Afternoon Ethics Flotsam And Jetsam, 9/16/2019: Ethics Movies, Clowns And Harvard Professors

…As I prep for a CLE road trip…

1. I finally saw “Doubt,” the film adaptation of the John Patrick Shanley stage drama about a parish priest suspected of child abuse. It’s an ethics film, and unlike many ethics films, made a profit at the box office.

I had seen the play on stage, and found it didactic and contrived; the film did not, I’m sure because the cast was so excellent. Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the priest were all wonderful, especially Davis, whose single scene in which she runs down a series of desperate arguments and rationalizations to justify allowing her son to be molested—maybe—is an ethics cornucopia. Unlike the stage production I saw, the movie benefits by having its protagonists appear less sympathetic than its apparent villain.

This goes on the ethics movie list, which is due for an update.

2.  Yet another ethics movie of more recent vintage is 2019’s “The Challenger Disaster,” a fictionalized recounting of how the decision was made to allow the doomed space shuttle to launch despite the warnings of Morton Thiokol engineers.  I wrote about this depressing ethics case study here , in a tribute to the primary Cassandra in the tragedy, Roger Boisjoly, and here,  about his troubled colleague, Bob Ebeling. The film’s hero appears to be an amalgam of the two. Here is an excerpt from a review on The Engineering Ethics Blog:

Even if you are pretty familiar with the basics of the story, as I was, the film is almost agonizing to watch as the launch time draws closer….The focus is always on Adam [the fictional hybrid of the engineers opposing the launch]: his belief going in that the truth is always a sufficient argument (it’s not, as it turns out), his doubts that he’s done enough to stop the launch, and his retrospective descriptions of what went on in the hours leading up to the launch…. the generally underlit atmosphere symbolizes Adam’s darkening mood as the critical conference call comes and goes, and the decision is made to launch. After Adam drives home that evening, he just sits out in the driveway in his car until his wife comes and gets into the seat beside him. …Later, during the  hearings that Adam and his fellow engineers attend, they come forward out of the audience and interrupt the proceedings after they hear a Morton-Thiokol manager lie about his knowledge of the seal problem. After the hearing, a sympathetic commission member finds Adam and reassures him that there are whistleblowing laws to protect him from repercussions of his testimony.

While it is never good to kick a man while he is down, I wish the film had taken time to show in more detail the intensity of the ostracism that forced the real-life Boisjoly to resign from Morton-Thiokol after his participation in the hearings made him persona non grata at work. … Boisjoly made a new career out of giving talks to engineering students about his experiences. …For a complex, historically accurate, and thought-provoking take on the Challenger disaster, I cannot think of a better medium than “The Challenger Disaster”  for conveying the seriousness of the emotion-laden decisions that have to be made at critical times. It is not a fun movie, but it’s a good one. And I hope it does well in video-on-demand release, because engineers need to see it.

Also lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, military officers, government officials, journalists, students…

3.  Here’s an example of why, when I hear the reflex argument that the U.S. must be in the wrong because its laws or policies are different from “other civilized nations,” my standard response is “So what?”

The nice HR professionals of New Zealand apparently allow corporate staffers facing termination to bring an “emotional support” person to the fateful meeting. When a New Zealand ad man received notification that he was to attend such a meeting and informed that he could bring along someone for emotional support, he brought an emotional support clown. The New Zealand Herald reports that the clown blew up balloons and folded them into a series of animals throughout the meeting, and mimed crying when the redundancy paperwork was handed over to the staffer.

Is allowing this foolishness considered a “reasonable accommodation” for emotionally fragile employees in the U.S.?


I’m trying to decide which of the Democratic Presidential candidates would support such a practice. Marianne Williamson for sure.

4. The planned White House initiative to ban flavored e-cigarettes despite having no evidence whatsoever of health risks reflects this President’s own biases. Trump doesn’t smoke, use recreational drugs or drink alcohol (much like me). Such a regulation is contrary to his usual libertarian stance, but his contempt for smoking overrides principle.

The reason given—that flavored e-cigarettes may encourage teens to move on to more dangerous vaping products—is a terrible argument for putting companies like Juul out of business, and eliminating what may be a life-saving smoking cessation aid for addicted tobacco users who have found nothing else works.

5. The incomprehensible Prof. Lessig. As some might recall from 2016, I am not a fan of Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, and the more I learn about him, the less of a fan I am. Recently he took flack from sources other than me for defending non-profit organizations that accept donations from unsavory characters like Jeffrey Epstein, in the perpetual “dirty money” debate, which I most recently discussed here, and  in these  older posts. The short summary of the Ethics Alarms position: it’s a crock. Unless the money itself was stolen or earned through illegal activities, money is money, and who donates it shouldn’t matter. What matters ethically is what the money can accomplish. It is a purely utilitarian calculation.

However, if I had first read Lessig’s arguments, if you can call them that, for why Epstein’s donations to the MIT Media Lab should have been accepted, and that it was appropriate not to reveal their source, I might feel differently.  That is, his arguments for taking “tainted money” are so poor, I might have had to switch sides.

Below are his responses when he was interviewed on the topic, after the mostly negative an essay Lessig wrote defending his friend Joichi Ito, the director of the Media Lab, who solicited and accepted Epstein’s money. Count the rationalizations. Count the homina homina Ralph Kramden moments…

Why did you write your essay?

Lessig: We are in a place where, in some sense, we’ve lost the ability to do any thinking about complicated problems. Most of the important problems in the world are complex. If you can’t engage about complex problems in a balanced way, how do we solve them?

But is this really that complicated?

Lessig: Joi seems to me to have genuinely believed, after doing really extensive due diligence, that the guy was terrified of the world coming down on top of him if he crossed the line — that he wasn’t going to cross the line of pedophilia. Now, that doesn’t mean he was going to get into a monogamous relationship with a 45-year-old woman for the rest of his life, but it was plausible that he was not going to be sleeping with — trying to seduce — 16-year-olds and 14-year-olds. And then on the basis of that judgment, Joi continues to work with M.I.T. to bring in money that’s not going to be identified. Because it’s not identified, he’s not whitewashing Epstein’s reputation with M.I.T. That seems to be a virtue, not a vice.

Why do you think Epstein was donating to the Media Lab?

Lessig: What I’m sure of is that he wasn’t donating for the reasons that the Kochs give money. It’s not like he benefited from the science going one way or the other.

O.K., but why was Epstein donating?

Lessig: When Joi would recount who he was, I think Epstein genuinely had an interest in certain science and wanted certain science to be advanced. I think he wanted to be close to the advancement of that science. When Joi had been convinced that, you know, this is not an ongoing criminal, I think Joi was open to what might have been interesting about him and his, you know, his talents. And I remember, when he described that to me, thinking, “Boy, I just wouldn’t be able to get there.” Because of my background [Lessig has written that he was sexually molested as a child] , I can’t see beyond it. But I’m not everybody, and I could see it differently for others.

Even if Epstein is not getting his name on a building, he’s obviously using the money at least in part to be socially tied to smart, high-capital people, no?

Lessig: Yeah. But it’s an expensive way to do it. But, you know, you might be right. My view would be: I don’t know what his motive is.

Of course there’s a gray zone in terms of who universities take money from, but wasn’t Epstein a distinctly noxious figure in society?

Lessig: There are a lot uglier figures that the fund-raisers at universities talk to than who Epstein was understood to be in 2013. But not today.

Many of your critics felt that you seemed more sympathetic to Joi’s plight than to the victims of Mr. Epstein. [Lessig wrote: “And so now Joi is gone. Not dead. Not destroyed. I can’t imagine the creative greatness that the next life of this sweet soul will produce.”]

Lessig: I’m not sure how that’s a fair interpretation of what I wrote.

Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell, wrote on Twitter, “I think the thing that makes me angriest is that there is no mention of *the girls who were Jeffrey Epstein’s victims*. … The only victims one meets are Ito, the boyhood Lessig, and the people who worked at the MIT media lab.”

Lessig: That has no relation to what I wrote. Because here’s what I wrote: “When it was discovered, it would do real and substantial pain to the people within the Media Lab who would come to see that they were supported in part by the gift of a pedophile. That pain is real and visceral and substantial.” People who actually have suffered at the hands of pedophiles absolutely have a right to be outraged to know that their institution has been supported by a pedophile.

Doesn’t it make sense to you that people would say someone who is taking money from and cozying up with a guy who is a pedophile and who is targeting young women, maybe he shouldn’t lead an institution that includes women?

Lessig: I’m not sure it describes the case, and more importantly, what about the institution?

What do you mean it doesn’t describe the case?

Lessig: I don’t know about the “cozying up to.”

Going to his house, being socially in his orbit, taking money from him.

Lessig: In the context of raising money — just like you would go up there and meet with him in the context of an interview.

But there’s a financial transaction happening in one and not the other. For me, I’m potentially doing an investigation. Mr. Ito was taking money.

Lessig: For M.I.T. When you say that he is cozying up to him, that’s something very different from what I understand actually happened, which is: Joi, in the context of his job for the M.I.T. Media Lab, built a relationship with one of the people he’s raising money from.

Do you think it’s O.K. if this is kept secret?

Lessig: No. My preference is that none of this money should be in institutions, but if the institution says it’s going to take this money, then at the very least it should not be offering the gift of reputation laundering for those who give it.

But Jeff Epstein was doing reputational laundering, just in a more subtle way. It’s naïve to think otherwise.

Lessig: No doubt he’s doing reputational laundering in lots of ways.

But in this exact way.

Lessig: Yeah. But not in that kind of dramatic way that universities are typically guilty of.

You are an expert in these subtle things. On your website, you write about the subtle ways that money and influence and corruption happen.

Lessig: I’m not sure why we’re walking past each other on this. I don’t think the money should be in the institution, period. You asked the question as if — it was kind of a ‘Are you still beating your wife?’ question. You asked the question as if I supported taking the money. I don’t. Absolutely.

I know you don’t. But you still wrote a defense of the guy who did.

Lessig: I wrote a defense of a guy who did it in the context of a university that says, “Take the money!” The university says to take the money, and take it anonymously. All I’m trying to suggest is this: that the suggestion of the Ronan Farrows of the world that somehow there’s something terrible about the anonymity — no! If you’re going to take the money, you damn well better make it anonymous.

8 thoughts on “Afternoon Ethics Flotsam And Jetsam, 9/16/2019: Ethics Movies, Clowns And Harvard Professors

  1. Re: 2

    That Engineering Ethics blog looks intriguing. I liked their review and will be digging in some of the older posts. Thanks for the link!

  2. “The Challenger Disaster” is free for Amazon Prime subscribers, by the way. The reviews are worth reading. They’re equally divided between people who loved it and gave it 5 stars and people who hated it and panned it viciously. The most frequent reasons for hating it:

    1. Dark, gloomy interior sets and long silences. Where are the astronauts?
    2. Too much yelling; the engineer who kept making a fuss was obnoxious.
    3. It’s not plausible; can’t be true.

  3. >It’s not plausible

    I work on aerospace, it’s too plausible to the point of discomfort. There are so many things that can (and sometimes do) go wrong; and there are not enough instances that we can statistically figure out what is significant, what isn’t and where to put more effort to bring it in line with the commercial aviation standard.

    Then again, we have painted NASA, and aerospace in general, as havens of perfect engineering; and while they are very *very* good, they are not perfect. The general public idolizes it, for better or worse.

    • I simply cannot look at post Apollo NASA as anything other than a inept pork barel agency that steers billions to certain Congressional districts and kills astronauts.
      The shuttle was ill-conceived and doomed from the get go. No body said wait, this isn’t working, they just keept plowing ahead.
      Von Braun had a feasible plan for Mars by the 80’s. Instead, we did the shuttle. Now we have a rehashed plan to reuse the worst parts of it that will never fly.

  4. Jack, you needn’t have included “…And Harvard Professors” in the title of this post. It’s redundant, as the Lessig story is accurately covered by the “clowns” label.

    • Yeah, I saw that. These undermining attempts seem to come in cycles. Just as Impeachment Plans come and go and re-emerge, so do the Kavanaugh allegations jump in and out.

      It’s just relentless.

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