Signature Significance, Jonah Lehrer, and That Sinking Feeling

Yes, uh, a little TOO MUCH creativity there, Jonah…

At the New Yorker, star writer Jonah Lehrer has resigned after it was shown that he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his well-reviewed book “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”

This was the final shoe dropping that began with one untied shoelace, the discovery in June that Lehrer had plagiarized from himself, lifting a section of a piece published earlier in one publication to include in a piece written for The New Yorker. This is a minor ethical incursion—-Lehrer had represented the second essay as original, so using prior published material was dishonest even if he was the author—but it launched his employers on a mission of scrutiny, investigating to see if the one transgression was part of a trend.

When it comes to professional ethics, you see, it often is. The principle of signature significance holds that in some pursuits just one episode can be enough to make certain conclusions. A writer of true integrity never borrows from his own published work without flagging the fact. Doing so even once indicates shaky integrity, and a willingness to cut corners. It may well indicate a proclivity to cheat in more egregious ways. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The Peculiar Ethics of Carnival Games

The AARP website has a post about rigged carnival games, a topic that I have always found intriguing from an ethics perspective. The games…The Basketball Shoot, The Balloon Dart Throw, The Ring Toss, The Milk Bottle Pyramid, The Duck Pond and the rest…are rigged, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know they were rigged. It didn’t stop me from playing the silly things. A carnival is a state of mind, a flashback to the days of P.T. Barnum and flim-flam artists. An ethical carnival? Isn’t that an oxymoron? We eat terrible food, pay to go on disappointing rides, listen to barkers who we know are lying through their teeth, and play games that are scams in order to win cheesy prizes worth a fraction of what we paid out to win them and that we wouldn’t dream of buying outside a carnival anyway. That’s the carnival experience. It’s all unethical, and we consent to it.

Or is this just a rationalization? Is capitulation the proper ethical course, or should we carefully regulate carnival games, make sure all of the food is cholesterol-lite and sugar-free, and force the barkers to issue disclaimers and warnings like the recitations in TV drug commercials?

That’s your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for the day, my friends:

Do traditional unethical practices become ethical in the culture of a carnival and similar environments, where the public voluntarily participates in and consents to its own victimization?

With cotton candy dancing in my head, corn dogs singing their siren song and images of the Wild Man of Borneo howling in my fevered brain, I have to confess that my inclination is to say, “Yes.”

And you?


Spark: AARP

Graphic: Photolibra

Ethically Excusable Self-Promotion

I’m going to be a guest on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michel Martin this morning, participating in a discussion of the Chick-fil-A controversy on which I have commented here and here. “Check local listings,” as they say.

Regardless of whether I say anything significant (you never know; miracle happen), Michel is superb, and her voice is Debussy and Grieg to your ears.

The Name Shame

Millard understood.

Giving one’s children ridiculous, bizarre or otherwise perverse names is the height of parental arrogance and narcissism, an abuse of power in which Golden Rule considerations evaporate in the desire to place a distinctive mark on the child of one’s creation, like a brand or a particularly garish tattoo.

There is some weak historical evidence that an oddball name can point a child to leadership or other kinds of singular achievements by isolating him or her from peers. A number of U.S. Presidents have had rare names, with four using their middle monickers to be more distinctive, and one, Lyndon Johnson, being specifically named by his mother so he “would look good on a ballot.” But there is also evidence that strange names are handicaps, and no doubt at all that they risk making children a lot more miserable than calling them Ed, Elizabeth or Frank.

Over at Deadspin, Drew Magary has harsh criticism for the apparently rising trend of wacko names, and all power to him. He combed through a Parents Magazine survey of the names favored by 13,000 people, and arrived at the horrifying conclusion that “Americans are somehow getting even worse at naming children, and they show no signs of correcting themselves.”  Among his trenchant commentary on the names he discovered: Continue reading

Megan Merkel, Road Fick

This isn’t really Megan, just how I prefer to think of her…

We haven’t had a bona fide fick sighting at Ethics Alarms for a while, so welcome to Megan Merkel. A fick, you will recall, coined in honor of Michigan lottery winner/shameless food stamp recipient Leroy Fick, is someone who engages in outrageously unethical conduct and is defiant about it, an individual so ethically deficient that he or she can’t bring themselves to regret or show proper contrition for conduct that is undeniably wrong.

Ms. Merkel, 23, was arrested after her participation in this drama:

According to police, she was driving drunk at 7: 45 AM, northbound on Route 250 in Penfield, a suburb of Rochester, NY, alongside her recently-paroled boyfriend, 22-year-old Mark Scerbo. Scerbo, an idiot, was driving his motorcycle next to Merkel’s car and repeatedly passing it to do wheelies. He lost control of one of them, and hit Heather Boyum, a teacher and mother of two children, who was riding her bike on the shoulder. The impact threw the 40-year-old woman under the wheels of Merkel’s car, causing fatal injuries.  Merkel left the scene and was arrested for DWI.

But wait, there’s more! Continue reading

Unethical Website of the Month: Opinion-NYTimes.Com

Yes, it is also an extremely well-done unethical website, a clone of the New York Times editorial pages, even featuring links to the real Times.

It is, however, a web hoax that presents a defense of Wikileaks, itself an unethical position, under the by-line of a real person, former Times editor Bill Keller, who didn’t write it, in order to mislead and fool people. One of those fooled was Times technology editor Nick Bilton, who passed on the link on Twitter. Keller eventually used a tweet to expose the hoax.

What a riot.

Hoaxes like this are constitutionally protected, but they are the news and commentary equivalent of the scene in “The Naked Gun” in which Leslie Nielsen throws  ten baseballs into the air as a catcher is trying to catch a foul pop-fly. They are information vandalism, and until the media and the public stops regarding them as newsworthy or funny, they will proliferate, and some will cause tangible harm

The technical term for the purveyors of web hoaxes like this is “assholes.” Once that is agreed upon, unequivocal and clear, we might have a chance of discouraging them.

Update: I had just finished writing the post when I  learned that Wikileaks itself has taken responsibility for the hoax. You see? The technical term was accurate.


Facts: Yahoo!

Source and Graphic: Care 2 Make a Difference



Ethics Dunce: Rev. Stan Weatherford

Rev. Weatherford with a parishioner

The First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs, Mississippi has never hosted the wedding of a black couple in its 150 year history, so you can imagine how important it was to the congregation not to break a perfect record. All right, that’s unfair: only a handful of white church members protested to Rev. Stan Weatherford when they learned that he was preparing to wed Charles and Te’Andrea Wilson at First Baptist, but their threat that they would have him voted out of his job if he did was sufficient to cause him to tell Charles and Te’Andrea, just two days before the scheduled ceremony, that they would have to move the event to another church.

“I didn’t want to have a controversy within the church, and I didn’t want a controversy to affect the wedding of Charles and Te’Andrea. I wanted to make sure their wedding day was a special day,” Weatherford told local reporters. Continue reading

Settlement Corruption and Ethics Failure: The Kelley Currin-Rick Curl Saga

” Ah, what a beauty! $150,000 well spent!”

Imagine, if you will, that the late Joe Paterno didn’t take action to expose the child-molesting proclivities of his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, not because he was concerned about his cherished football program’s image, but because Sandusky paid him off with a big check. Can we all agree that this would have been even more reprehensible than what actually occurred? I assume so. Paterno would have been enriching himself with the sacrifice of young innocents to a pedophile.

Now compare that hypothetical with what we know about the developing scandal around renowned swimming coach Rick Curl, who has trained Olympian swimmers for decades. took a leave of absence from the club he founded Wednesday in the wake of accusations that he engaged in a sexual relationship with a teen swimmer and then paid her and her parents to keep quiet as part of a settlement. Continue reading

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel Scores An Ethics Alarms Hat Trick: “Ethics Dunce,” “Incompetent Elected Official of the Month,” and “Unethical Quote of the Week”

“Take THAT, Bill of Rights!”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel gets, and richly deserves, the first Ethics Alarms Hat Trick for his astounding attack this week on a private citizen, Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, for his personal, faith-based social views (specifically those opposing same sex marriage)  and the fact that he gives financial support to advocacy groups that back them.

Here is Emmanuel’s unethical, Hat Trick-winning (and un-American) quote:

“Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members, and if you’re going to be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect the Chicago values.”

Thirty despicable words these are, born of the worst kind of liberal arrogance and thuggery, embodying dishonesty, disrespect, abuse of power, irresponsibility, and ignorance of the Bill of Rights…and they are jaw-droppingly stupid to boot.  Continue reading

For Ethics Dunce Madonna: the Concert Performer’s Eight Duties

In London, we had Bruce Springsteen, playing so long for his audience and fans that his performance went past the curfew. In Paris, we have Madonna, stiffing paying customers who paid top dollar (“top euro?”) with a 45 minute appearance that was late getting started because the Material Myron couldn’t bother to get to her own concert on time.

Pop and rock music fans have long been more tolerant of unprofessional performers than their parents and grandparents, and to some extent they have created a tradition of tolerance to this kind of blatant disrespect and arrogance that is self-perpetuating. The betrayed fans in Paris rioted over Madonna’s inexcusable conduct, which is a bit much, but still: she disappointed and robbed them. 45 minutes of a star attraction isn’t fair return on tickets that many patrons slept in the street to acquire. Madonna owes everyone a refund, and apology, and a pledge to honor her duties as a performer from now on. For the benefit of her and the shocking number of other singers and recording stars who disappoint and abuse paying concert-goers this way, here are what those duties are, and their underlying ethical foundations: Continue reading