UPDATE: A Cynical Ethics Tale That Wasn’t So Cynical After All

In the recent Ethics Alarms post The Asperger’s Child, the Company With A Heart, and the Cheapskate Parents: A Cynical Ethics Tale, I expressed both ethical and credibility doubts about the heart-warming story of a little boy who was sent the out-of stock LEGO set he had saved to buy for two years, only to discover that it was no longer manufactured and could only be purchased at premium rates via collectors or online auction. The child’s joyful reaction when he opened the box containing the set sent to him as a gift by the toymaker was captured in a family video that subsequently went viral on YouTube.

I won’t rehash my analysis here; read the post. I questioned why the family wouldn’t just contribute the necessary funds to ensure that the child’s long effort to obtain the toy didn’t come to naught, and I expressed skepticism that LEGO’s generosity wasn’t part of a pre-arranged quid pro quo in exchange for the video, especially since the father is professional videographer, and the YouTube product functioned as a promotion for LEGO.

By purest coincidence, a personal friend here in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, Jeff Westlake, is also a close personal friend of the Groccia family. He was privy to the events of the story as they unfolded, and relayed information to me about both the family and the events surrounding the YouTube video that were not evident in the media reports. Thanks to Jeff’s insight, I am now satisfied that the family’s decision to explore every avenue of obtaining the LEGO set was reasonable rather than penurious, and that there was no quid pro quo with LEGO.

I apologize for mistakenly impugning the Groccia’s motives and account in the episode. I don’t apologize for raising the ethical issues that I saw implicit in the media accounts. That’s my job, and provoking discussion and debate over the ethical or unethical conduct of public figures is why this blog exists. If a family is going to participate in making an occurrence in their lives the subject of news stories, features and blog posts, they cannot insist that all commentary be unequivocally positive. I thought the doubts I expressed were legitimate and fair; it happens that they were not borne out by the facts.

Mr. Groccia was offended, understandably, and not so understandably, decided to respond here with, first, an anonymous comment noting that my “foil hat must be too tight as it appears to be impeding your cognitive abilities.” I didn’t know who the author was, and informed him via the email; address accompanying the comment that I would post his remarks if 1) I had a real name, as the Comment Policies require,  and 2) if the screen name he used was not a commercial website, since this would lead to the comment being spammed. He responded that he “knew” I wouldn’t have the “spine” to print his comment, which is manifestly not the case. I told him that I would be happy to publish a more thorough account by him, and would retract my suspicions if I was persuaded by it. Instead. Mr. Groccia chose to send a series of alternately insulting and threatening e-mails, none of which were substantive, and all of which served to reinforce my doubts. There the matter would have laid, except for the intervention of Jeff Westlake. I’m grateful to him for setting the record straight.


5 thoughts on “UPDATE: A Cynical Ethics Tale That Wasn’t So Cynical After All

  1. An unreserved personal apology to Mr Groccia might be helpful.

    There have been times when I was objectively justified in what I did, but my actions inadvertently hurt others. Repeating my justification and reasons may have been fair – in fact, would have been fair – but it would not have been helpful.

    I’ve found it to be better, on a pragmatic basis, to say “Oops. My fault. I unreservedly apologise.”

    That’s because I want the person I’ve wronged, however inadvertently, however justifiably, to feel better, and to make good as best I may a situation I bore responsibility for.

    Just? I don’t claim so. But I’ve often said that Justice untempered by Mercy is over-rated.

    Also note that that’s what I do. I find it the best policy. I think none the worse of anyone who doesn’t follow my example, and I have no right to even ask them to. Just… tell them my own experience.

    • I can’t be that defensive about hurting others when I’m examining and commenting on the ethical and unethical conduct of others. To justify an unreserved apology, I’d have to believe that I was wrong to raise the issue, and I wasn’t. The discussion here was good, varied and productive. I expressed an opinion, and people have no right to be insulated from opinion. As with all my posts, I base my analysis on the available information. Given the same information again, I would probably come to the same conclusion.

      Nor do I retract my belief about the fair, kind and considerate way to handle the child’s dilemma. My source explains why the parents handled it as they did, and I understand their actions—that still doesn’t mean I apologize for my honest opinion.

      I didn’t allege the certainty any fact that I didn’t have—I was clear that my suppositions were that only. I do not believe in apologizing for hurting feelings when that was not the objective—in the welter of articles singing the praises of LEGO, I expressed skepticism. Skepticism is a good thing, and if we start the precedent that people have to apologize for it, then we are stifling debate and thought.

      Then there’s the little detail that I was civil to Mr. Groccia throughout, while he was abusive to me.

      I apologized for what I feel was worthy of an apology: I was wrong, and corrected the mistake. Anything more would be insincere, undeserved, and inconsistent with the mission of the blog.

      • An insincere apology would of course be unethical, regardless of the pragmatic benefits.

        Then there’s the little detail that I was civil to Mr. Groccia throughout, while he was abusive to me.

        Not exactly an unusual circumstance when dealing with humans who believe they’ve been wronged. Their abuse is not helpful, even if justifiable (and for the record, in this case it wasn’t remotely justified, and that should be emphasised).

        If I had contact with Mr Groccia, I’d gently suggest that an apology from him for that would be very much in order indeed, not just useful, but mandated.

        A sincere one too.

        That brings us to an issue: what happens when an apology is deserved on the grounds of basic justice – as here, from Mr Groccia – but the one at fault has been so hurt that sincerity is impossible?

        What happens when one’s sense of Justice and Ethics say that an apology is mandatory, but one’s human failings mean that saying “I’m sorry” would be insincere. When one should be sorry, but in all honesty cannot be?

        I consider the lesser ethical sin to make the apology anyway. Others many reasonably differ on that – because they’re trying to do what’s right too.

        • Let me be clear: I don’t think I have anything to apologize for other than happening to be wrong, unless I would have something to apologize for if I happened to be correct. Otherwise, I am just apologizing for random chance and moral luck. I believe that given the reported facts, my analysis was by far the most reasonable one. As it happened, it wasn’t in that case. To avoid being hypocritical, the apology you suggest would preclude me from examining reported news stories and discussing the apparent ethical choices and conduct being made by participants, and imply that the entire process of my efforts here is inherently blameworthy. I don’t agree.

  2. I know Jay Groccia. He’s a talented photographer, but is also one of the most arrogant and opinionated people I’ve ever run into. That he was abusive to anyone is no surprise to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.