Ethics Hero: HBO Comic Bill Maher


Yes, you read that right.

Soon dogs and cats will be sleeping together, the world will stop spinning on its axis, and there will be snowball fights in Hell. It is the end of the world.

On the latest installment “Real Time with Bill Maher, “HBO’s weekly conservative/ Republican bash-fest, Maher, whom his progressive guests trust  implicitly to be of a like mind, read a quote that the posted graphic  identified as issuing from Rep. Paul Ryan. The 2012 GOP Vice-Presidential candidate had been slammed earlier in the week for “racially coded” comments about the need to change the culture in the inner city. Here is the quote:

“When it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. They’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.”

Then Bill let his guests take turns criticizing Ryan for blaming black Americans for problems over whichthey had no control, while sole conservative guest (Bill only allows one token punching bag from the right per show) Rick Lazio was mocked and laughed at by the studio audience for defending Ryan’s point. Finally, after letting everyone hang themselves, Maher revealed that the real speaker was…. Michelle Obama.

As Ralph Cramden…that is, the Great One, Jackie Gleason, used to say,

Thank you, Bill!

He was the perfect one to pull this revealing and damning stunt, being a reliable race-baiter himself (on an earlier show, Maher countered Bill Kristol’s challenge to the liberal cant that Republican opposition to President Obama is based on racial bias by asserting that he “absolutely” believed that.) But Bill isn’t above tricking and embarrassing his loyal allies and toadying audience for publicity and to pose as a truth-teller so his future deceptions, slanders and lies have more credibility. One can do the right thing, and a very beneficial thing, for unethical reasons, and I am absolutely certain that the despicable, amoral, cynical and vicious “comic” had nothing but base motives for this stunt. In fact, tricking invited guests who trust him into exposing their own bias was despicable, terrible host etiquette, and dishonest, but then Bill’s show is something of an ethics-free zone anyway. Anyone, right or left, who enables Maher by appearing on his show has waived the right to have my sympathy. In another case, I might argue that the end doesn’t justify the means, but anyone who voluntarily agrees to keep Maher’s show on the air deserves what he or she gets. This is the Scorpion and the Frog at its clearest.

Bill gave us one of the clearest demonstrations of how cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias warps public discourse and makes fools of us all. It is now on video, for classrooms, research, and self-education. Good.

The Unlikeliest Ethics Hero Ever, Bill Maher.

Here’s the clip:


Sources: The Blaze, Mediaite

Graphic: Mandy Kart

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

16 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: HBO Comic Bill Maher

  1. There must be a lot of unease in Hollywood now and suspicions that Maher has gone to the Dark Side. Don’t be surprised that Maher teams up with Dennis Miller and they do a Liddy-Leary tour. Heck, it could happen!

    • It could happen. Miller just made a career decision that it would be more lucrative to switch tracks, just as David Brock and Ariana Huffington did. I don’t trust any of them.

  2. While Maher exposed the group as hypocrites, setting up people, that are cognitively inclined to believe a falsehood as truth because a trusted ally utters it, – and simply for the purpose of self promotion – does not make him an ethics hero in my mind.

    If we simply adopted a definition of racist, or sexist to mean: “one who believes that he/she is entitled to social, political and economic preferences superior to those of another by virtue of their mere belonging to a specific racial or gender classification”, then such attitudes would probably potentiated because the claims of being a racist or sexist can be universally applied to every race and gender. Currently, the notion of being a racist only applies to Caucasians of European heritage and one can only males are guilty of sexism.

    We could extend this definition to the related “isms” such that institutional racism (sexism) is the process by which society legislatively or socially confers upon a specific race (gender) preferential economic and social rights superior to another race or gender for the purpose of maintaining a prescribed social order.

    If we truly want to move toward greater equitable opportunity and distribution of economic power and more social inclusion then the power brokers, influencers, and those who try to sway public opinion must first stop diminishing others to justify their opinions.

    • I more or less agree on the ethics hero part, as I think I adequately suggested in the post itself.

      But Maher’s despicable tendencies are well known, and his guests enable him simply because they assume that he shares his biases. Yes, he betrayed them, but his scumminess is beyond a matter of record to the point of certainty. Bill usually uses his scumminess for meanness and misinformation—when he users it for the greater good, even if he couldn’t care less about the greater good himself, he should get positive reinforcement.

      • I may as well admit, before I say more, that I know I am overdue for reviewing your on-line “basics” including the Rationalizations List.

        Are you saying that there is perhaps a flip side to consequentialism? “Accidentalism?”

        Does someone who is very reliably unethical and untrustworthy deserve praise for some act as “ethically redemptive,” even if we can determine that the consequences of that act – consequences we typically attribute to ethical action – were unintended?

        Honestly, I struggle to wrap my mind around praising Bill Maher – or Bill Clinton – for anything. And yet, I am convinced that the U.S. is (or was, for a few years at least) better off with George W. Bush as President than the country would have been with Al Gore as President, to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. I firmly believe Gore would have been elected easily in 2000 if Clinton had resigned, which would have been the right thing for Clinton to do. But Clinton stayed on, with the consequence (which I am also convinced was unintended) that Bush won the squeaker.

        So with Maher, does he really deserve praise, as if he was doing something ethical, when he makes a point (or whatever he meant to do) that mocks, or that seems to mock, the confirmation biases of others with whom he would typically agree?

  3. I understood this to be part of a larger point — that we need to have a conversation about race, poverty, and social class in this country without attacking the speaker. So I didn’t think his tactic was unethical. Not to defend Bill Maher, but I think his only intention was to make people think. He actually takes on a fair number of causes that do not gel with the liberal handbook — he’s FOR capital punishment, does not attack the intelligence agencies for their unconstitutional behavior, and has been pretty tame about drone strikes. He also stands up for free speech and anti-bullying on the internet — he was one of Rush Limbaugh’s strongest defenders re the Sandra Fluke incident.

  4. I have to disagree that lying like Maher did is unethical. If someone is clearly being knee-jerk about their use of the race card, the only way to highlight their hypocrisy is to do what he did.

  5. “But Bill isn’t above tricking and embarrassing his loyal allies and toadying audience for publicity and to pose as a truth-teller so his future deceptions, slanders and lies have more credibility.”

    Yes: Bill. Maher. Clinton. Consequentialism-baiters, too.

  6. Fair enough. I just did not want to elevate him to hero status. To me, a hero is person who does the right thing in spite of the cost to him/herself.

    There is no doubt that what he did may have elevated the conversation on race, poverty and culture in such a way to expose the cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias that is rampant in all ideological camps. However, I was drawn to Jack’s statement, . . .” But Bill isn’t above tricking and embarrassing his loyal allies and toadying audience for publicity and to pose as a truth-teller so his future deceptions, slanders and lies have more credibility.” I don’t think his point was much larger than that.

    It will take a many more episodes of fair exchange of ideas without diminishing the speaker before I will accept him as an arbiter of right and wrong.

    What I find absolutely fascinating is that two guests felt that it was wrong to blame the people who live in urban centers for the lack of jobs resulting in massive unemployment among the underclass but have no problem blaming someone else for another’s lack of upward mobility. Just whose responsibility is it to make sure I am successful? Private sector jobs are a byproduct of business success. If businesses cannot earn a reasonable profit because the available labor force appears to be not as skilled, personable and engaging of customers, or the surrounding area visibly shows signs of social decay then the jobs will not materialize.

    Everyone has a choice in life – make it better for themselves or wait for someone else (government) to make it better for them. Those that focus on personal improvement are statistically more likely to have upward mobility than those who wait for a government solution.

    • If even only one person’s upward mobility was enabled by a government solution, then it is a crime against every person who is equal to that person to not provide the same government solution for everyone.
      (warming-up my sarcasm for a loooooong week)

  7. The only hemming and hawing done was by the Black guy…

    I don’t see this really creating any “gotcha moment” for anyone but him. The conservative guy easily could have said “yeah, that’s not a racist comment either…” the liberal girl could have said “yeah, that is a racist comment”…

    But we don’t know, they didn’t respond. They might have maintained consistency after responding to Paul Ryan’s real quote.

    The real troubling aspect is Bill Maher’s follow up comment: “… is something less true if a white person says it about black people.”

    BILL, Paul Ryan was NOT talking about black people when he referred to the inner cities. You see, Jack, he’s wrapped up, through a comedic expose of confirmation bias, the ability to say “haha, the joke was the fake quote!” while subtly slipping in the premise that Paul Ryan’s actual comment WAS focused on black people.

    It was not.

    • Additionally, the only way to make this a “proof of confirmation bias” requires judging the other two ‘panelists’ response. But we don’t get to. Otherwise, it is just an assumption that the liberal girl and conservative guy only made their comments based on who the original quote came from.

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