Leroy Fick died in June, but not before gaining a small measure of ethics immortality by giving his name to an Ethics Alarms term of art. In 2011, Leroy happily admitted that he had continued to collect public assistance after winning $2 million dollars in the Michigan lottery because a loophole in the law allowed him to do so. Thus his name was originally attached to those guilty of especially despicable, anti-social conduct. Eventually, the definition was refined to mean “unethical people who openly and blatantly violates social norms of responsibility, honesty or fairness without shame or remorse.”
That’s Leroy in the photo above. Ficks lack ethics alarms, so it will not surprise you to learn that many of them end up in jail. Leroy did.
Now comes Bennett Madison, writing on the repeatedly ethically inert site Gawker, boasting about deceiving advice columnists and their trusting reader in an article titled, “Help! I Couldn’t Stop Writing Fake Dear Prudence Letters That Got Published.” Fick.
“Writing fake letters to advice columns could not be considered a good career move; after all, it was unpaid and I wouldn’t even get a byline out of it. On the other hand, it was easy and creatively fulfilling.”
On yet another hand, the ethical one, it was lying, and deceiving untold numbers of people because Madison thought, and thinks, it was funny.
His deceived advice columnist of choice was “Prudence,” an imaginary woman whom Slate has assigned several writers, including a man, to impersonate while providing advice on provocative, often sexually-charged dilemmas. Prudence frequently swallowed Madison’s nonsense whole, or used his fake dilemmas offered under fake names knowing they were probably fake but knowing also that they would spice up the “Dear Prudence” column. Madison show no compunction or regret for his serial deceptions, except that he could have made some letters better. He writes,
“After a few false starts, I learned that a good letter is defined by two opposing values: it must be plausible, but it must also be ridiculous. This is a delicate equilibrium to manage, and one that I botched frequently. Help! My Friend Thinks I Am Stealing Vaccines From African-American Grandmothers To Attend Sex Resorts ran, but was a disappointment; it needed another flourish of insanity to justify its existence.”
No, you fick, nothing justifies presenting lies as truth to gull the gullible. Oh, there are lots of rationalizations one can employ—36B. The Patsy’s Rebuke, or “It’s not my fault that you’re stupid!” comes immediately to mind—but these are all dodges to avoid accepting the unethical reality.
This is not to say that a hypothetical situation cannot generate a useful discussion. I have encountered this several times on Ethics Alarms, when a post has turned out to be based on a hoax or a news report later discredited. However, it is unethical to present a hypothetical as fact. Bennett Madison doesn’t understand that, apparently, and thus happily celebrates his own cleverness in breaching every ethical system there is. Does he like being lied to? No? There goes the Golden Rule! Does he feel abused when others use him without his consent to pursue their own agendas? He does? That’s because it’s a violation of Kantian Ethics and the categorical imperative. Does the ends justify the means here? Of course not: he’s deceiving thousands of people for no greater purpose than his own amusement and to feel superior. That flunks all utilitarianism standards.
Writing fake letters to fool advice columnists isn’t a crime, nor a particularly harmful ethics breach. It is still signature significance for someone with malfunctioning ethics alarms, because an ethical, trustworthy person wouldn’t do this even once, and if he or she did in a moment of weakness, they certainly wouldn’t boast about it.