Unethical Quote of the Week: W.G. Hamm

“What I know about Lance Armstrong is that he inspired thousands of cancer victims and made their lives better. What I know about Mr. Armstrong is that when my wife and my son were both suffering from cancer, his story and his book helped them cope with their diseases. What I know about Mr. Armstrong is that the good that he did far outweighs the fact that he was trapped in a culture of drug use within the cycling fraternity. What I know about Mr. Armstrong is that he has been needlessly demonized by people who do not realize the balance between his good deeds and his bad deeds.”

—-W. G. Hamm, in his Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post. Hamm was praising a fatuous, rationalization-riddled  column by Post sportswriter Sally Jenkins in which she catalogued and endorsed every excuse and justification trotted out by Armstrong’s enablers and defenders.

would have loved Vlad.

W. G. would have loved Vlad.

I don’t know W.G. Hamm. I’m sure he’s the salt of the earth, and a part of me is queasy about picking on his letter praising Jenkins’ ridiculous column rather than tackling the truly ethically offensive and brain-dead column itself. One reason is that I have written extensively, frequently and recently about the arguments, if you can call them that, made by Jenkins. Her column really is spectacularly bad; here’s one passage that send me to the bathroom, for example:

“Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because for two decades now I’ve had serious questions about the wisdom and fairness of the “anti-doping” effort, which consists of criminalizing and demonizing athletes for what boils down to using medications without a prescription.”

No, it boils down to using medications without a prescription and using them to cheat in athletic contests for money and fame, while defrauding the public, you silly, dishonest woman. Or how about this one:

“I wonder why putting your own blood back into your body is the crime of the century. And because there are offenses in sport that seem far, far worse to me. Like say, putting rapists on your college football team.”

And you know, Sally, come to think  of it, Lance didn’t kill anybody either, or sell secrets to the Iranians, or have babies for breakfast. Her column may represent the most exhaustive use of rationalizations I have ever seen in a published essay; it really should be used as an exam in ethics classes. This was, of course, the rationalization that readers of Ethics Alarms recognize as the one I detest most, “It’s Not The Worst Thing.” But I’m sure Jenkins includes your favorite too, for she doesn’t miss many. Along the way, she also provides us a primer in many other impediments to clear ethical analysis, for example, she tells us that one reason she refuses to condemn the still lying cheat is that she likes him. Aww.

While Jenkins’ column is obviously much, much more unethical in its scope than Hamm’s fan letter, W.G.’s comments have the advantage of focusing on the core ethics fallacy that die-hard Armstrong supporters embrace: that the good results achieved by Livestrong, Armstrong’s  cancer foundation, and his efforts on behalf of cancer sufferers like himself “outweigh” his “bad deeds.” There are a lot of deadly misconceptions buried in that contention, and it is everyone’s duty, and mine, to make sure the claim is recognized and rejected as the societal corrupter that it is.

Before getting to that, however, I have to deal with my gag reflex in reaction Mr. Hamm’s statement about Armstrong being “trapped.” This even contradicts Jenkins, whose defenses of Armstrong include dismissing his pressuring of his team mates to load up on steroids by writing,

“Maybe I’m not angry at Lance because…I think it’s apparent that all of the people associated with him are responsible for themselves and their choices, just as I was. If Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, Christian VandeVelde and Dave Zabriskie took EPO during the Tour de France, it wasn’t because Lance Armstrong shot them in their butts with it.”

Then again, Jenkins was contradicting herself, too. Of Armstrong, she had already written in her column,

“…what emerges is a portrait of a sport in which needles were so deeply embedded that the choice was simply to use them, or quit riding. And I don’t have it in my heart to condemn any of the athletes in it, much less Lance, son of a Kroger supermarket checkout girl,who had a singular talent and whose career option was to go home, and do what exactly?”

Oh, gee, I don’t know…make an honest living, perhaps?  Are Jenkins and Hamm really arguing that if you are the “son of a Kroger supermarket girl,” you have no choice but to compete in a corrupt professional sport, lying and cheating in order to do it? Nobody shot Lance in his butt, either.

The essence of Mr. Hamm’s logic is that old, vicious standby, the favorite conceit of dictators, hoodlums, crooks and monsters throughout the centuries, “the ends justify the means.” Armstrong’s “good deeds” don’t outweigh his bad ones, they were the result of his bad ones, and Hamm is willing to excuse that because he was one of the beneficiaries. This is how shameless villains like Armstrong can corrupt so many; it is why the citizens of Boston kept re-electing James Michael Curley as mayor, why so many Chicagoans loved Al Capone. Hamm says that if Armstrong had to cheat, lie to his fans, misrepresent his athletic prowess, corrupt his sport, break the law, and defraud donors out of their money by telling an inspiring but false narrative, that’s all fine with him, because his family members benefited, as did others. Once we accept that unethical logic, society has bared its throat to every thief, con artist and predator on the planet. This is the invitation that sociopaths pray for, like vampires hoping to be invited into a home. “Welcome! If you do enough good for us, we’ll forgive anything.”

No. The people who intentionally engage in corrupt and unethical conduct, like Lance Armstrong, are corrupt and unethical people. They cannot be trusted, and they must not be honored for the “good deeds” they may do in the process of exploiting the trust of others for their own advantage and benefit. The idea that conduct is a ledger where any amount of dishonesty and harm can be balanced and made forgivable is practically, logically and ethically bankrupt. It favors the rich and powerful, who have the resources and opportunities to buy societal brownie points and “Get out of jail free” cards. Vlad the Impaler saved his people from the Turks; Jesse James gave some of the money he stole from banks to poor people; Mussolini made the trains run on time; Hitler built the Autobahn; Stalin defeated the Germans, Boss Tweed built the Brooklyn Bridge, and Mayor Daley always sent the poor turkeys at Christmas. This was Lance Armstrong’s real game, not cycling, and he was a master at it.

If we deplore rotten values and unethical conduct, then we reject them, condemn them, punish them, and shun those who champion them, whatever their defiance of ethics achieves. To accept W.G. Hamm’s proposal is to make corruption acceptable currency for the things that we want and value, as long as we think we got the better of the deal.


Sources: Washington Post 1, Washington Post 2

Graphic: Church of Mabus

3 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Week: W.G. Hamm

    • In his case, this doesn’t wash. Armstrong’s “good deeds” were not only facilitated by his cheating, stealing and lies; they were also designed to facilitate them. He is an unequivocal villain.

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 )

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.