The Ethics Incompleteness Principle, a core concept on Ethics Alarms, holds that even the most convincing ethics rules, moral codes, laws and principles have exceptions. The inspiration for this observation was the work of Czech-born mathematician Kurt Gödel, whose two Incompleteness Theorems, which relate to mathematical proofs, are his most famous contribution to civilization and science. A linguist as well as a scientist, Gödel unintentionally delivered an essential blow against the ethics absolutism of Kant and rigid morality when he proved that human language is not sufficiently precise to define rules that will work as designed in every instance. The logical extension of Gödel’s theorems, which he applied only to mathematics and, by extension, physics, tells us that there will always be anomalies on the periphery of every normative system, no matter how sound or well articulated it is. If one responds to an anomaly by trying to amend the rule or system to accommodate it, the integrity of the rule or system is disturbed, and perhaps ruined. Yet if one stubbornly applies the rule or system without amendment to the anomaly anyway, one may reach an absurd conclusion or an unjust result. [ Here is an online discussion of the application of Gödel to ethics, which appeared years after the Ethics Incompleteness Theorem was posited on Ethics Alarms.]
The Ethics Incompleteness Principle suggests that when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to abandon the system or rule—in that one anomalous case only— and use basic ethics principles and analysis to find the best solution. Then return to the system and rules as they were, without altering them to make the treatment of the anomalous situation “consistent.”
Much as we would like it to be otherwise, for life would be so much simpler if it were so, no system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario. This is why is why committing to a single ethical system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.
When a reader and frequent commenter sent me this announcement from the Minnesota Twins a few days ago, my reflex reaction was as you would expect:
THE MINNESOTA TWINS STATEMENT ON THE REMOVAL OF CALVIN GRIFFITH STATUE
“When we opened Target Field in 2010 in conjunction wit h our 50th season in Minnesota, we were excited and proud to welcome fans to our ‘forever ballpark.’ As such, we wanted to pay permanent tribute to those figures and moments that helped shape the first half-century of Minnesota Twins baseball – including a statue of Calvin Griffith, our former owner and the man responsible for moving the franchise her e in 1961.
” While we acknowledge the prominent role Calvin Griffith played in our history, we cannot remain silent and continue ignoring the racist comments he made in Waseca in 1978. His disparaging words displayed a blatant intolerance and disregard for the Black community that arethe antithesis of what the Minnesota Twins stand for and value.
“Our decision to memorialize Calvin Griffith with a statue reflects an ignorance on our part of systemic racism present in 1978, 2010 and today. We apologize for our failure to adequately recognize how the statue was viewed and the pain it caused for many people – both inside the Twins organization and across Twins Territory. We cannot remove Calvin Griffith from the history of the Minnesota Twins, but we believe removal of this statue is an important and necessary step in our ongoing commitment to provide a Target Field experience where every fan and employee feels safe and welcome.
PAST, PRESENT OR FUTURE, THERE IS NO PLACE FOR RACISM, INEQUALITY AND INJUSTICE IN TWINS TERRITORY.”
There were three features of the announcement that set off ethics alarms. First, it appeared to be one more pandering PR department George Floyd Freakout grovel. Second, it evoked memories of the Boston Red Sox’s disgraceful decision to remove a street name by Fenway Park honoring Tom Yawkey, the team’s owner for four decades and the sole reason, in all likelihood, that the Red Sox are still in Boston. (My posts about this cowardly decision are here.) Yawkey’s crime was that his Sox were the last Major League team to integrate, and that while Yawkey himself never made a statement that could be fairly called bigoted, his racism was presumed from the fact that he had opportunities to sign all-time greats Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, and passed. Griffith, while no Yawkey, was the owner who was responsible for the Twins being in Minnesota, moving them there in 1961 from Washington, D.C. where they were known as the Washington Senators (not to be confused with the successor D.C. team, also called the Senators, which is now the Texas Rangers and embroiled in its own George Floyd Freakout controversy) and the perennial doormats of the American League. (See: “Damn Yankees.”)
The final ethics alarm was, of course, my philosophical and ethical objection to statue-toppling as a pernicious form of cultural bull-dozing and Soviet-style historical censorship. As I wrote in one of many condemnations of the practice, which is again in full flower thanks to the anarchists, America-haters and morons who have infiltrated the ranks of civil rights activists,
Those who want to tear down monuments to the imperfect, whether they know it or not, are impeding knowledge, perspective, wisdom, and understanding. They want only one view of history, because they will only tolerate one that advances their ideology and values—just as the Americans of the past believed in their values. Foolishly, I suppose, they trusted future generations to act on their own ethical enlightenment without corrupting the historical record.
Then I read what Calvin Griffith said while addressing a Lion’s Club in 1978.
Continued in Part 2