket was held by 11-year-old Nate Smith (awwwww!) and he made the shot (YAY!). The YouTube video of his amazing feat went viral, (“Look at THIS!”), and Nate was briefly a celebrity.
But there was a catch. Nate hadn’t actually held the winning ticket. It was held by his twin brother Nick, who couldn’t be located when the winning ticket was announced. So Nate pretended to be Nick.
When the twins’ father came forward the next day and explained to event organizers about the twins’ switch, Odds on Promotions, the company that insured the event decided that Nate didn’t deserve the $50,000.
This isn’t ethics rocket science. It isn’t Plato’s Cave or starving men in a lifeboat or any genuinely complex ethics dilemma. Twin switches are lies and frauds: they are never ethical, unless, like Sidney Charton in “The Tale of Two Cities,” you pretend to be someone else to save the life of a look-alike being wrongfully sent to the guillatine. It was fraud when Jose Canseco sent his twin Ozzie to secretly sub for Jose at a celebrity boxing event; it was contempt of court when Marcus Maucari pretended to be his brother at his brother’s trial, so twin Matthew wouldn’t get in trouble for not showing up. This is no different. The twins cheated. Nate made the shot, but he wasn’t qualified to make the shot, because he hadn’t won the raffle—his brother had. The charity, to be reimbursed by the insurance company, not only had no obligation to give Nate the money, it shouldn’t have given him the money. There was also no obligation to to pay prize money that nobody won to charity, not all of it, not some of it.
But does the majority of the public comprehend this? Noooooooo..not on the evidence of the comments pouring into Yahoo! about the incident. Instead, we have an encyclopedic collection of bad ethical reasoning, with the occasional scream in darkness of “What the hell is matter with you people?”
Observe these random and typical examples:
- “Just a way to save $30,000 and spend it on bonus for another fat cat.”
Because it is an insurance company, it is OK to steal from it. The Robin Hood Fallacy.
- “The insurance company should pay 1/2 of the amount due to the mix up. It does say the person whose name is on the ticket must take the shot but it was a damn good shot.”
The wisdom of Solomon, sans the wisdom. Why half the money? Because a twin is one-half of the set? The proposed standards is that fraud is wrong, but if you make an amazing shot, all should be forgiven. Clear as mud.
- “Boos to the company for only donating $20,000 of the $50,000. I bet they’re psyched to save themselves $30,000 of prize money, but I think it’s pretty low of them.”
It was an insurance company that would have to reimburse the charity for the prize money. The charity insured itself against the likelihood that anyone would make the absurdly difficult shot. The company was not involved in the charity, and had absolutely no reason to treat a fraudulent winner like a real winner. Would the company be “low” not to donate the funds if the real ticket holder took the shot and missed? Of course not. Then why is it “low” now?
There were many, many comments that found the insurance company in the wrong, because, you know, “insurance company BAD, charity GOOD.” Contracts? Rules? Business?
- “Turns out that honesty doesn’t pay! The truth set them free alright… free of the $50,000! They should have gotten HALF for their honesty”
Many comments on this theme too. The theory: Defraud someone, admit it, and get half your ill-gotten gains as a reward for telling the truth about your lie. This “logic” often surfaces in school cheating scandals, when a student admits cheating and the public is outraged that he or she is punished anyway. There is nothing virtuous about confessing misconduct if you expect to be rewarded for it. The people—so many that it makes me want to beat my head against the wall—who think like this is frightening. If telling the truth doesn’t pay off in material benefits, what’s the point? Translation: “What’s the point in doing the right thing if nobody is going to pay me for it?”
Nice. A case in point: another commenter wrote, “One time about ten years ago a teacher asked me if I worked on an assignment with another student. Truth was it was more like 6 of us but we got caught. She said she just wanted to know and nothing would happen if we confessed. We were honest and confessed, she gave us zeros and I never told the truth again.”
That’s right…it was the teacher’s fault that this guy is liar.
- “What’s the message here you ask? That Odds on Promotions needs a visit from a couple persuasive individuals to “extract” the funds they are trying to put in their own pocket. “Here ya go kids, 25K a piece for college courtesy of your uncles, Knuckles & Vinnie.”
- “The person with the winning ticket should have been able to let another person make the shot. What if the person that bought the winning ticket was disabled and unable to make the shot? This charity event would have been discriminatory towards the disabled and therefore illegal. Give the kid the money.”
Uh, no. A disabled person who won a chance to take the shot would be entitled to try to slide the puck with his nose, but not to hand the puck off to his pal, Wayne Gretzky. Good thinking, Bozo. Please don’t go to law school.
- “Typical insurance company, always looking for an angle to not have to pay a claim.”
You know, an angle like “the prize was won by a cheater.” How dare they?
- “Give the money already! It doesn’t matter which twin did it that money was for their college education.”
Ah. And if the twins were going to use the money for, say, a cocaine ring, then they presumably shouldn’t get the money, even if the right kid made the shot? If the kids lied about their identity, why should they be believed about their intended use of the prize money? What kind of logic is any of this?
- “Are you kidding me? The insurance company pays-that 50K could fund that child’s college education. Just goes to show, the truth has no value in our society!”
This was a popular theme. The mean old insurance company should just hand over the money, whether it was fairly won or not, because the kids needed it. Is there any question why the U.S. public is incapable of rational discourse on such policy matters as federal budget priorities?
- “Let’s point out the obvious here. Clearly the father is to blame. If he would have not said anything, they would have the 50k and that would be the end of it…Was it the right thing to do? Maybe. But ask yourself, would you risk giving up 50k to say that your other twin son took that shot? I know I wouldn’t.”
“Maybe” telling the truth was the right thing to do? Maybe? The writer feels the father is to blame for lousing up a perfect scam and engaging in insurance fraud, and believes that most people, like him, wouldn’t do that. Thus, because everyone would aid and abet a family member’s insurance fraud, it’s okay.
- “Must be run by Republicans. Any way to stick it to anyone, I’m sure they’ll find a way.”
This comment courtesy of Nancy Pelosi, Eugene Robinson, or Rachel Maddow. Well, I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t put this conclusion past any of them.
- “This is such a load of bull. Especially for a charity to do. If the kid made the shot then they should have given it to him. Taking 50 thousand dollars away from the kid because he wasn’t technically the one to buy the ticket is ridiculous and cruel. I don’t care what the father says, you know that eleven-year-old has to feel crushed after thinking he won that money only to have it taken away on a technicality. And after doing something like going forward with the truth which is a scary thing in and of itself, they should have allowed him to have the money. The kid stepped in because his brother wasn’t there at the time. It’s not like he was scheming anything or that one of them was older than the other. They are eleven, for gods sake”
A cornucopia of awful logic and rationalizations! A charity should be more willing to give away money to a purpose other than the charity’s mission than a for-profit. Wrong! Nate wasn’t “technically” the one to buy the ticket…which means that a twin is only “technically” not the same person as his twin? Wrong! It’s “ridiculous and cruel” not to let a child keep money he is not entitled to? Wrong! The child should keep the money because not letting him keep it will disappoint the little darling? Wrong! Confessing a lie should make the lie irrelevant? Wrong! A fraud should be judged according to what the money obtained would be spent on? Wrong! Kid should be able to get away with dishonest conduct that adults cannot? Wrong!
None of the assertions in this comment could be standards in a functioning society. But how many people around us think like this? A lot. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
- “This is still bull. The company probably just came up with some excuse not to pay. Not surprising. That is why gay people can’t marry because the insurance companies don’t want to pay their partners if they die.”
Lots of comments like this, too. Like the needle on a scratched LP (look it up, son), the minds of many commenters leaped to completely inappropriate and irrelevant analogies—confirmation bias run amuck.
That’s just a sampling from the first hundred comments among thousands. I won’t subject you to any more. But the diagnosis is dismal, based on these symptoms. And yes, the media coverage has been generally in the same vein as the comments above. It was all a “mix-up”—as if the twins momentarily forgot which was which. The twins were “screwed out of $50,000,” said one headline. As usual, the media is reinforcing poor analysis and warped values rather than trying to clarify the issues.
Maybe there is a way for a representative democracy to competently govern itself when the majority of the public lack the ability to tell right from wrong, and have the basic reasoning habits of first graders.
I sure hope so.