The Third Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The BEST of Ethics 2011

Why is the The Best in Ethics 2011 only about 33% the size of the “Worst”?

This troubles me. My objective is not to be negative. The problem, I think, is that ethical conduct is still much more common than unethical conduct, and it is usually less controversial to identify: most of the time, good ethics is self-explanatory. All of us learn more from mistakes and misdeeds, our own and those of others, than we do from meeting societal standards. Most of what Ethics Alarms does is to try to identify unethical conduct, what was wrong with it, why it happened, and how we can discourage it.

Which is all well and good, but I still would like to make 2012’s Ethics Alarms  more positive year than this one, if possible. Help me, will you, find more topics involving good ethics, so next year’s Best list can hold its own with the Worst.

Here are the 2011 Ethics Alarms Awards for the Best in Ethics:

Most Important Ethical Act of the Year: Acquitting Casey Anthony. The Florida jury charged with deciding if Casey Anthony murdered her daughter faced the ire of a lynch mob-minded public that wanted the unsympathetic Anthony convicted, based on suspicious conduct and a dubious explanation,  but the evidence just wasn’t there. Thus the courageous twelve upheld the American values of fairness, objectivity, and justice under the law. It is interesting that the most ethical act of the year also sparked some of the most unethical arguments of the year, by too many citizens who benefit from our nation’s ideals without comprehending them.

Outstanding Ethical Leadership: The liberal wing of the U.S. Supreme Court (Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsberg, and Breyer) plus the swing vote, Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, declared in Brown v. Plata that California had to release  46,000 inmates from its prisons, more than a fourth of the those sentenced there. The majority concurred with the lower court’s assessment that California prisons were so obscenely over-crowed that conditions amounted to a human rights violation and a breach of the constitutional prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”  For most of the public, prisoners are “out of sight, out of mind,” and their abuse by the prison system doesn’t seem to matter. This apathy risks making the United States only a little better than  brutal regimes abroad, and the Supreme Court’s attention is welcome and needed. Next, I’d like to see the court take on prison rape. Maybe in 2012.

Heroes of the Year: The Fukoshima 50. The Japanese nuclear technicians who entered the radiation-leaking Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant to try to prevent a greater catastrophe demonstrated courage, responsibility and selflessness beyond what most of us will ever be required to consider. They had a job to do, their country needed them do it, and they did it, knowing that their duty would probably kill them.

Most Principled Politician: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie

Most Ethical Republican Presidential Candidate: Former Utah Governor and former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. In particular, Huntsman’s theme that America’s worst crisis is its trust deficit is timely, vital and wise. Naturally, GOP voters seem to have no interest in him whatsoever.

Ethical Quote of the Year: John Green. Green, the  father of Christina Green, age nine, who died in Jared Loughner’s Tucson rampage  that also wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, appeared on the Today Show shortly after the massacre. When he and his wife John Green and his wife Roxanna were asked about their feelings about the tragedy, Green said, This shouldn’t happen in this country, or anywhere else, but in a free society, we’re going to be subject to people like this. I prefer this to the alternative.”

Ethical Speech of the Year: President Barack Obama, with his speech urging civility and reason in the wake of the Tucson tragedy.

Most Ethical Radio Talk Show Host: John Bachelor. The erudite and civil host of the John Bachelor Show win this category for the second straight year.

Most Ethical Media Figure: Jon Stewart. Another repeat.

Ameneh Bagrami, before and after.

Best Ethics Story of the Year: Ameneh Bahrami, the Iranian woman whom a spurned suitor blinded and hideously disfigured with acid, had her long-awaited opportunity for both revenge and culturally-sanctioned justice. She watched a doctor prepare to put several drops of acid in one of her attacker’s eyes as his court-ordered punishment for maiming her. At the last moment, she waived her right to have him blinded.

The Kipling Award (given to the individual who most exemplifies the values of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If ): Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who pursued rational and necessary measures to rein in public union pensions despite threats of violence, vilification, exaggerated accusations and the meddling of the President of the United States. Many more elected officials will have to submit to similar treatment if the nation’s fiscal problems are going to be solved before economic Armageddon.

Outstanding Sportsmanship : Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints quarterback. During the NFL lockout Brees organized informal team training sessions and paid for it out of his own pocket. That’s leadership, professionalism, generosity, and sportsmanship.

Heroic Organ Donor of the Year: Tom Walter. The Wake Forest baseball coach learned that one of his players, Kevin Jordan, needed a kidney transplant to survive, and that no match from the student’s family could be found. Walter determined that he was a match, and gave a life-saving kidney to his player.

Ethics Movie of the Year: “The Conspirator”. Robert Redford’s superb historical drama about Frederick Aiken, the lawyer who defended accused Lincoln assassination conspirator Mary Surratt despite the clear sentiments of a frightened government and an angry public that wanted revenge rather than justice should be seen by every American. (It has been seen by almost nobody.)

"The Walking Dead"

Ethics TV Series of the Year:The Walking Dead.” AMC’s zombie drama posed tough, if strange, ethics problems in every episode. Runner-Up: “The Good Wife” (CBS)

Best Use of Intolerance: U.C.L.A. students. After idiotic co-ed Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video—on the day of the Japanese tsunami!—ridiculing Asian students and trotting out every Asian stereotype imaginable, she found herself being treated like rotten cheese on campus, and was so uncomfortable that she had to leave the school. Good. This is how we enforce social norms and ethical behavior: not by being tolerant of unethical and uncivil conduct, but by proactively rejecting it.

The Clarence Darrow Award (presented to outstanding conduct on behalf of the weak and powerless): The Innocence Project.  The national litigation non-profit that works to free wrongly convicted prisoners had a banner year, uncovering many instances of prosecutorial misconduct and playing a key role in freeing innocent men like Michael Morton, Thomas Haynesworth, Henry James, Jonathan Barr, Michael Saunders, and Cornelius Dupree.

Ethical Actor Award: Kate Winslet, who was staying with 20 guests at billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Island home when a fire broke out. Winslet carried Branson’s 90-year old mother out of the burning structure to safety.

Ethics blogger of the YearKen, at Popehat. The lawyer/blogger had a terrific year rhetorically and in substance, crusading against frivolous lawsuits designed to stifle critical opinions on-line and doing so with style and wit. [ NOTE: Rick Jones and Bob Stone, both excellent ethics bloggers, were ineligible for this award by virtue of their frequent, and excellent, commentary on Ethisc Alarms. I am frequently inspired by their work, but I consider them friends and  members of the Ethics Alarms community, and thus my biases prevent me from being objective.

The Forgotten Hero Award: Stetson Kennedy, 1916-2011. Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, and played a major role in undermining their power and influence in the deep South as well as nationally. His suggestion to DC Comics to have Superman battle the Klan in the Fifties firmly established the group as villains. Kennedy was harassed and threatened by the Klan until his death.

Ethics Alarms Commenter of the Year: tgt. He almost never agrees with me, but tgt (I know his real name, but I’m not telling) was the most prolific, passionate, and relentless commenter of 2011, contributing valuable content, serving as my personal monitor, and also participating in some of the longest and most entertaining donnybrooks, especially with ideological opposite Steven Pilling.

Ethics Alarms Comment of the Year: Lianne Best. There were so many excellent comments that choosing one among them all is obviously somewhat arbitrary. Still, Lianne’s Comment of the Day regarding the Casey Anthony trial was an instant classic. Here it is:

“I too often find myself embroiled in emotional opinion, with no basis in facts. It’s easy here: an adorable and completely innocent, dependent little girl was killed. Virtually every human, particularly parents, want to see that vindicated, justice found and brought. That somehow makes it better. But you know what? It doesn’t make it better to go racing off on just a blazing gut reaction, not when people’s lives are affected by our lack of thought and analysis. I was a juror in a kidnapping and murder trial. It was an immensely difficult two weeks, and the decision was agonizing. Luckily, it was also popular; it would have been awful to suffer through loud, manic public criticism of our reasoned decision on top of the process … loud, manic public criticism by people who weren’t there, who knew less (or at least differently) than we did. We have a jury system for a reason, 12 people found Casey Anthony not guilty (13 if you count the alternate juror) and we have to trust them. Personally, I appreciate Jack’s cooler head prevailing when my mother’s heart is shrieking.”

Best Ethical Trend of the Year: Layaway Donors. During the Christmas season, anonymous donors began paying the layaway bills of shoppers at Wal-Mart and other retail stores in a spontaneous demonstration of generosity and kindness.


Well, that finishes 2011!

This is as good a time as any to thank Lianne, tgt, Tim, Michael, Rick, Ethics Bob, Elizabeth, Glenn, Karla, Eric, Curmudgeon, Steven, Bill, Barry, Jeff, Marlene, Karl, Neil, and all the rest of the Ethics Alarms readers and commenters who participated in the discussion here over the past 12 months. I hope all of you, and more, join us in the months to come.

And I look forward to a more ethical 2012.

17 thoughts on “The Third Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The BEST of Ethics 2011

  1. Jack, that’s a nice list. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the idea that the ethics baddies outweigh the good guys. It has little to do with you, or with societal ethics; it has everything to do with the news media, from which you source your stories and commentaries.

    The news media is a business; its primary job is to sell column inches and air minutes to advertisers and underwriters, and in order to do that it must provide stories that people want to read, watch or listen to. Human nature being what it is (slasher movies, when you get right down to it, are merely civilized updates of gladiator sports and public executions), people are more drawn to stories that center on the tawdry and repugnant. The media likes stories of heroics, too, but it spends less time looking for such stories because those involving the darker side of human nature are an easier sell.

    Ask your average Occupy(insert-name-of-me-too-community-here) denizen and you’ll get a polemic on the evils of corporations. And some indeed are evil – or very, very stupid. We read about them in the papers. Meantime, the vast majority of corporations, large and small, keep doing what they do ethically and (hopefully) profitably. They just ain’t newsworthy. Indeed, I’d personally cock an eyebrow at ANY organization that went out of its way to tell me how ethical it is.

  2. As Jack’s personal monitor, I have to note that I normally agree with him, but those threads tend to be significantly less interesting than the threads where we disagree (i.e., Jack is wrong-or, occasionally, I am wrong) which tend to meander through discussions of history, biology, politics, philosophy, and the definition of ethics itself.

    Honestly I think our biggest arguments came out of differences of opinion in the fair division of hairs.

    Thanks Jack for letting me argue to my content, and actually rewarding me for such! Happy New Year!

  3. I recently read that some scientists have concluded that the human brain evolved more in the direction of winning an argument, rather than finding the truth. Being emotional creatures, it seems we get caught up in all kinds of rationalizations that make for unethical behavior . I’d like to know more about the roots of this phenomenon. Is it the tripartite brain where the limbic system is overriding the corpus collosum? Watch the movie Olleana, by David Mamet on the issue of sexual harassment in a room with men and women, and see them go at each other afterwards due to the emotionality many have regarding their gender specific paradigms. We know there is an issue with ethics, but I’d like to know more about what can be done to move things in the right direction.

  4. Thanks for what I “presume” to be an honorable mention! That “Outstanding Ethical Leadership” award to the left wing of SCOTUS, though, was probably the worst concept you’ve ever forwarded… with all due respect. Those justices did nothing to improve prison conditions. All they did was free thousands of career criminals into the streets to prey on the innocent. If they (and the State of California) cared more for the citizens then they apparently do for a prominent left-wing voting bloc (felons) then they’d have merely expanded prisoner housing with more simple and cost effective means of confinement housing. The Army could show them how. So could Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In fact, I could. Handling prisoners of war and military offenders was part of my training. You find logical alternatives. You DON’T endanger citizens and flount justice. SCOTUS dragged itself right down to the same level of contemptibility as the CA state government with that ruling. Likely, they already have innocent blood on their hands resultingly.

      • Jack, I’ve just had the weirdest and most frustrating holiday season of my life. At least the house didn’t burn down. That’s about all I can say… aside from getting this laptop cheap on Black Friday. Just about everything elser went wrong after that! Sure you want the details?!

    • Since when does the court system have the constitutional power to spend California’s money and use their land?

      Also, welcome back. You’re more fun to argue with than potheads.

      • They shouldn’t, TGT. But the courts already do this and worse… and have for decades. The point was, of course, not that courts should provide the solutions. Whenever they legislate from the bench, bad things happen and our constitutional freedoms falter. The point here is that numerous alternatives for cheap inmate housing exist if the California legislature had the will to employ them. The worse that could happen would be if some other worthless court were to stop them. Then the blame for the emptying of dangerous felons from the prisons into the parkways would rest solely with the courts. Good people can and will suffer from this in any case.

        • So…the California legislature didn’t do its job and violated the constitution. The courts stayed within their powers, and did the job they were constitutionally designed to do.

          Therefore, the courts are at fault, not the legislature. Makes sense to me.

          • Exactly. Steven, the courts can only make legislatures and law enforcement accountable by telling them “you can’t do it this way, sorry. Back to square one.” Use illegal means to catch a killer, the killer goes free—blame the police, not the courts: they know the rules. California’s voters won’t allow enough taxes to pay for all their goodies and humane prisons too? OK–enjoy being robbed. The public and the legislature can’t be allowed to stomp on the Constitution just because the victims are felons. Place responsibility and accountability where it belongs. The courts protect the Constitution and the integrity of US democracy, not the public safety.

            • If a policeman uses illicit means (with are often crafted so as to inhibit law enforcement with unreasonable strictures) then he has to face the music, as it were. But to let a guilty man go free merely because a cop messed up on a nitpicking rule while under stress is a perversity of modern law that I still find stunning. I nor only admit, but proclaim that all three branches of the California state government vie with on another for the title of “most arrogant and dimwitted government apparatus of the year”. But to send thousands of felons back to their old stomping grounds to resume their previous careers, to prey on the innocent and, perhaps, to exact revenge on those who put them away, is not only irresponsible, but criminal in itself. I’m still trying to figure out what TGT was trying say.

              • illicit means (with are often crafted so as to inhibit law enforcement with unreasonable strictures)

                Seriously? Pretty much everyone else agrees the courts go out of their way to give law enforcement power they probably shouldn’t have. Like Searching through your phone when you’re arrested.

                But to let a guilty man go free merely because a cop messed up on a nitpicking rule while under stress is a perversity of modern law that I still find stunning.

                You watch too much tv and movies. That flat out doesn’t happen. Judges give great leeway to the state. The phrase “correctable error” comes to mind. Even great constitutional violations like Brady violations don’t allow the accused to go free.

                I think you’re also confused on your terminology. The accused are not necessarily guilty.

                But to send thousands of felons back to their old stomping grounds to resume their previous careers, to prey on the innocent and, perhaps, to exact revenge on those who put them away, is not only irresponsible, but criminal in itself.

                Even if I take all of that as true, it would still be a violation of the constitution for the courts to not do their required job. It’s funny how people like you only believe in the constitution’s inerrancy and supremacy when it matches your other beliefs.

  5. To put it briefly- without sorting through all the allegations, irrelevancies and other assorted gobbledygook- I can only say that you reveal your ignorance of what’s involved with police work with your comments. So much, in fact, that it would likely take a month or so riding patrol to work it out of your system. The main problem is that you, like most liberals, look at to from the standpoint of theoretical legalities… even while throwing in your mandatory spurn of the Constitution, which isn’t even an issue here! In law enforcement, you deal with, not the letter of the law, but the spirit. That, plus some often brutal realities that don’t really intrude into Harvard Law school. It also involves the concept of citizenship and individual responsibility. That’s something else liberals aren’t good at conceptualizing, as it’s alien to their natures.

    • With all due respect, if anyone is obligated to deal with the letter of the law, it is those who enforce it. I know it’s hard; I know it can be impossible. But that still has to be the standard, and I say that as someone who once had to call police officers to the stand to testify that they saw a suspicious glassine envelope that gave them probable cause to frisk a drug dealer when I was pretty sure that they just frisked guys who looked like drug dealers and hit the jackpot.

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