Ethics Quiz: Who Is More Unethical…the Coward Who Left His Girlfriend and Child to Die, Or the Girlfriend Who Agreed To Marry Him Anyway?

Would an ethical woman marry George?

I am a great fan of the old Seinfeld show in general and the George Costanza character in particular (all ethicists love George, who  exemplifies how messed up a life without ethical instincts can be), but I didn’t laugh at the episode when he smelled smoke at kids’ birthday party and trampled the children as he escaped in panic from the apartment. And that was just a TV sitcom; the actions of Jamie Rohrs, the Colorado man who ran out of the Aurora movie theater when James Holmes started shooting and drove away in his truck, leaving behind his girlfriend and her two young children—one of whom was fathered by him— go beyond unfunny to revolting. Luckily, and no thanks to Rohrs, Patricia Legaretta and her kids did not die, because a stranger, Jarell Brooks, helped them escape the theater and the massacre.

Then comes the rest of the story, revealed to Piers Morgan on CNN: after his act of aggravated cowardice, Rohrs had the gall to propose to the mother of his child, and Legaretta, incredibly, accepted.

Your Ethics Quiz:

Who is more unethical—Legaretta, or Costanza, er, Rohrs?

Please note that the title of the blog isn’t “Idiocy Alarms.” Clearly Legaretta is the bigger fool, but I wouldn’t bet on either of these lovebirds being able to top single digits in an IQ test. No, the issue is ethics—which of the two has demonstrated the deeper deficit in basic ethical values?

My answer may surprise you, for I think is the “winner” is Legaretta, by a lap.

Courage isn’t an ethical value but an enabling virtue, like sacrifice and fortitude, a character trait that can make ethical conduct possible. To a great extent, none among us can know how courageous we would be in circumstances like the Aurora shooting. Many in that tragedy, according to reports, were extremely valorous; others, like Rohrs, may have yielded to the flight instinct and abandoned their duties to friends and offspring. This is certainly legitimate cause for shame, but we should admit that judging someone’s character based entirely on one terrible reaction under extreme conditions is neither fair nor consistent with the Golden Rule. If Rohrs is the kind of person who conducts himself responsibly and is properly considerate of others in all situations where bullets aren’t flying, and for all we know, he could be, then he may be an ethical individual after all.

That doesn’t mean it is prudent to trust someone who has shown a proclivity to morph into George Costanza in a crisis, however.  Giving him the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean that it is responsible to marry him, and place the fate of one’s children in his trembling hands. At this point, there are a millions of single men in the US, and only one of them has proven that he is likely to head the hills yelling, “It’s every man for himself!” when the home invaders strike, the gang attacks, the Martians invade or the zombies rise. Legaretta has a duty to her children to do better, at least until Rohrs proves that the Aurora shooting was an aberration.

Yes, she presumably knows him better than any of us do, and maybe he has a wealth of other good qualities that make him a better choice than it appears. Still. in their last major event together, her fiance placed their four-month old child on the floor of the theater and headed for the exits when a mad man opened fire on him and his loved ones. He has made himself a national pariah: fairly or not, his career prospects have been severely diminished. There are many ethically responsible responses to a proposal of marriage from such a man, including “no,” “let’s wait and see,” “maybe,” and “you’ve got to be kidding!”

“Yes” is not an option, not yet. Legaretta placed her kids at risk, and nobody was holding a gun to her head.



Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

24 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Who Is More Unethical…the Coward Who Left His Girlfriend and Child to Die, Or the Girlfriend Who Agreed To Marry Him Anyway?

  1. Hey, this gives me a chance to quote High Fidelity. The protagonist has this thing with unintentionally sabotaging relationships and blaming his exes. Near the end of the movie, he’s in the middle of the same self-destructive behavior when he realizes that he’s the one causing the problems. He immediately proposes to his girlfriend. Her response “Did you really expect me to say yes?” is followed by his line “I didn’t really think about it. I thought asking was the important thing.”

    Rohrs’ over the top bad action might have made him realize what he was doing wrong in his life, but that doesn’t mean he should be unthinkingly believed.

    • Terrific parallel. Yes, it occurred to me that the proposal may have meant “I am ready to behave like an adult, a man, and a responsible person now.” But you have the right response to that.

  2. It also occurs to me the proposal may also be a Hail Mary in an effort to retain at least something of his life prior to his abandonment of his child and presumed loved ones.

  3. Jack, The flight part of the “fight or flight instinct” is sometimes something you cant over come. You dont think about it you just go. Not to excuse his actions but he may have no control over his instinct to run away. NOW getting in the car and driving away after he was outof the building is the actions of a jack ass.

      • There comes a point where the instinct stops, its not long lasting, and you start to think more of what you are doing instead of just trying to get the hell out of there.

          • When dealing with someone in, “fight, flight or freeze”, removal from situation and routine actions or decisions will generally bring them out of it.
            The simple fact that he went so far as to put his kid on the ground, made his way out of the theater, located his keys and started his vehicle and drove away points to someone who may have started at FFF but transitioned to cognitive decision.

          • Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you . It is my experience that when fight or flight kicks in that the operation of a car or machinery causes you to come back to your senses. Ive been around numerous aircraft fires and crashes and watched people in flight or fight get focused very fast as soon as they were given a piece of machinery to operate or a task to do. I may be wrong about this guy, but I bet I’m not.

      • tgt,
        Driving away in a vehicle could be flight but I think the point is that at some point during the flight cognitive decisions are made, not instinctual actions.

        • I completly agree. I just disagree with Bill’s statement that the cognitive decisions must have kicked in when he got to the car.

          We don’t know when they kicked in enough to everpower the immediate response. Maybe when it was when he exited the building. Maybe it was when he got to the car. Maybe it was when he left the parking lot. Maybe it was a mile down the road.

          When I was around 14, I can remember getting myself into trouble after sneaking out one night. It was in a tent. I dove out of the tent, took off running, climbed a fence, kept running for about 1/4 mile, picked up the key I’d hidden, locked the door behind me, and silently creeped through my house back to my room. All of that was done on autopilot. I didn’t actually think rationally about the situation until I was safe in bed. Our subconscious is pretty good at handling whatever tasks come up while we’re in flight mode.

          While we don’t know when this guy’s cognition kicked back in, we do know it’s not necessary that this occurred before driving away.

          • I don’t think it is a stretch that he was likely making cognitive decisions at the point where he was driving away, that is not to say he was not without fear. There are too many decision points between shots fired and driving away. Someone in the true grip of FFF rarely can even accomplish simple tasks without repetition and the repetition brings them out of it.

            • I’ll agree with point 1, but likely isn’t definite.

              I can’t agree with point two based on my own experiences. If I can sneak past my parents (knowing where to step on the unpatterned carpet so the floor doesn’t squeak) while fleeing, I’m pretty sure the same goes for other people. It really looks like “true grip of FFF” is a “no true scotsman” attack.

              • It was my intent not to address your story as you may have truly felt fear throughout the whole ordeal but that is not the same as a sympathetic nervous system automatic (involuntary) response, it goes more to prove my point then against. That is not to say you didn’t at any point have a FFF automatic response, just you that you had a return to cognitive ability well before you may have thought you did. When I say full grip of FFF, there is no cognitive control, many people cannot even remember their actions after the fact. Your description which is easy to relate to does not fully recognize at what point you had regained your cognitive decision making abilities back. But based on your details it was before you found your key. You did not continue to put distance between you and the threat you choose to return to your home (safety). That is not to say FFF didn’t play a factor, but it does help to identify cognitive ability. When in the grip of fear it is often difficult to identify involuntary reaction from a decision but there is a distinction, I have often seen individual FFF reactions place the person in more obvious danger then the original threat. Like many terms today FFF has been expanded to address other responses it effects, it is accurate to say that that FFF will drive a person to be more aggressive or to want to run home for safety, that does not equate to loss of cognitive ability just very strong desire. The vast majority of the time FFF automatic response lasts only seconds, where you generally see an extended response is when imminent (real or not) danger still exists, in terms of fight that is not limited to danger to one’s self but could be to a loved one.

                • You know what? I think I’m convinced. Can I say that the fear was still likely weighing extremely heavily in the cognitive ability, and we can’t really say much about this person’s character based on him actually driving away?

                  • Fear affects everyone differently; even the same person may be affected differently each time FFF is activated. The most significant natural change is generally seen from pre and post motherhood. Training and experience also has a significant effect on FFF actions. Now that you are older and have had more experiences you would likely react much differently then you did then. As for fears effect on cognitive ability it can be very significant, fear alone can change the reality of a situation, it doesn’t matter if real or imagined. As for the man’s character, no one can know what was in his head and a single incident like this can have long term psychological effects. I think in this incident the man’s character will be defined in the months and years after this.

  4. I also took the proposal as a last ditch effort exhibit how much he cares for her. It was probably a little harder to express earlier, while quivering in terror hiding in the car. (I am sorry, just cannot get that mental image out of my head.)

    Here is what struck me though, she had BOTH children when she was shot in the leg and helped out by Mr. Brooks. Since Rohrs had placed the baby on the ground and ran, how did the mother then end up with the child? I doubt she heard crying as the movie was still playing and the chaos had to have been pretty extreme. Perhaps she did though, or, and this is just something I keep jumping back to, she knew to go grab the infant because she knew what to expect from him. She could be well aware of his lack of intestinal fortitude and has worked that deficit into their relationship.

    If this is the case is she really compromising her child’s safety or continuing on with life as normal. I am not saying I agree by ANY stretch of the imagination, but she might be used to killing all the spiders in the house, so to speak.

    • I don’t buy your second paragraph. Seeing a kid on the ground next to you when you’re trying to get cover isn’t exactly a stretch. Despite that, I agree with the overall point. We don’t know enough about the relationship to properly judge this specific case. We are really just coming up with general ethical comments that may or may not hold true when more details are known.

  5. Not knowing their positions I was trying to figure out at which point did she get shot in the leg. I am not sure I actually remember reading that and I was wondering if she was shot in the leg and he just stepped over her. I have been trying to imagine, did she see this dolt go past her empty handed or did she not see him and all and just assume since she is with Prince Valiant that she was going to have to pick up the slack.

    As far as fight or flight, had he been in true fight or flight mode I don’t see where the instinct to put the baby down came from. When the reptilian part of your brain say RUN, you do just that. Stopping to place your pride and joy on the ground doesn’t seem to be something that would come to mind.

    • As far as fight or flight, had he been in true fight or flight mode I don’t see where the instinct to put the baby down came from. When the reptilian part of your brain say RUN, you do just that. Stopping to place your pride and joy on the ground doesn’t seem to be something that would come to mind.

      Removing obstacles to flight seems to fit the paradigm, and not all parents instinctively think of their kids first.

  6. No I meant the physicality of it. He stated that he put the baby down on the ground, which implies conscious action. Let me give my own example, as embarrassing as it may be…

    I don’t fly. Last time I tried, I panicked and bolted from the plane while everyone was still boarding. This was pre-9/11 so when I jumped and ran, which I do not actually remember doing, people just kinda got out of my way I guess. I happened to have all the junk from the seat back pocket in front of me in my hand, along with my purse, earphones, and the paperback the nice lady next to me asked me to hold while she got adjusted in her seat. And as I went full bore off that plane all that stuff stayed firmly gripped in my hands. The person who was seeing me off was at the gate, back when doing that was allowed, saw me come flying out the gate door and he described me as wide eyed but not really seeing anything. Had he not reached out and grabbed me I and not sure how long I would have continued running. Point was, once he did stop me and the poor flight attendant finally caught up to me, it took both of them to pry my fingers off of the items clutched in my hands. When my brain said “run”, my feet said “Aye aye captain!” and that is what they did and they didn’t give my hands a bit of say so in the matter.

    I also worked one very memorable season in a “Haunted House” and I saw people holding all kinds of wacky things when they came flying out the back door, bits of scenery, other people’s scarves, purses and in one case, one lady came out holding her friend’s blouse. She was holding the sleeve on one side and the other had every seam on it busted apart.

    Point is, if he was holding that baby and had flight or fright kick in, he would have likely still had that baby in his hands when he got to the car.

    Sorry for the long examples.

    • I agree that that all makes sense, but I don’t see it as necessary. Maybe I’m in the wrong here.

      (Long, useful examples are much better than shortened examples that are hard to follow)

      • Really, I am not sure there is a wrong to be in. Unless we are in this guy’s head it will be impossible to judge for certain. And the question still stands, which one of the two bears the ethical culpability?

        From what I know about flight or fight I think this *ahem* man put down an impediment to him getting out of the aisle, or dropped a crying baby that was liable to bring attention to himself as he made for the safety of his car. I think ethically he bears the responsibility for that and her agreeing to marry him in spite of this puts her directly responsible if in the future if his self preservation directly conflicts with the children’s welfare and the children suffer due to it.

        This whole situation is distasteful enough that I think there is enough “blame” as it were to go around. I am more than willing to split the difference for these two.

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