From The “It’s No Fun Being An Ethicist” Files: I Offend Some Seminar Attendees…


I facilitated a professional ethics seminar a while ago for a scholarly institution, (The locale, names and client have been changed to protect the guilty.) The discussion came around to rationalizations and my favorite on the list, #22:

22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.

Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.

In this case I did a sarcastic riff that is usually well received, about the common example of #22, “It’s not like he killed somebody”:

“Well, you can’t argue with that logic, can you? And if he did kill somebody, it’s not like he killed two people. And even then, that’s not as bad as being, say, a serial killer, like Son of Sam, who, when you think about it, isn’t nearly as bad as a mass murderer like Osama bin Laden. But he’s not as bad as Hitler, and even Adolf isn’t as bad as Mao, who killed about ten times more people than Hitler did. And Mao’s no so bad when you compare him to Darth Vader, who blew up Princess Leia’s whole planet…”

It made the point, and the audience laughed. Then, quite a bit later, I received an e-mail from a participant, complaing about this section. Can you guess what the complaint was?

Think about it a bit…

Time’s up!

Do you have an answer?

Here, in part, is what the letter said…

As a Chinese scientist, I felt deeply insulted by what you said yesterday afternoon comparing Hitler and Mao. The comparison was unreasonable. I understand that you may have your own political opinions, but some Chinese people, including myself, will consider this offensive. I also think it was inappropriate to talk about politics…I hope you will consider this viewpoint before you prepare your next presentation.

My answer was this…

I am always grateful for input, but your complaint makes no sense. Facts aren’t political. Mao Zedong killed an estimated 65 million Chinese, making him the greatest mass murderer in world history. Fact. From that you cannot possibly glean my personal political views. (Killing that many people is unethical, however, in my assessment.)

I do not agree stating that fact can be reasonably regarded as offensive.  I have learned that literally anything I say may be found offensive by someone. This makes frank and productive communication and frankness difficult….too difficult, really. My field of expertise, other than law and ethics, is political science, and I did not utter a word about politics in the session. Using political figures and history as examples of conduct is not “politics.” I did not bring politics into the session. Perhaps you noticed that the very first question in your session was, “How can you train on ethics when Donald Trump is President?” In a previous seminar, I never mentioned the President by name, and was criticized in an e-mail like yours for THAT.

I’m sorry, but I can’t teach that way, being damned if I do and damned if I don’t, and worrying about every word and reference. I use the best examples there are, as I see them, based on over 30 years of training and public speaking, to illustrate ethics principles in a professional setting. I also don’t use a script, so my comments are often spontaneous. (The one relating to Mao was, as it happens.) If someone is offended, it is just one of the occupational hazards of my job/.

Your complaint, and the inevitable others that I encounter exemplifies the tyranny of the perpetually offended and the power-play this involves. Such hypersensitivity and the gotcha! mentality it creates makes communication cautious, passionless and ineffective. I’m sure your comment was well-intentioned, but the problem really is yours.

Thanks for writing however. This is an issue that annoys me, and I’m always grateful for another case study.

A few day later, I got another complaint, from the same class, from another Chinese scholar:

I felt offended by your comparison of Mao to Hitler. This comparison shows your ignorance in Chinese history and it’s really inappropriate. I’ve listed my points below.

1. Hitler is a warmonger who brought the whole world into disaster. By contrast, Mao is a great man who largely found the modern China and brought hundred of millions of people from poverty and disaster to industrialization and dignity. Expected lifespan, which is one of the most important indicator of human development, extended from 44 in 1950-55 to 66 in 1975-80 (UN statisstics), which shows that average people in China had lived much better life. The Chinese population increased from 440 million to 940 million, not because people gave birth to more children than before, but because the greatly decreased infant mortality rate and introduction of basic medicare into the rural area. Moreover, these development are largely achieved under the trade embargo led by the US.

2. It is no doubt that Mao had made some policy mistakes which caused abnormal deaths during the 1957-1976 period. However, there is no evidence that he intentionally killed Chinese people, which makes his case completely different from Hitler. The abnormal deaths during that period had complicated reasons which could not be completely contributed to his faults. For example, the starvation during 1960-62 was first because of the natural disasters (mainly drought), and Chinese government didn’t have enough food to feed people. Mao’s fault was that the Great Leap Forward in 1958-59 had disrupted food production in the rural area and made the Chinese economy more vulnerable. However, the fact that china wasn’t able to get enough food from the world market was also largely due to the trade embargo led by the US at hat time, which prohibited food exportation to China. Any evaluation of Mao must take into consideration of the special historical and economic condition of China.

3. For the number of people who died abnormally in China under Mao’s rule, it’s still controversial. The estimations ranged from several million to hundred million by different historians. Many of the large number estimations are based on unrealistic hypotheses like constantly expected population growth, which made them invalid. Also remember that China is a country with a large population and even now around 10 million people die each year, and several million of them are of abnormal reasons. This number is only much bigger before Mao, so it’s also unfair to attribute all abnormal deaths during his rule to Mao himself.

Based on all the above, it’s obvious that your depiction of Mao as a mass murderer similar to Hitler is just your personal political view, I believe it’s very inappropriate to bring these personal political view to an ethics course. It’s also an offense to Chinese people in the room since Mao is largely a symbol of modern China. I would ask you to apology for what you have said and stop making these kind of comments in your future ethic courses.

Here is my response to that complaint…

Thanks for specifying WHAT it was that you found offensive. That is helpful.

Since I never aim to upset anyone in the seminars, it will be easy enough for me to avoid mentioning Mao’s mass murdering in the future. Having spent time in Russia, it appears that citizens there are no under similar delusions regarding Stalin’s murders, which dwarf Hitler’s, and are in turn dwarfed by Mao. So he is a safer substitute, and I can make the same point.

I’m not going to apologize, however, as my statement was and is factual. Your suggestion that mass murder in pursuit of social change is any more acceptable than mass murder in warmongering (actually, Hitler’s intended extinction of the Jews impeded his war efforts, and was also a form of social engineering) is profoundly unethical. It does exemplify the ethics of totalitarians, though.

Your description of Mao’s brutal and inhuman policies as a “mistake” is a popular rationalization, although not often used to excuse mass murder, fortunately. That I find offensive. It is profoundly unethical.

I am sincerely sorry to learn that you have suffered from this kind of government airbrushing of history. I knew that this occurred in your country, of course, but I have never been this close to it or communicated with an intelligent citizen who has been so victimized. You have my sympathies. I mean that. There is nothing you could do to avoid being so indoctrinated.

My main experience with the Mao exterminations was during my ethics work in Mongolia. The people there don’t seem to think that the murders of their Buddhist priests (among others) was a myth, for example. However, I am aware that if I had grown to adulthood in a culture that banged a false history into my head, the truth would be offensive to me as well.

I know Google is censored in your native country, so here are some accounts that are at odds with what you have been taught:

I could find no credible source that supports your account, accept as official government cant. No historians support it. You have been taught to believe a lie.

I am sorry that my comment upset you, and also sorry that I made the comment with anyone in the room who would be troubled by established historical fact. Had I known that, I would have moved to #2 on the mass murder list, Stalin.

But I am never sorry to speak the truth, and no, facts are not political, at least in the USA, and especially not to ethicists.



76 thoughts on “From The “It’s No Fun Being An Ethicist” Files: I Offend Some Seminar Attendees…

  1. I had exactly the same thing happen to me on a blog post when I used some of the Hindu gods in a modestly irreverent way. Some guy called me out in the comments and demanded a retraction. I asked him, in a very polite but pointed way, to locate a large pile of sand, a hammer, and get busy pounding.

    I appreciate your more detailed and reasonable comment in the first case, and in your business, this is, as you say, a very useful case study — not to mention a nice subject for a blog post.

    In the second case, wow. What a tragedy. I confess that I have a blind spot living in the United States with free access to information, and am guilty of sometimes not recognizing that not every country enjoys this.

    Your second message was compassionate and powerful, where I may have been snarky as above. Thanks for making me think more carefully about things like this. If I’m ever faced with a similar situation, I hope I remember this post.

    • Thanks Glenn. I was and am troubled by the second e-mail. Is it ethical to undermine someone’s core beliefs? In this case, I felt I could not with integrity say, “You have your truth and I have mine.” And I really did try to find anyone who disputes that Mao was history’s worst butcher. The major dispute is whether he killed more than 70 million, or “just” 45 or so.

      • I’m cognizant, in the second complaint, of what the guy was saying. Basically, would the ethics change if Mao had publicly stated “Our large population is stretching our resources such that the culture, country and society will not survive. Thus, 65 million of you will have to be randomly chosen to die”? Personally, I’d say no, but I’m open to argument.

      • Jack,

        Do you really not see anything in the tone or wording of either of your messages that might have left the readers less than satisfied with your response?

        In the first, you didn’t even wait until the second sentence to state, unequivocally, that his response “made no sense.” Not “I’m confused by your question” or “Although I realize no comparison is perfect, there is overwhelming evidence that Mao …” or even “What specifically about my characterization of Mao’s death toll did you find offensive?”

        Moreover, in the second, instead of simply keeping with the argument that you might be operating off a different set of facts, you seem to chalk the whole thing up to the historical white-washing by the Chinese government (for all you know he might be a dissenter) and then suggest your views are superior as they’re the result of good-ole US of A freedom. Then (for whatever reason) you accuse him of being part of a larger problem (ignorance is not always the fault of the ignorant) and tell him it’s HIS problem that he’s upset. So, not only have you made it impossible for him to meet you on equal intellectual footing (because he makes no sense), he’s actually a jerk for having said anything in the first place.

        Why invite feedback if you don’t want it? If you invite people to comment on things your write or speeches you give, it’s no fair criticizing what they choose to take issue with. That’s what feedback is, even if you disagree with the assessment. It seems like you’re suggesting you only want feedback that fits into whatever box you would consider “acceptable.”

        Nothing in either letter showed sympathy towards their (incorrect) point of view. You start by emphatically stating they’re wrong (off-putting to anyone, especially in cases where they were just taught wrong) and not even politely so. These emails read like the writings of a pretentious jerk (which you aren’t), not a caring educator (which, I think, you strive to be).


        • “Moreover, in the second, instead of simply keeping with the argument that you might be operating off a different set of facts.”

          Boy, it takes either guts or complete blindness to write that. “Alternative facts”? Seriously?

          The first e-mail didn’t make sense, and I said why. Clearly. There was nothing political in the presentation (I was there, you know), and his assertion was not supported.

          Sometimes when I read comments like this, I wonder if you even read the post before writing. “Nothing in either letter showed sympathy towards their (incorrect) point of view.”

          Really? Funny: I see THIS…

          I am sincerely sorry to learn that you have suffered from this kind of government airbrushing of history. I knew that this occurred in your country, of course, but I have never been this close to it or communicated with an intelligent citizen who has been so victimized. You have my sympathies. I mean that. There is nothing you could do to avoid being so indoctrinated.

          Sounds like sympathy to me!

          • Jack,

            You really don’t see how the person on the receiving end of your sympathy might not take umbrage with your phrasing?

            Imagine: “I’m sincerely sorry to learn that you have suffered under parents who thought the world was created in six days by an old man. I have heard of people being taught this kind nonsense, but I’ve never seen one up close. You have my sympathies for being so ignorant. I really mean that. There was nothing you could have done to keep from being so wrong.”

            I don’t suggest your characterization of the Chinese educational system or the culture that supports it is even a little incorrect, but you’re not going to win over someone who’s been indoctrinated by telling them they’ve been indoctrinated. Your argument is essentially: everyone you’ve known and trusted in a position of authority has taught you wrong. Luckily, I, the wise American ethicist you heard speak for a few hours is here to show you the error of their ways.”

            None of what you wrote, to the person who read it, sounded at all sympathetic, apologetic, or understanding.

            • Jack,

              “”Moreover, in the second, instead of simply keeping with the argument that you might be operating off a different set of facts.”

              Boy, it takes either guts or complete blindness to write that. “Alternative facts”? Seriously?”

              Boy, it must take all your snark to suggest I’m apologizing for Mao apologists. “Alternate facts” are what you call when someone has been indoctrinated. So yes, his facts differ from yours. Your whole letter is from the position of “You’re wrong; I know better. Listen to me.” What kind of inquiring mind would feel welcomed by that message?

              • When one is wrong, deluded, and laboring under the handicap of lies, there is no nice way to correct them. I’m right, you are wrong is what you say. There is no alternative. And facts that are not factual are not facts at all.

              • Jack,

                “… there is no nice way to correct them”

                Simply untrue. People are brought out of cults, pseudoscience, and other suppressive groups all the time and it’s not done by telling them they’ve been brainwashed.

                “You said there was no hint of sympathy.”

                And if I say that I’m sorry for calling your wife a fat, slovenly, bore you have no right to claim there was no “hint” of an apology. Sympathy is nothing without a touch of empathy, but that’s an apparently liberal trait you don’t subscribe to.

                • Bullshit, Neil. Bullshit. Even more bullshit than usual. The empathy was also explicit:

                  “However, I am aware that if I had grown to adulthood in a culture that banged a false history into my head, the truth would be offensive to me as well.”

                  That’s empathy BY DEFINITION. So your accusations in complete disregard for what I did is called “being an asshole” by definition.

                  Your whole argument, in fact qualifies. What utter garbage. Yes, Neil, I’m sure that if given a few months and a 50,000 bucks, I could deprogram this poor sap. Unfortunately, I only have one e-mail to work with, and HE gratuitously accused ME of fucking political propaganda when his brain has been mushed by one of the most oppressive propaganda-wielding totalitarian governments on earth, and said I should apologize for speaking the truth because his damaged cortex couldn’t handle the truth.

                  Since you, like the attendee, are accusing me of wrongdoing by asserting false facts, you can join him in the outhouse. I don’t want to hear from you on this thread any further.. Think up contrived complaints elsewhere.

                    • Petulant and nasty comment. You were called on lazy arguments and false representations, had no defense, and the ethical thing to do was to say, “I’m sorry.”

                      See you on March 14. You are suspended. I’m disappointed in you.

  2. I felt offended by your comparison of Lord Vader to Hitler. This comparison shows your ignorance in Galactic history and it’s really inappropriate. I’ve listed my points below.

    1 Tarkin gave the order to destroy Alderaan.

    2 For the number of people who died abnormally by Vader’s hand, is still controversial. Many of the large number estimations are based on unrealistic hypotheses like the personhood of droids or gungans,

  3. An inconvenient truth: Yes, Chairman Mao murdered more people than Hitler and Stalin but his portrait is proudly displayed in Tienamen Square. I don’t think there are any portraits of Stalin publicly displayed in Red Square. I guess you can blame the Cultural Revolution on the Gang of Four but that’s more than a little disengenious eh?

      • So we’ve got that going for us? I find the Yale air brushing more upsetting than Chinese being brainwashed. That’s their problem. Yale is our problem. Christ Almighty. Those kids at Yale right now will be running the media in ten or twenty years.

                  • Thank you, OB. I needed that. I also thank you for giving me an opportunity to launch into the following:

                    The honorific “San” should be attached to the last name, as was done with Mr. Marshall’s name. Thus, I would be “Dragon-San”, or more accurately, since I am a mere apprentice to a Master, Mr. Marshall, “Dragon-Sama”.

                    Seriously, the “Dragin” came about years ago, when I was required to pick an e-mail where I was working. I didn’t want to go with “Draging-dragon, so I tried Dragin’_dragon” This was in a slightly more primitive era, DOS to be specific, and the software would not allow the apostrophe; thus, ‘dragin_dragon’. What all this has to do with Jack’s post, I cannot fathom, but I have been wanting to explain that for years. Thanks, again.

  4. I guessed incorrectly that someone from China might have been triggered by the mention of Mao. Turns out Inwas exactly wrong.

    In a college English class, I had a professor who not-so-subtlety promoted Marxism. He was absolutely reamed by a sweet old Chinese lady student who politely but frustratedly explained the atrocities she and her husband had escaped from. When the professor tried to retreat to the “maybe they weren’t accurately following Marx” argument, she refuted that too, using her own experiences. Children turning in their parents to the government; students indoctrinated by Marxist principles using his writings as their scripture.

    I can assure you that for every Chinese person with a nationalistic urge to defend Mao, there’s a survivor (or child or grandchild of a survivor) of Mao’s reign of terror who appreciates your truth-telling.

    • One quickly recognizes that the Prime Rationalization for hyper socialists is the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, since the prime argument against hyper socialism is “just friggin open your eyes and look at what happens Every. Single. Time.”

  5. Great post, Jack. I suppose that it’s impossible not to offend someone by using examples of conduct that is not, shall we say, ethically aspirational. Another story from the trenches: for many years, I taught [mostly] undergraduates at a college here in Chicago. To ilustrate the differences between utilitarian/teleological and deontological ethical theories, I developed a discussion hypothetical: say you’re a pilot who specializes in flying people over the Great Lakes. A passenger books passage, you explain the risks, he says “if I die in transit or upon a crash, think about whether you will make a sacred promise to me: I’ve got a prized collection of orchids, and have a secret bank account of $75,000 to care for them, and I’ll give you access to that account if and only if you use that $ to care for the orchids.” You think about it, and agree, then crash-land in a squall over Lake Superior, and he of course dies, but now you know where his orchid $ is. Then your 9 year old niece is diagnosed with a disease that requires a liver transplant, but her parents are unemployed and uninsured, and she’ll die without the operation, and the surgery would cost $75k, etc. Can you ethically use the $75k to fund the surgery, or is a promise a promise? The better students would think creatively and find a way for you to do both, but one student, a young woman, stood up in class, accused me of advocating child murder, and how could I call myself an ethicist, etc. I did not stop using the hypo. I suppose the lesson is that, alas, there are some people who have very little imagination and are looking to be offended. It’s just sad when those people are students in a classroom.

    • Love the hypothetical, Steve, and your account brought back bad memories. Like the time I did a legal ethics hypothetical I performed as a parody of a film noir 40’s detective movie, with the private eye ( a lawyer in the parody) narrating as a jazz sax played in the background, as in..

      The client lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air. “I’ve got a recording you need to listen to, counselor,” she said..

      One attendee (out of 160) complained that this was demeaning to women.

  6. Slightly nitpicky, but since you mentioned anonymity of location, you shpuld delete the institution name listed in the guy’s second email
    “… very inappropriate to bring these personal political view to …”

  7. Having visited both China and Cuba recently both countries have commercialized both Mao and Che. A strange bit of capitalism. I have not seen similar attempts in Russia or Germany regarding their “gifts” to the world.

  8. Having lived in China for five years and taught at various institutions, I feel I have a somewhat unique perspective on this issue. When you say he has been given an “Airbrush account of history” that is quite an understatement. In some places such as Shaoshan (Mao’s hometown) he is worshiped. While communism did some great things for China (this is not a rationalization, just leading up to a point) history shows that they are easily overshadowed by the terrible things that happened there. Their history only reports the good things with the unavoidable ones being mentioned as “mistakes.” In places where he is not worshiped he is treated as we would treat Lincoln or Washington. Given that level or reverence It would be hard pressed to take any attack on Mao as a personal attack. China is very nationalistic

    At the very least in the United States we have the freedom to explore opposing view points. While living there I always wanted to check to see what they could learn about Mao but was too afraid because of the “Great Firewall of China.” As an expat we were told to not talk about the three Ts (Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan).

    Anyway, I don’t excuse his unethical position, but sympathize with his upbring and worldview. Ignorance cannot excuse his position (especially now that he is United States) but while he was in China I do think he could be blamed for it.

    If you are interested there is a good book called Wild Swans by Jung Chang. It is an autobiography/biography about three generations of women who grew up in China between 1930-1980. I heard it was banned in China, but I am not sure if that is the case anymore. I think it is interesting to note the role youth play in the Mao’s revolution. The same thing could be said about Hitler, Stalin, and (at least in my ever growing opinion) the democratic party today.

  9. A lot of nations were built on facts that are not comfortable to face, leave alone talk about. Some justify them, some criminalize them. What you can’t do is try to discuss any of these uncomfortable facts with them, and it’s not even worth trying. The Armenian genocide is historical fact to everyone except the Turks. However, even mention it in Turkey and you draw two years in prison for the crime of “insulting Turkishness.” Don’t even try to have a rational discussion with an Irish American about the whole question of the IRA, it is likely to end with you getting very badly hurt.

    Sometimes you just have to take the truth and walk away, unless you are prepared to actually fight to defend it.

        • Yes, I tire of constantly reminding people that pre-Columbian America was no grand utopia. It was just a weird Post-Stone Age culture, with Bronze Age ethics engaging in a perpetual city-less city-state conflict (except in the few instances where city-oriented cultures did temporarily rise…then it was just typical Bronze-Age city-state fare).

          The only thing that kept any one group from completely dominating and exterminating/absorbing the rest is they were all equally yoked with the same primitive technology.

          When Europeans arrived with Guns, Horses and vastly superior war-making organizations, they were just another Tribe on the horizon in the view of the native Americans. Just a tribe that showed up with the cheat-codes. It was literally inevitable in that balance that the “new tribe” was going to dominate in any conflict that arose.

          But of course, that doesn’t make it right in the instances that the superlatively advanced Tribe started some of the conflicts.

  10. My employer has expanded greatly into China and India. We have a steady stream of L visas (internal company transfers) and temporary visits.
    Your experience with talking about Mao has been the norm for me. For many, he is highly revered there and they do not accept that he is the world’s largest killer. I do wonder how much they do look when they have the chance to view the internet outside the great firewall. My experience is that most just consider it Western propaganda rather than truth.

  11. I am honestly amazed at your insensitivity and the courtesy of your correspondents.

    Your suggestion that the second writer must have been brainwashed will sadly have reinforced many negative stereotypes of western arrogance, rudeness, insularity and ignorance.

    How can being so offensive work for you, and your mission to make us all better human beings? Is being confrontational part of your teaching method? It doesn’t work for me, and would have embarrassed me massively if I’d invited you to talk to my colleagues.

    It might well be useful to consider the history of leaders associated with mass slaughter, their roles and responsibilities. If you want more than knee jerk reactions however I suggest you consider a wider range to demonstrate your balance, and steer clear of unnecessarily upsetting your audience.

    • … pointing out that someone has been brainwashed and is relying on false information, because their country deliberately cuts them off from access to other views, is Jack being insular? You have a rather novel way of defining that word.

      As to the rest… I can’t speak for Jack’s teaching method, but in my experience, it’d make sense that being confrontational was part of it. All the best teachers I’ve known have been happy to confront those they were teaching. Perhaps because that makes you have to THINK about what you’re saying, and the positions you’re trying to defend, instead of just regurgitating the opinions you’ve heard from others. Perhaps because confrontation is more memorable, and so the lessons are more likely to be retained than when they just platitudinous droning.

        • I dunno about that, Jack. But, go ahead, go to Turkey and say that the three pashas were mass murderers and that Ataturk looked the other way on ethnic purges. Go to Paraguay and call Francisco Lopez out for the mass murderer and warmonger that he was. Go to Paris and speak ill of Napoleon or Charles de Gaulle. Go to Dublin and say that Michael Collins was a terrorist and assassin. I’ll wait here, if you make it back alive.

          • Context matters.

            Also, does the threat of a group of people behaving violently in reaction to ethical conduct somehow make that ethical conduct unethical?

            No. It doesn’t.

            It may make it unwise and may hint at seeking a more appropriate means of achieving the ethical ends, but not *necessarily*. If the ethics option is the ONLY option, or if failure to act in a particular was is unethical in and of itself, the near guaranteed violence can be damned. The ethical must be ethical.

            Your objections are grossly out of context to this discussion.

            • Oh no, no one’s saying it’s unethical to tell the truth. I’m just saying that sometimes pride and anger are stronger than ethics. That’s why I swore an oath never to let anyone shout me down in a discussion, no matter how passionate they may be, if they are wrong.

    • I sincerely don’t understand how your brain works, or how anyone can reason like this. We are talking about not only adults, but also alleged scholars. First, as I pointed out, it never occurred to me that the Asian-Americans I saw in the room might be offended by a well-accepted historical fact. The attendees I offend, as I said to the first writer, have their own problems, and the fact that they are offended by facts proves it. The best I can do to help them is to make them do what they are supposed to do: find the truth. Helping them deal with it not my problem.

      Third, they deserve to be told how wrong they are. Their ignorance is embarrassing. They maintained that choosing to state fact is “political.” There was no political content whatsoever. This was an effort to assert that the fact wasn’t a fact, just a reflection of my bias. And that I was supposed to apologize for it! Bull Shit. There is nothing kind, or respectful, or right to accept a reprimand for doing something right, from someone who is unequivocally wrong,

      Fourth, what “western arrogance”? A scholar has been lied to and believes that a mass murderer is a great man. It’s not arrogance to 1) believe that the truth is the truth, and that 2) any educated adult has a right to know it. My response was not rudeness. Rudeness would have been to write, “You’re ridiculous: do you really not know the established proclivities of your own nation and its ideology? Do you believe in Santaa Claus too? Would it be political if I made a joke about the tooth fairy?” insularity? Gee, I’m so insular that I assumed that an adult knew the history of his own country, and was a propaganda tool. I guess I won’t make that mistake again with someone from China. Don’t want to appear “insular” or anything. And “ignorance”: honestly, Andrew, what the hell’s wrong with you? These guys relied on their ignorance to attack me. Ignorant? That’s like a creationist listening to a paleontologist and thinking, “Boy, didn’t this guy go to school?”
      Finally, your last paragraph is signature significance for ethical confusion. The man murdered 45-70 MILLION people, and you think I should try to see things from HIS side. Wow. I am not an absolutist, but yes, it is absolutely unethical to kill 70 million innocent people in your own nation.

      Finally, my method is overwhelmingly popular and gets the highest participant ratings across the board of any ethics trainer or ethicist. How do I know this? I know this because a majority give me the highest ratings possible, and many, many write that ethics is always boring and my approach is the first they encountered that wasn’t There are a couple outliers in ever large group: “Humor is not appropriate in this serious topic,” “You seemed to call on more men than women,” or “How dare you criticize my favorite mass murderer, who was really a great guy.” So your brilliant advice is to water down what works and teaches to avoid upsetting the outliers. Good thinking, Andrew.

      • Jack, keep offending and confronting with the truth. Lies win earliest and most often, but truth (the WHOLE truth) wins in the end. Meanwhile don’t say a word about MLK’s philandering, or else, “RAAAAAACIST!”

      • But was it really a question of seeing it from Mao’s side? People who venerate Mao, the outliers, won’t absorb your lesson, won’t absorb anything once they’ve been put on the defensive. Now that you know that, you know that using Mao as an example will cause you to tank with certain audiences. Since the topic is ethics, not specific 20’th century mass-murders you could easily swap in, say, Genghis Khan and still get through.

        The confrontation about Mao could then come later, after the seed had been planted.

        You wouldn’t open a lecture to the Andrew Jackson fan club with the Trail of Tears, or the federation of Mormon cheesemakers with the Mountains Meadow Massacre, or the State of South Carolina Star Wars Society with Greedo shot first (though of course he didn’t that’s stupid Han shot first, that’s the only way it makes sense.)

        It’s not watering down what works because it didn’t work in this case. What works really does depend on your audience.

            • As long as you’re consistent on this, that for Jack to ingratiate himself to neo-nazis, he should avoid discussing the mass murders coordinated by Hitler, then I’m fine with your assertion.

              Though, I think it infantilizes people, to a degree. If they are going to get huffy about their hero’s mass murdering foibles are they really receptive to ethics anyway?

              • That’s getting way philosophical. They’re humans, they have some concept of the idea. They have a way of figuring out the why for actions and attitudes, they prioritize, they think there are things that are right and things that are wrong. Theoretically you could either Socratic your way down to the bottom and work your way back out to a different conclusion if you can keep them from refusing to listen.

                A lot of ifs. A better question would be if it’s worthwhile to try to teach Jack’s ethics to neo-nazis?

                I operate under the assumption that Jack would want to teach the lesson and then apply it. And with Mao and killing he’s applying it before he teaches it. He’s got to get past the Alarm Blockers if he wants to be heard. Then he could work through the rationalizations list 3, 11, 13A, 19A, 21A, 26, 28, 31, 34, and 37, shades of all of that in defense of Mao.

  12. I am not a Mao expert, but my limited understanding of the man is that many millions in the death number attributed to him were as a result of his dramatic and poorly planned/executed agricultural policies. (I think there was at least one environmental disaster that contributed to the famine as well.) So to say these people were “murdered” may be inaccurate. I don’t know the number of people that Mao sent to forced labor camps and had executed, although I assume it’s high. I don’t know the rankings between him, Stalin, and Hitler regarding labor camps/executions, but my gut tells me that Stalin wins that grim prize.

    • It’s a fine point: if a leader purges all the people who tell him doing X will cause mass hunger, starvation,and cannibalism, and he does X anyway, is that murder? We would call it negligent homicide. China admits to 16 million deaths from this “mistake” (you wonder how China got the rep of not valuing human life?); Western historians and escaped Chinese dissidents say about 30 million.

      Then there was the OTHER 30 million.

  13. “He’s got to get past the Alarm Blockers if he wants to be heard.”
    There are so many “alarm blockers” that it would be impossible to speak if we had to consider everything that might possibly set someone off. Frankly, I can’t believe how civil Jack was. I’m fed up with all the “I’m offended” nonsense. Grown up people should be able to either control their emotions or present an argument.

  14. My experience is that the perception of bias blocks communication. Bias may make me stupid but if I think you are seriosly biased I will stop listening: or more likely just listen for ‘gotcha!’ points. So if one wants to educate or influence then it is well worth considering sensitivities. Discussion around the difference between a leader killing his own people – to whom he might have some responsibilities of care – and massacring foreigners (who maybe have no rights) plus traditional rape and pillage, might well be useful. Then perhaps one might consider the difference between directly murdering your fellow citizens, and reckless misadministration leading to mass starvation. Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot are all relevant. But if you want to demonstrate balance, and possibly provoke useful contemplation, you might also consider the slaughter in the American Civil War, and the responsibilities Abraham Lincoln and others might have for it.

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