Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/27/18: “Mrs. Miniver” Ethics, “Ick!,” And A Poll

Rugby in the morning

1 One of my favorite Hollywood ethics scenes. I watched “Mrs. Miniver” again last night, the 1942 WWII drama starring the magnificent Greer Garson. It has a wonderful ethics moment late in the film, when Lady Beldon, the wealthy town battleaxe (and the grandmother Mrs. Miniver’s recently minted daughter-in-law, soon to die tragically) presides over the English village’s annual flower show, in which she has won the coveted “Best Rose” prize every year. But beloved old stationmaster Mr. Ballard has developed a magnificent new rose (named after Garson’s character) and desperately wants to win as well. The Minivers tease their elderly relative about the near certainty that she will win as always regardless of the relative merits of her entry and “The Miniver” entered by Mr. Ballard, since the judges are terrified of her, and Lady Beldon has made it clear to all that she regards the annual prize as a virtual entitlement. After all, the prize is even called “The Beldon Challenge Cup.” Sure enough, the judges, who seemed to be having a harder time than usual concluding that Lady Beldon’s rose deserved the award, hand her a slip that places her rose in first place, and Mr. Ballard’s in second.

Lady Beldon shows the slip to Mrs. Miniver with an air of triumph.

MINIVER: This is really important to you, isn’t it?

LADY BELDON: Yes. It’s stupid of me, but there it is. I’ve won that cup for as long as I can remember.

MINIVER: Mr. Ballard’s terribly keen too.

BELDON: Well, he’s had his chance. Hasn’t he? You have such a way of looking at people. What do you expect me to do? Reverse the judges’ decision?

MINIVER: I wouldn’t put it past you. If you happened to disagree with it.

“But I don’t!” she harrumphs. She keeps looking at the two competing roses, though, and also at old Mr. Ballard (played by Henry Traverse, later to portray Clarence the Wingless Angel”in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His look of anticipation and hope approximately mirrors the expression of a six-year-old on Christmas morning. And when it comes time to announce the winner, Lady Ballard pauses, looks at the two roses again, ponders,  crumples up the judges’ slip, and announces that “The Miniver” wins the prize.

Dame May Witty, one of the best character actors England ever produced, shows us with her face that she realizes she did the right thing as soon as she sees Ballard’s reaction to winning. And the assembled crowd gives her an even louder ovation than they give the winner. They didn’t even have to see the slip like the Minivers: they know what she did. And she knows they know.

I had a Lady Beldon moment many years ago, before I had even seen the movie.

I was casting a Georgetown Law Center community production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe.” This was the third production I had directed as a student there. Auditions included many students, spouses and some employees who were veterans of the previous shows, but also some impressive new talent. While I wanted to give preference to my loyal returnees, many of them friends, the quality of the production was my top priority, as it always is. One young woman, a secretary in the Registrar’s office, had been in the previous years’ shows. She had little to offer except enthusiasm and dedication: her singing ability was negligible, but the pool in those years wasn’t very competitive. This year it was. I knew that the secretary regarded the shows as the highlight of her year, and her only real social life; she was a very shy, plain young woman.

When did the casting, the last slot in the women’s chorus came down to either the secretary or the spouse of a first year student who happened to be a former college classmate and friend. My friend’s wife was more attractive, younger and could sing and dance competently, though it was clear to me that she was auditioning as a lark. Nonetheless, she was a better performer, and I reluctantly cast her instead of the secretary.

The practice I followed was to post the result of auditions on a bulletin board at the Law Center. As I walked to class that morning, I kept going over the casting decision in my mind. The secretary would be the only previous cast member from the two earlier shows to be rejected for this one. My friend’s wife would be an upgrade, but hardly a measurable one, and there was no doubt that her disappointment if she wasn’t cast would be short-lived and quickly healed. Moreover, this wasn’t Broadway, or even a professional production. I started the theater company as a way to bring the law school community together and make it a happier place.

At the last minute, I turned around, walked back to my house, and retyped the cast list with the secretary’s name in place of my friend’s wife. When I reached the bulletin board, the secretary was waiting there, desperate to see if she made the cast…and her expression was exactly like Mr. Ballard’s. I silently posted the list, and left, but secretly watched her reaction from behind a pillar. She ran up and looked for her name. When she saw it, she literally jumped in the air, let out a cry of pure joy, and ran beaming back to her job.

I felt like I had narrowly missed being hit by a truck. That was a close one.

2. Ick Alert! News Item:

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – A Philadelphia 4-year-old is being called a “superhero” after he was a match to donate life-saving bone marrow to his twin baby brothers. Michael Pownall’s 4-month-old twin brothers, Santino and Giovanni, have chronic granulomatous disease, which is diagnosed in one in 500,000 people every year. He will undergo the transplant to save his brothers in two weeks,

“He’s just like I’m a real-life superhero. He says I’m going to save my baby brothers,” their mother Robin Pownall told WTXF.

There is no way a four-year old can give meaningful and informed consent to such a procedure. On the other hand, his parents have the legal power to consent for him, and surely any parents in a similar situation would. But the scenario reminds me of a troubling TV drama I saw many years ago, about parents who had a child for the sole purpose of using her to donate bone marrow over the entire course of her life to keep her chronically ill brother alive.


3. Today’s Poll: Am I too cynical? I got in an argument with my wife after we saw and old “Law and Order SVU’ episode in which a cop discovered an old trunk in a basement with the ancient corpse of a gangster. The trunk contained millions of dollars in packs of C-notes. The fictional officer properly called in his discovery, and I opined that a lot of officers would take at least some of the cash, since there was virtually no way to get caught. My wife was shocked that I would have such a cynical view of law enforcement and humanity in general.

Today I learned that the Central National Bank in Wichita, Kansas, has filed a lawsuit against Christina C. Ochoa, whom they say repeatedly withdrew cash from a faulty ATM that was dispensing hundred dollar bills rather than fives.  The bank says Ochoa took out $11,607.36. Ochoa denies taking the money, but it certainly is suspicious that the bank has records  of 38 withdrawals made by Ochoa, between midnight and 4:08 a.m.

Of course, she’s an idiot: this kind of thing is always discovered. Your poll:

The results of the polls on 2/24:

  • Regarding the man who adopted a rescued pet pig only to eat it: Slightly more than 50% voted that the act was a horrible betrayal and should be a crime. Slightly less than 50% were not overly troubled by the episode.
  • On the question of whether President Trumps’s verbiage at CPAC was a white power dog whistle, about 75% voted that it either was not, or that there was no way to tell. None of the 120 votes were registered for the position that it was unequivocally a white power sentiment.

4. Vegas shooting? What Vegas shooting?  At the Daily Wire, Matt Walsh asks why the Las Vegas Strip shooting, in which there were 58 fatalities and 422 injuries, didn’t spark anything close to the media and anti-gun frenzy that the Parkland shooting has.

“The media is so obsessed with Parkland that several of its survivors are now practically household names. Does anyone remember the names of a single one of the Las Vegas survivors? Did any of them do media tours? Did CNN hold a “town hall” about Las Vegas? Was there an extensive conversation about potential law enforcement failures in Las Vegas, as there has been about their failures in Florida?…You might speculate that the media has found Parkland to be more politically useful due to the anti-gun activism from some of the survivors. You might speculate that the media simply had less sympathy for the Vegas victims because they were white country music fans. You might speculate that there are some very powerful forces — Vegas hotels and casinos, namely — interested in burying the Vegas shooting. You might speculate that the unanswered questions just made the story too difficult for our lazy and apathetic society to track. You might come up with a more conspiratorial explanation than any of these I’ve listed.”

I think Walsh is being coy. Isn’t the answer obvious? The news media and the anti-gun activists know that “Think of the children!” is one of the strongest appeals to emotion that there is. Thus the tactical choice was made to exploit this tragedy for all it’s worth, even though in the Parkland case, existing laws and systems would have prevented the episode if they had been followed competently, while the Vegas shooting is exactly the kind of inexplicable scenario that nothing short of gun-banning and confiscation could have even a slim  chance of preventing.

29 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/27/18: “Mrs. Miniver” Ethics, “Ick!,” And A Poll

  1. I just want to know how she got the $7.36 out of the ATM…of course…I think the real story here is that there’s an ATM that dispenses $5 bills. I thought it was all in $20s in every ATM.

  2. Regarding “Parkland not Vegas”, I agree with Jack’s reasons, but also, there’s more at stake in Florida. Florida is one of those anomalies in the country where you would expect with their multiple urban centers that it would be a blue state, but it usually squeaks out a victory to Republicans. It’s consistently on the verge of flipping blue in elections. For 29 electoral votes, I think those with a leftward slant see this as a goldmine.

    They’re also supported by the vocal students of the school who want the attention and want to (exploit / utilize) the exposure to push a narrative. If the students welcome your presence and they can continue to feed you content to air / publish, I suppose you stick around and fill the time.

    Vegas on the other hand, involved probably a lot of tourists. They all dispersed to various locations across the nation. Most of them adults, they probably wanted to get back to normalcy, which they could do since they weren’t attacked in their home and their daily routine. Even with Aurora Theater, those people were able to not go back to that theater. Also with Vegas, even if the media was concerned with Nevada’s 6 electoral votes, it pretty reliably goes blue anyway.

  3. If I recall correctly, the flower show plot was cribbed for an episode of “Downton Abbey” where Maggie Smith’s Lady Grantham wins every year and believes she’s winning on merit when it’s really just because she’s Lady Grantham. Mr. Moseley’s father enters the contest and, when Maggie sees she’s won, she instead announces him as the winner instead. I kept waiting for the judges to call out…”Um…Your Ladyship?”

  4. I attend loss prevention seminars every now and again, and invariably there will be a question about theft.

    Generally, if you can prevent loss in your receiving bay, you can basically ignore external theft and still be better off, which is why I’m always annoyed that so much focus is spent on theft, but there’s some kind of visceral joy in catching a thief, so some attention will always remain there.

    Regardless. Your question has been asked before… And the answer we were given was basically four-fifths; About 20% of people are morally opposed to theft and will never steal. That seems low, but a surprising number of people don’t live up to their own high expectations. Conversely, about 20% of people will steal whatever isn’t nailed down, that seems high, but only until you think about it outside the realm of cash: grazing, office supplies, time… ect. The remaining three fifths of people are part of a spectrum that could be loosely characterized as situationally or opportunistically dishonest: from people who are generally honest, but are also desperate and hungry, to people who don’t really need it, but the stuff is right there, they’ll never get caught, and where’s the harm?

    • but there’s some kind of visceral joy in catching a thief, so some attention will always remain there.

      This is 100% true. I worked retail for about ten years, and several years as a teller at a bank. In both businesses, people would put minimum required effort into the various loss prevention techniques and best practices, but as soon as someone spotted a real live shoplifter or a teller spotted a bad check, suddenly every employee in the building was Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys.

    • Don’t forget psychological priming and social proof. If they were recently reminded of a moral code they claim to subscribe to or moral character traits they identify with, people are less likely to steal. Likewise, if they see people around them demonstrating honest behavior, they’re less likely to engage in dishonest acts. The inverse is also true. Those factors have an influence comparable to that of desperation.

  5. 3- Perhaps due to my deeply ingrained Kraut/Mick frugality, but I’ve never made an ATM withdrawal.

    I’ve always anticipated my cash needs and proceeded accordingly. Matter-a-fact, I’ve got 5 C-Notes and an Andy Jackson affixed to one of my bulletin boards; call it my…um…pin money.

    As far as any large amount of untraceable dough re mi? Any I did withhold would be donated to the Committee to Advance Schlecht Heritage, made out to its acronym.

  6. On the issue of theft:

    Before deciding to go to law school, I studied Philosophy in graduate school. I was out with several classmates one night for dinner. The bill came and everyone tried to figure out what they owed. I noticed that an appetizer had been left off the tab. No one wanted to bring it up to the server. I insisted because, if they had charged me for something I did not get, I would certainly bring that up. over their protests, I notified the server. They were upset. I told them that I would pay for the whole appetizer if they had a problem with that. A few reluctantly agreed to pitch in. In the end, the server might have even comped it for us, I forget.

    But, I looked at them and thought, “these are going to be my colleagues for the rest of my life.” Sure, they may not have been Kantians, but dishonest to boot. So, I made the step up to Law School!

    Faced with $10,000.00 or $1 Million, I would hope that my response would be similar.


  7. With the poll question I think the answer would change depending on if we are talking about a bank or individual. I think a higher percentage would take it from a bank but not an individual.

  8. On point 3
    On one occasion years ago I went to my usual ATM and my balance showed about $11,000,000. Knowing that it should have been maybe $11 I went in and informed the bank. This is not a testament to my honesty but more of an understanding that being dishonest and exploiting the situation would cause me big problems when they figure out the error. Still I hope I would refrain from keeping substantial amounts of found money even if I knew no one would be the wiser.

  9. 1) In the movie, the less qualified but perennial winner ultimately surrendered the prize to the far more qualified entry, but in your play the less qualified but perennial winner received the role after initially not receiving it when a more qualified entry was to receive it…the only commonality between the more qualified movie entry who initially lost but then won and the less qualified play entry who initially lost but then won was that they really really wanted to win?

    • (Though, I think the ethical considerations are slightly different in the real-life play than the movie…though the perennial winner of the role in your play was slightly less qualified than the new challenger in terms of talent, she adds to her qualifications: loyalty and reliability. Who is to say that snubbing her for the better talent doesn’t mean the next year the better talent moves on and the snubbed but formerly loyal player decides it’s no longer worth her loyalty, and now you are out a player)

  10. I understand that there is a lack of media for the Las Vegas shooting, but are you trying to undermine the impact and stories told by the Douglas High School shooting?

    • Of course not, this commentary doesn’t fall under the category of debating what can be done about mass casualty violence…it falls under the category of “maybe-just-maybe the gun grabbers are less concerned with actual mass casualty violence and are more concerned with latching onto anything that will advance a gun grabbing agenda.”

      • “maybe-just-maybe the gun grabbers are less concerned with actual mass casualty violence and are more concerned with latching onto anything that will advance a gun grabbing agenda.”

        I think this is evidenced by their push to use this to advance anti-gun agenda items that didn’t factor into this incident at all…Things like banning bumpstocks and stopping concealed carry reciprocity. Even raising the purchase age to 21 is just something that addresses a fact in this case that is not particularly pertinent to the cause of the crime.

  11. Douglas, Mr West, Mr. Marshall, and other Ethics Alarms’ Commentators:

    First of all, I apologize if I am posting this in a thread that may not be the most relevant. Given the nature of item #4 and Mr. West’s reply to Douglas (“…latching onto anything that will advance a gun-grabbing agenda”), I wanted to pose a question regarding the millennial movement against gun violence that has swept the nation, consumed the media, and unified students country-wide, including the school where I work.

    The namesake for our school, Patrick Henry, which is undergoing a face lift, this week unveiled a new statue of Patrick Henry (see ), complete with musket. Many students – and some teachers – have raised objections because Patrick Henry is portrayed holding a gun.

    Douglas – to whom you responded earlier to day Mr. West – has expressed his dissatisfaction with the portrayal, stating that our school could have communicated Patrick Henry’s service to our country without the musket, perhaps using a flag,

    What say you? Is this reasonable? Are students wrapped up in the media hype?

    (While I have an idea of how some of you will respond, I think it is important for Douglas – and other young people – to hear other sides here).

    Mr. Marshall, please forgive me if this is not an appropriate place to post this.

    With respect,

    Andrew Myette

    • “Are students wrapped up in the media hype?”

      To put it bluntly, yes, they are, literally (in the true sense), the very epitome of “useful idiots”. Their responses are driven by emotion and impulse, not necessarily rational thought. I’m sure, as a teacher, you are familiar with some variety of THIS information.

      • Yes, quite a bit – the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop, in some people, until 25. My student, Douglas, was hoping to get a response, so I posed some questions to generate some dialogue. The Patrick Henry statue has generated quite a buzz at our school.

        Appreciate the response!


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