Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 12/29/2020: Another Dark Date For Ethics


December 29 is one of the bad days in ethics history, beginning with the 1170 murder of England’s Archbishop Thomas Becket as he knelt prayer in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights of King Henry II. The knights were not explicitly ordered to kill Becket, the King’s friend who had become a problem when he took his role as Archbishop of Canterbury to be a calling to defend the Church against royal efforts to constrain its power. Instead, Henry made his wishes known by making the public plea to his court,

“What a parcel of fools and dastards have I nourished in my house, and not one of them will avenge me of this one upstart clerk.”

This is often quoted as “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Either way, the idea of such an oblique request is to relieve a leader of responsibility for the actions of subordinates, giving the leader plausible deniability. It didn’t work for Henry, but it may have worked for, for example, President Obama, whose Internal Revenue Service illegally sabotaged Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election, greatly assisting Obama’s efforts to defeat challenger Mitt Romney. In truth, when a powerful superior makes his or her desires known, it may as well be an order. An order is more ethical however, because it does not require the subordinate to take the responsibility upon himself.

1. But The worst example of a U.S. ethical breach on this date is the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, when the U.S. Cavalry killed at least 146 Sioux at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. It is definitely the most people killed because of a dance: the government was worried about a growing Sioux cult performing the “Ghost Dance,” which symbolized opposition to peaceful relations with whites, and was seen as inciting violence. On December 29, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under the Sioux Chief Big Foot near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. A fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier, a shot was fired, and an unrestrained massacre followed. Of the estimated almost 150 Native Americans were killed (some historians put this number at double that number), nearly half of them women and children. The cavalry lost only 25 men. Many believe that the tragedy was deliberately staged as revenge for Custer’s Last Stand 14 years earlier, which seems like a stretch to me.

2. Someone smashed a ceramic bust of Breonna Taylor in Oakland, and it is being treated as a racist act of hate. Ann Althouse appears to have engaged in a rare (for her) outburst of sarcasm in response, writing, “Who would do such a thing?” Her point is (I think: I have determined that sarcasm is risky on blogs) that the outrage being expressed at the destruction of a memorial of sorts to the the victim of a botched police raid in Kentucky seems disproportionate when memorials and statues of far more consequential figures have been destroyed with barely a shrug from the same people. (If that’s not her point, then that proves my point about sarcasm.) In the report Ann linked to, lawyer Joe Cotchett of the local law firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, LLP is quoted as saying,

“It’s scandalous and outrageous that anybody would do such a thing.She was a wonderful human being … The whole situation is preposterous — first her death, and now this.”

As Ethics Alarms noted here, Ann Coulter provided perspective on the kind of “wonderful human being”Taylor was.

It seems that Breonna Taylor was knee-deep in the criminal enterprise of her sometime-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, who was running a massive drug operation, selling crack cocaine and fentanyl to the citizens of Louisville….

The morning after Breonna was killed, for example, Jamarcus told his baby mama (on a police-recorded phone call): “This is what you got to understand, don’t take it wrong, but Bre been handling all my money, she been handling my money … She been handling sh*t for me and Cuz, it ain’t just me.” He detailed the amounts when an unidentified male got on the line, saying, “Tell Cuz, Bre got down like $15 (grand), she had the $8 (grand) I gave her the other day and she picked up another $6 (grand).”… In addition to “handling sh*t” for Jamarcus, Breonna had bailed Jamarcus out of jail, driven with him to a “trap house” (where the drugs were sold), and allowed him to use her address — the site of the raid — for his mail, phone bills, a bank account and jail bookings….police had photos of Jamarcus picking up USPS packages at Breonna’s apartment as recently as Jan. 16, 2020, then taking them directly to a trap house. The photos are available online…..[B]ack in 2016, after Breonna had rented a car for Jamarcus, police showed up at her door because … dead body was found in the trunk. The murdered man turned out to be the brother of one of Jamarcus’ co-conspirators. Surely that gave Breonna an inkling that Jamarcus was not walking on the right side of the law….

The public falsehood of elevating black victims of violence to saintly status is one of the more bizarre ethics breaches normalized by the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman Ethics Train Wreck that coupled with the Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck (Mike Brown) that merged with the George Floyd Ethics Train Wreck. Yes, all vandalism is wrong, but destroying a bust of Breonna Taylor is a trivial offense compared to the topping of statues of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and yes, Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee.

3. it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a systemic bias problem, if not racism.

coaches of color

The article about the lack of progress in adding non-white managers, coaches and owners to the ranks of professional sports leadership notes that only baseball among the major sports has a higher percentage of “coaches of color” than players of color, by a 44% to 40% margin.

What reason other than bias could account for these statistics?

4. With thinking like this, how can U.S. education, never mind higher education, be saved? From the Wall Street Journal’s commentary on The Odessey being banned at a Massachusetts public school because Homer wasn’t sufficiently politically correct:

A sustained effort is under way to deny children access to literature. Under the slogan #DisruptTexts, critical-theory ideologues, schoolteachers and Twitter agitators are purging and propagandizing against classic texts—everything from Homer to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Dr. Seuss.

Their ethos holds that children shouldn’t have to read stories written in anything other than the present-day vernacular—especially those “in which racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate are the norm,” as young-adult novelist Padma Venkatraman writes in School Library Journal. No author is valuable enough to spare, Ms. Venkatraman instructs: “Absolving Shakespeare of responsibility by mentioning that he lived at a time when hate-ridden sentiments prevailed, risks sending a subliminal message that academic excellence outweighs hateful rhetoric.”

14 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 12/29/2020: Another Dark Date For Ethics

  1. 3. Are we talking about the bias in the players making up those leagues? Why don’t those leagues’ players “look like America?” All the coaching spots are over thirteen percent coaches of color. That’s either satisfactory or an over-representation. Maybe ownership and general management should be limited to three percent Jewish owners and GMs?

  2. 4. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing “The Great Gatsby” purged from high school reading lists. What a terribly second rate book it is. Maybe it’s popular with high school teachers because it’s easy to read and not very long?

    • (Most high school teachers are lazy. The good ones aren’t, but…. Having taught high school English for two years, my image of hell is a high school teachers’ lounge.)

    • That and “Ordinary People” (an exercise in depression) and “The Catcher In the Rye” (just plain ugly). Of four years taking high school English, the only one I liked was my junior year, that began with Beowulf and ended with (I think) the Victorian era. Unfortunately, as a political science major who was also strong in history, I didn’t have time to squeeze in too many English courses I might have actually liked in college. Still more unfortunately, the most highly sought professor in that department died midway through my junior year as part of what I can only describe as The Holy Cross Great Academic Curse, which also took the most highly sought professors in the Political Science and Music departments, as well as the professor who started the nascent Peace Studies concentration and was also highly sought after by idealistic students.

  3. On your prelude:

    As a young lieutenant, we always knew that the US military endowed an incredible amount of authority in its rank structure…but we never fully grasped exactly how much and how exacting it was.

    Our Troop Commander (a Captain), one day was discussing up coming training plans and distributing orders and tasks to each of us Platoon Leaders. At one point the discussion shifted to a company picnic or something for families on a weekend after a training event. He mentioned that the local park had grills on site, but then said something to the effect of “it’d be nice if we could have the Battalion Field Feeding Section give us one of their grills for the event”.

    Ever dutifully jotting down tasks, no one wrote down his “It’d be nice if…” statement.

    First Sergeant fixed that with a quickness and counselled us afterwards about, “if your boss ever “wishes” or “wants” or “it’d be nice” *anything*, that is a command that you’d better make sure happens.”

    While we’d prefer to operate in a theoretical space where commanders only spoke in absolutes and never with the kind of feeble “if” or “wish” language that implies a lack of control or a lack of knowledge…we don’t operate in that space, and a boss’s *intentions* and *desires*, while not stated as directives, ARE directives unless countermanded.

  4. 3) As is it is racism that the proportions don’t carry on to the management?

    The management more accurately reflects the entire society while the “ground level” employees wildly do *not* match the entire society.

    That’s the outlier that should be questioned…not the management side of things.

    • You’ll have to elaborate on that. If the issue is on-field management, that pool is from the player pool almost exclusively, not the entire society. Team owners, yes, the entire society. General managers, maybe 50-50.

      • Easy, and hard.

        The hard part is some uncomfortable truths of the inherited condition of the African American community. For many of them (and luckily this has changed dramatically in the past decades), especially for inner city ones, their only stereotypical “way out” was sports. There’s one key aspect of why sports are wildly lopsided in racial representation. But if, as a child, in a context in which scant little else is being passed on *except* athleticism…and here’s one of those hard (but luckily changing) realities…and not much else is being passed on like some of the white players likely received growing up…then the field, while being the exit from a bad situation, would also be stopping point of that trajectory.

        Whereas once on the field…owing to conditions inherited *before employment in sports*, the pool of “black guys” and “white guys” finds there still being alot more “white guys” with backgrounds lending them to a wider skill set such as management, outlook, etc…odds are there’s going to be an outsized group of white guys moving on compared to the lower ranks.

        *That* is not systemic racism inside sports, but rather an inherited set of conditions (that, again, are rapidly changing, thankfully) that came about due to greater societal systemic racism of past generations.

      • If I could add to Michel’s comment. The ability to play a sport and the ability to coach or manage draws on different skill sets. For example Earl Weaver was a great manager but mediocre player and Frank Robinson was a great player but his management skills were average at best. A team with great players and a mediocre manager or coach will often find themselves in third place or below; conversely a team that may not have superstars but is managed to work as a team can kick ass.

        It could be that Baseball, which is almost entirely comprised of team players where one or two players have outstanding years from time, understands that successful teams play as teams. I would bet that most people who watch their baseball teams can name more that half the players on the roster.
        In contrast, virtually all other sports are dominated by one or two stars and and the rest are merely support personnel to ensure the stars maintain their hero status. Who can name members of the defensive secondary of their favorite NFL team. Who could identify more than half the players of Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan led the team to championships. What others played with Pele’, Kobe, or Lebron? These sports focus on the stars that put the majority of the points on the board. These are the players that earn the King’s Pass if they beat their wives or drive drunk.

        The culture of the sport determines the experiences gained by players. If the culture is that which showcases stars and is not focused on general teamwork you cannot expect that the players will learn how to manage or coach effectively. You can train players how to set the star up but that is not how to manage talent if you want a perpetually winning team. It takes a special kind of talent to coach players who only think of themselves. Maybe that is why there is a disparity within ranks of these sports.

  5. Ah yes, Henry II, conqueror of Ireland, reorganizer of government, crusher of the Great Revolt, old king in a world where noblemen died young, and lion in winter, which I’m sure you’re very familiar with. Unfortunately his much less accomplished son, Richard Plantagenet, aka Lionheart, who defeated Saladin but didn’t get the big prize (Jerusalem) ironically through possibly being too cautious, gets all the press. Yes, he issued what might be called a permissive order to off Becket, who was interfering in his governance of the realm and had just excommunicated three other bishops for their participation in the crowning of Henry’s son, Henry the Younger, as a king junior to his father. Reginald FitzUrse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville and Richard le Bret went to Canterbury not to kill Becket, but to arrest him and bring him before the king, in fact they first approached him unarmed in the episcopal palace to persuade him to surrender. He waved them off, then entered the church while they went out to collect their weapons, intending to use force where persuasion had failed. He still resisted, and was hacked to death. Henry had eliminated Becket, but the horrifying manner in which it was done almost cost him his throne, as church and other kings alike turned on him. It also killed his chances of asserting dominion over the church and forced him to take his own “walk to Canossa.”

    1. I dunno, military history guru Trevor Dupuy specifically says this was not a massacre, just a really lopsided battle, where the 7th Cavalry erased the stain of Little Big Horn. I’d put it more down to lack of discipline on both sides, coupled with a great disparity in arms (the cavalry had four Hotchkiss guns), and probably a 16-year-old grudge by the cavalry.

    2. Too damn bad. You smash our statues, we smash yours. Oh, suddenly it’s not ok when the shoe’s on the other foot, eh?

    3. Numbers just show what, they don’t show why. You need more evidence to prove systemic racism, like qualified candidates of color being turned away.

    4. You know, trying to raise a generation free of dislikes is a pointless exercise.

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