So Soon? The Bill Maher Ethical Condundrum Strikes Again…In Ferguson!

It's baaaack!

It’s baaaack!

No sooner did I announce the Bill Maher Ethical Conundrum than a perfect example of it—not involving Bill Maher—hit the news…and joined the Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck.

In August, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to a request by the St. Louis County police to restrict about 37 square miles of airspace over Ferguson, Missouri, then engulfed in the most violent of the protests and rioting sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown. The restriction lasted for 12 days, and the reason given for it was safety concerns. Shots had been fired at a helicopter at one point during the violence in the city.

Safety is surely a valid concern, and since there were legitimate reasons to believe that the no-flight restrictions were prudent in the interests of safety, the measure was ethical. Or was it? The Bill Maher Ethical Conundrum, for those who missed the recent post:

Is the ethical nature of an act defined by its intent, or by an objective assessment of the act alone without reference to motive?

The Associated Press obtained tapes of the FAA’s air traffic managers discussing how to redefine the flight ban to allow commercial flights to operate at nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and to permit police helicopters to fly through the area while meeting the goals of the ban. On the ban, they heard an administration manager say, about the St. Louis County Police Department, “They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out. But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on.” A manager at the administration’s center in Kansas City said the police “did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this T.F.R. all day long. They didn’t want media in there.” Acknowledging that a ban that said “…you know, ‘OK, everybody but the media is OK,’ ”  the FAA managers then developed wording that they felt would keep news helicopters out of the controlled zone but not impede other air traffic.

Bingo! A flight ban in the interest of safety, serving the interests of safety, but motivated primarily by the illegal, unconstitutional, unstated motive of interfering with the public’s right to know through exercise of the Freedom of the Press.

Ethical or unethical?

The Bill Maher Ethical Conundrum strikes again!


Facts: New York Times

13 thoughts on “So Soon? The Bill Maher Ethical Condundrum Strikes Again…In Ferguson!

  1. How is this “in the interest of safety, serving the interests of safety”?

    If the airspace is dangerous because people are firing on aircraft (was there proof to this claim?) then only police aircraft should be allowed in. Are the police only worried about the lives of reporters and not commercial pilots and passengers?

    If they are worried about interference with police aircraft then likewise only police aircraft should be allowed in. Although considering how many other police departments operate helicopters in much more congested airspaces I would find this argument pretty lacking.

    If an “objective” assessment of an act finds it to make no sense I think there is an ethical issue that the authorities are likely lying about the purpose of the act to start with even if the hidden intention is ethical (which in this case it is not).

    Wouldn’t the most ethical action (not taken) have been for the FAA to call bullshit on this request in the first place?

      • I didn’t say I expected the FAA to act smartly or ethically just that it was the only ethical decision I could see in this mess.

        I also don’t see what bringing the current administration into it brings to the conversation unless there is evidence the FAA used to be a bastion on competence and ethical behavior before 2008. This feels more like just another example of unethical “professional courtesy” between government agencies regardless of any figurehead in D.C.

        • Boy, I don’t. Are you saying that professional courtesy relieves the Feds of common sense diligence about Bill of Rights protections? I think most FAAs, in more ethical administration cultures (like almost all of them) would tell the police to go jump in a lake.

        • It’s completely irrelevant if the FAA used to be corrupt or stalwart. Here and now, under an administration which has repeatedly proven itself to be anti-free speech, anti-press (aside from the propaganda arm), and anti-bill of rights, the FAA has made this decision. I see the ‘safety’ concern to be as thin a smoke screen as ‘won’t somebody think of the children? !’

          • I think we’re speaking past each other. I am absolutely not absolving or relieving the FAA of anything. Quite the opposite.

            I am saying:

            1) The local FAA officials would defer to the police in any ridiculous request out of unethical (yet common) professional courtesy.

            2) This happens all the time at all levels of government and is almost always unethical. The local officials would have done the same thing regardless current administration in D.C.

            I believe both of these things are true and I am against both. Combined and separately they further erode any trust in government a rational person could have.

            Unless there is some evidence that the FAA officials deferred to higher ups in Washington or had any internal discussion of “Hey this is wrong and I don’t like it but Obama will fire us if we don’t do it” (obviously exaggerated) then I’m not willing to assign blame past the locals we have actual evidence against.

  2. Why not just be up front and say news aircraft are banned for the safety of not just the people in them but the people on the ground as well? They are presumably the ones being fired upon. (if that’s what really happened)

  3. The claims that there were shots fired at the helicopter aren’t holding up to scrutiny.
    But police officials confirmed that there was no damage to their helicopter and were unable to provide an incident report on the shooting. On the tapes, an F.A.A. manager described the helicopter shooting as unconfirmed “rumors.”

  4. I think the goal of the ban is to prevent general helicopter traffic through the area not necessarily to screw over the media. When I read “keep the media out” I assumed it came with the clause “because they fly helicopters.” Commercial airliners fly too fast and/or too high to have serious concerns about small arms fire and police helicopters can risk their safety (and the safety of anyone around the potential crash landing) as the necessities of public good dictate, but media choppers don’t have the same mandate and cant justify the risk if there are indeed people trying to put bullets through the windshield of low/slow aircraft flying over populated areas.

    • There is an airport next to Ferguson (not within small arms ranges) who’s take off and/or landing approaches actually come within *extremely lucky* small arms ranges (3/4 mile) of the “main drag” in Ferguson. With ranges becoming even closer (down to 1/2 mile or less) depending on where in Ferguson some shooters may be located, such as the more southern and southwestern neighborhoods.

      Takes off and landings are slower & lower activities. I think it was a semi-reasonable consideration. But even then, the point at which an airliner would pass closest to Ferguson would still be a lucky lucky lucky shot. In that case, an argument could be made that banning commercial flight is TOO much precaution. Perhaps only banning approaches and departures from that particular direction would be necessary.

      When I first heard the ban, I felt less that it had to do with media safety and more to do with deconflicting the airspace so police choppers could maneuver without worry.

  5. I don’t understand the conundrum. While philosophy professors make a big distinction between intentionalist and consequentialist theory, in RL the only reasonable procedure is to consider both. If the intent is bad then the action is immoral; but if the intent is good then a check on the consequences is necessary, in which case an action with good intent but bad consequences is moral but unethical.

    • It’s a conundrum, because where a *luckily* good decision that was arrived at from Bad Intent decision making process leaves us needing to explain the unethical nature of the *process*, we forget then that it must be balanced by explaining how the good decision SHOULD have been arrived at through a deliberate (non-lucky) decision making process using actual ethical values.

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