An unfortunate side-effect of writing Ethics Alarms is becoming aware of such stunningly unethical conduct in all reaches of American society that it risks sending me into despair. I have no illusions about my level of influence over the problem—virtually nil—and the mounting evidence, often bolstered by the tenor of the comments to some posts, that our society does a poor job installing functioning ethical reflexes is both frightening and intriguing. What percentage of the American public go through their lives without functioning ethics alarms, and how do we tell who they are in time to protect ourselves?
As to the first question, I have no idea, but I suspect it is disturbingly high. The second question is even more difficult. Fear of consequences keeps most unethical people from revealing themselves until they face a crisis or an opportunity too tempting to resist. Then they do things like this:
- When Occupy Portland attempted to shut down the city’s port, a protester who called herself “Lotus” placed her 4-year-old on train tracks to force an oncoming train to stop. Asked how she could do such a thing, Lotus replied, “”The thing is, I have faith in humanity. I don’t think any person driving a train is going to plow through a bunch of children.” And, naturally, if a train did (Lotus was blissfully unaware of how long it takes a freight train to come to a stop) kill her child, she would be the first one to blame the train. Lotus has reached adulthood without learning the core ethical principles that 1) one has no right to exploit the life of another for personal agendas; 2) a mother has a duty to protect the life of her child above all other priorities; 3) a person is accountable for the results of her own actions, and cannot shift blame to others for not preventing disasters that the person’s own actions launched; 4) risking the life of someone without his or her consent who is too weak or pwoerless to protest of understand what is happening is an unconscionable abuse of power and human rights. Lotus knew none of this. Her ethics alarms are useless, as are those of her compatriots who agree with this ethically demented poster on the Occupy Wall Street site, who wrote: “
“The biggest sacrifice this courageous woman can give is the life of her child for the greater good of OWS and the 99%. Just think if a train did come through and killed all those people,that would really shut down another tool of the 1% capitalistic pigs. She should be commended and praised for her “Rosa Parks” moment. I’m sure my compatriots in OWS will agree: “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one”
That’s right: the ends justifies the means, pure and simple, the mantra of every mass murdering dictator since time began. And he’s sure his compatriots agree, raising the question of exactly how sick the ethical culture is in those OWS encampments. But, in fact, they didn’t agree; at least not most of the commenters on the OWS website.
- From Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column comes this saga:
“I have just had devastating news: My 58-year-old second husband of two years has been having an affair with my 25-year-old daughter from my first marriage. I am in a state of utter shock. I had absolutely no idea that this was going on and feel heartbroken, betrayed, and furious at the two people I love most. They want to live together, but where does this leave me? I do not know what to do. Can you advise?”
A family has been destroyed by the lethal combination of vintage 1960’s ethical myths: whatever consenting adults decide to do is OK; if it involves sex, lies and betrayals don’t count; if it feels good, it can’t be wrong; and Woody Allen’s vile rationalization, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” These anti-ethical edicts embraced by those who use free will to justify doing needless harm in the name of “feeling good” can effectively turn ethics alarms into scrap metal, as they clearly did here. Morality is useful in the absence of ethical reasoning: this conduct violates Commandments (Honor thy Parents; Do Not Commit Adultery”) and ancient taboos (muddling the familial hierarchy with incest and related conduct), so even for the ethically inert, there are plenty of signposts screaming “WRONG!!! Go BACK!!”
The ethics shouldn’t be that tough, however. This is massive betrayal, and cruel, irresponsible, unfair and destructive conduct. Even without morality as a roadblock, an ethical husband should be able to muster the strength to say, “No, I cannot open the door to this relationship even a crack” when sexual attraction to a daughter or step-daughter, adult of not, beckons. Sometimes you can’t let the heart want something; the heart, after all, is stupid. Sometimes, when the heart does want something that is wrong, the only course is to say “forget it.” A normal ethics alarm stops some terrible conduct before it can happen. If you have to think about whether or not to start cheating on your wife with your step-daughter, you’re already in trouble.
- In Connecticut, a 30-year-old cheerleading coach named Manuel Batson admitted sending nude photos of himself to a 15-year-old girl he was training, but said that he thought it was “all right” because she had told him she was already smoking and drinking. During some of her practices, Batson flirted with the teen, then started communicating with her on Facebook. He cajoled her into sending him four nude photos of herself in exchange for his sending three nude photos to her. Since the girl told him she had been at a party smoking and drinking, Batson said that it was only natural to assume that she was older than 15, since teenagers in his family don’t do that sort of thing. Yes! She’s the slut. A confused ethics alarm is just as useless as dead one. Batson seems to have no concept of the duty of authority figures not to abuse their power and perceived influence and status by using them to pursue relationships with students, subordinates or employees. The girl, whether she drinks and smokes or not, and no matter how old she is, is not an ethical target for dating, flirting, or Weinering, in all of its many meanings. His excuse to the police indicates that he believes the only thing wrong with his predatory behavior was that the teen was underage. Power, therefore, and authority are fair tools for any power-wielder to use in pursuit of entirely selfish ends. No wonder so many teachers, executives and others believe this and act accordingly: so many of our leaders have worked to make it an accepted cultural norm.
It is truly amazing what you can and will do once those pesky ethics alarms stop working, or if they were never installed at all.