I have been waiting to find the ideal 100th Rationalization, officially #70 (there are 30 sub-rationalizations on the EA Rationalizations list. It’s “The Reverse Ruddigore,” the equally valid opposite of Rationalization #21. Ethics Accounting, or “I’ve earned this”/ “I made up for that”:
You cannot earn the right to act unethically by depositing a lot of ethical deeds in the imaginary ethics bank, nor can unethical conduct be erased by doing good for someone else. The illusion that one can balance the ethics books this way is referred to on the Ethics Alarms blog as “the Ruddigore Fallacy.” Nobody earns the right to be unethical, not even once, no matter how exemplary their conduct. An unethical act is just as unethical, whether it is performed by a saint, a hero, or a villain.
“Ruddigore,” for those of you sadly unaware of the joys of Gilbert and Sullivan, is the unjustly under-rated work by the Victorian geniuses that involved an ancient curse on a family that required a Baronet of Ruddigore to perform a crime a day or die in agony, courtesy of his re-animated ancestors, who otherwise hang around, literally, as portraits in a haunted gallery. One member of the family who has inherited the curse, Sir Despard, believes that he has found a loophole:
“I get my crime over the first thing in the morning, and then, ha! ha! for the rest of the day I do good – I do good – I do good! Two days since, I stole a child and built an orphan asylum. Yesterday I robbed a bank and endowed a bishopric. To-day I carry off Rose Maybud and atone with a cathedral! This is what it is to be the sport and toy of a Picture Gallery!”
Looking back on past posts, I laid the groundwork for #70 when I condemned the decision of Walt Disney World to remove Bill Cosby’s bust from the its Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame of Fame:
[L]ast I heard Bill Cosby was still recognized as a major trailblazer in stand-up, TV comedy, and television integration (remember “I Spy”?), an important positive cultural force for race relations and black community self esteem, and a spectacularly talented comedian with a unique voice and presence. None of that has changed. Those were the achievements that prompted Cosby’s bust’s inclusion in Disney’s Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame Plaza, along with celebrities such as Lucille Ball and Oprah Winfrey who, like the Cos, have been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. O.J. Simpson is still honored in the College Football Hall of Fame, because he was one of the greatest college stars ever. His post-career hobby as a murderer, like Bill’s extra-curricular activities as a serial rapist, have nothing to do with the honor, just as Cosby earned and still deserves, his honor for what he achieved on stage and screen.
Subsequent bad acts no more cancel out past good ones than Sir Despard’s cathedral would make up for kidnapping sweet Rose Maybud. The current “Cancel Culture,” however, holds otherwise. In the latest episode, Tufts University announced today that it will strip the Sackler name from the buildings and programs on its medical campus, after a report censured the school for its relationship with the family whose drug company made OxyContin, the opioid blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide.
The Sackler family has given Tufts $15 million over more than 30 years and in return, had its name prominently displayed on businesses, labs and classrooms throughout the university’s Boston health sciences campus. There is no evidence that the Sacklers used their donations to influence the school, “there was an appearance of too close a relationship between Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers, and Tufts,” according to an outside commissioned by the university. Thus, Tufts president Anthony Monaco said, the Sackler name has become so intertwined with the nation’s opioid epidemic, it no longer belongs on the university’s medical buildings.
What about all the money the Sacklers gave Tufts? Oh, Tufts plans on keeping that; it just won’t give the family the credit it bargained for.
That may be legal—I’d have to read the agreement behind the donation to know for sure— but it’s wrong. Giving 30 million dollars to higher education is an ethical, virtuous, praiseworthy act, and by itself, it deserves respect and recognition. Now, any university can decide to reject the gift of someone it feels is unsavory under the very dubious) “dirty money” theory, and indeed, sometimes a prospective donor is so unsavory that there may be good reasons to do so. However, once a boon has been received, that virtuous act is in the book, and no subsequent act can or should undo it, or the obligation to give the donor his, her or its due. (Are there exceptions to this principle? Sure, there are exceptions to every ethical principle. See “The Ethics Incompleteness Principle.”)
I should note here, since I have been very critical of Harvard lately, that it has so far rejected appeals to ban the Sackler name, perhaps because so many rich villains paid for immortality on the Harvard campus that they’d have to raze the place.
Are such gifts often examples of so called “reputation laundering”? Sure—except that they don’t actually erase past wrongdoing; thus sayeth the Ruddigore Fallacy and Rationalization #21. If doing good makes a past miscreant feel better, so what? That’s a small price to pay for all the good done by the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations in the names of their robber baron founders. We still know about the evil they did, and those who don’t have only themselves to blame (or their parents and schools). Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller didn’t make them ignorant.
Everyone should be very wary of going down the Reverse Ruddigore path, for it is strewn with the toppled statutes of patriots, geniuses and heroes. We now have strong evidence that Martin Luther King sexually abused women, but the nation’s debt to him remains. A new book argues persuasively that President Franklin Roosevelt failed to save the lives of many thousands of Jews out of bigotry, yet he was indispensable in saving our nation, and perhaps the world. There should be accountability for wrongdoing, but erasing important contributions to society and civilization by the wrongdoer ought not to be among the consequences.