Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2021: To Boldly Go…

Shatner in space

1. William Shatner didn’t die. It doesn’t matter. People really don’t get moral luck, do they? Of course, only a tiny percentage of the public reads Ethics Alarms. 90-year-old William Shatner flew into space yesterday aboard a ship built by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company. The former “James T. Kirk” and three fellow passengers boldly went to an altitude of 66.5 miles over the West Texas desert in the fully automated capsule, then safely parachuted back to Earth. The flight lasted just over 10 minutes. I had previously and correctly pointed out that Bezos had violated basic Kantian ethics, the Categorical Imperative, by exploiting Shatner and placing the old egomaniac at risk in order to promote Blue Origin. “But Shatner consented!” Bezos apologists kept telling me. So if someone consents to being used as a means to an end, that makes using a human being as a means to an end ethical?

Well, sometimes—Kant was an absolutist, and there are no absolutes. However, Shatner’s exploitation doesn’t qualify as an exception. What if the stress of the flight had killed him? Then many would be questioning Bezos’s motives, but the ethical problem is the same whether Shatner survived or not. That the flight didn’t end up looking like an elaborate grand suicide for an iconic actor who knew his time had almost run out anyway was pure moral luck.

2. This should be an “Unethical Quote of the Month.” However, it’s out of the mouth of Ethics Villain Nancy Pelosi, and her unethical quotes are just frosting on an unethical cake. Once she committed the vile act of disrespect to the office of the President by tearing up Trump’s State of the Union speech on live TV, I knew Pelosi was irredeemable, and anyone who doesn’t recognize that she lacks ethics alarms lacks them too. The quote? “Whether they know it or not, they overwhelmingly support it,” which was the Speaker’s response to a CBS News poll claiming to show that all but 10% of the public don’t know specifics of Democrats’ spending bill. The bill is almost 3,000 pages long, and I will bet my kidneys that Pelosi herself hasn’t read all of it, and almost certainly less than half. Neither have the 10% who say they know the specifics—they don’t. I don’t; you don’t. We don’t really know the cost, which is supposedly 3.5 trillion, but estimates have it costing 5.5 trillion or more. What is so unethical about Pelosi’s quote, other than the fact that she’s asserting something she can’t possibly know is true, is that it shows the arrogant heart of the totalitarian she and so many Democrats have become. “

Never mind about the facts,” she is saying,”Trust us; we know what’s best for you, even if you don’t.” It is the sentiment of a leader who treats her constituency like sheep because she believes they are sheep. [Pointer: Steve Witherspoon]

Why hello there, Gina! Back so soon?

3. Speaking of Nancy’s home, San Francisco… Walgreens announced that it will be closing five more stores in the city next month, SFGATE reported. “Retail theft across our San Francisco stores has continued to increase in the past few months to five times our chain average,” Walgreens spokesperson Phil Caruso told the news outlet, noting that theft has increased despite increased security. This is because the city refuses to prosecute petty theft, making petty theft, in essence, legal. Walgreens has reportedly closed 10 stores in San Francisco since 2019. One now closed location in the city lost nearly $1,000 a day to theft.

After the closings, of course, which are mostly in minority neighborhoods, the lack of easily accessible stores will be cited as more “systemic racism.”

4. Bret Stephens, the lone non-progressive fanatic on the Times op-ed page, wrote, while commenting on this story that Ethics Alarms discussed two days ago,

“[O]ur universities are failing at the task of educating students in the habits of a free mind. Instead, they are becoming islands of illiberal ideology and factories of moral certitude, more often at war with the values of liberal democracy than in their service.”

Gee, ya think, Bret? His solution to the problem is that “Coward Culture” on campuses “has to go.” “Courage isn’t a virtue that’s easily taught, especially in universities, but sometimes it can be modeled,” he writes. True, but it had better be modeled earlier than college, and it has its costs. I watched my father quit several jobs (driving my mother to distraction) when a supervisor required him to do something he regarded as unethical. When I got myself fired from a large D.C. association (I was actually fired from two of them, and for the same basic reason) for refusing to turn what was supposed to be an independent research foundation into a fake independent foundation that would somehow always prove that the association’s lobbying positions were correct, my Dad called me up, laughing. “I’m sorry, son, this is all my fault,” he said. “You caught my idealism. Now you’re doomed!”

5. Integrity! Dignity! Greed! Here is a real press release from Minor League Baseball:

“Minor League Baseball™ (MiLB™) today announced a three-year partnership with Marvel Entertainment, one of the world’s most prominent storytelling brands, for an exciting event series that will play out in ballparks across all levels of MiLB starting in 2022 . . . The new partnership will feature 96 MiLB teams participating in an event series called “Marvel’s Defenders of the Diamond” during the 2022 through 2024 baseball seasons. The deal was facilitated by AthLife, Inc, Marvel’s longtime sports representative. In each of the three years of the partnership, all 96 participating MiLB teams will host at least one Marvel Super Hero-themed game as part of the “Marvel’s Defenders of the Diamond” campaign, where teams will wear special edition Marvel Super Hero-branded jerseys on field during the game with other Marvel-themed activities and promotions taking place throughout the game.”

Message: “We will play baseball in scuba gear or dressed as teddy bears if someone pays us enough.”

[Pointer: Craig Calcaterra]

55 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2021: To Boldly Go…

  1. #2 That “whether they know it or not, they overwhelmingly support it” was pure propaganda trying to manipulate the public and that’s similar to what she said way back in the Obama Presidency when she said “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it”. In my opinion; President Biden, Vice-President Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are all lying progressive (progressive is an oxymoron) propagandists constantly trying to put lipstick on a pig. I don’t trust anything that comes from their lips as being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    In that same Pelosi press conference while talking about the 3.5 trillion spending bill, there was also this little signature significant reply from Speaker Pelosi to an inquiry from a reporter. CBS News’ Nikole Killion inquired about selling the spending bill, “Do you think you need to do a better job at messaging, and going forward, how do you sell this?” and Speaker Pelosi’s reply was “well I think you all could do a better job of selling it, to be very frank with you”. Did you catch that? Speaker Pelosi actually thinks the media is supposed to sell the proposed 3.5 trillion spending bill to the public and I’m pretty darn certain she thinks that because most of the media has become the propaganda arm of the Democratic Party.

      • I agree Steve. It was her saying “You (the media) have to do a better job explaining legislations to the public” that blew my mind. The “you have to pass the bill before you get to read it” line is an oldy but a goody.

        • It’s because of people that think like Speaker Pelosi that the United States of America is currently swirling around the vortex of a social toilet on the brink of being flushed into the dark abyss of totalitarianism.

          • It may be the other way around (or both may flow from something else, or it could be one among many horrible coincidences, or …).

      • She thinks that because it’s true. Her only mistake here is saying it out loud. You’re supposed to fawn over the Emperor’s new clothes, not draw attention to his nudity.

      • I think the media in question also think that way. They are probably mentally flogging themselves either for not doing a good enough job to sell these bills or not trying hard enough.

        The first step in any 12 step (or 200 step) plan is always to admit that you have a problem. Until the left wing media admits that, I don’t see much hope for them changing.

        I am not holding my breath.

        • The most telling lie of the entire enterprise is calling the “Let’s give our voters tons of free stuff by going around the filibuster bill” the “reconciliation bill.” What a joke.

      • I think you’re spot on. She’s saying the quiet part out loud, something that the Left has been bolder and bolder about lately.

    • The question from Nikole Killion begins, “Our latest CBS News poll shows that only ten percent of Americans describe themselves as knowing a lot of specific things that are in the reconciliation package and that the majority don’t know anything at all. So do you think you need to do a better job…”

      Pelosi’s reply begins, “Well, I think you all could do a better job of selling it – to be very frank with you – because every time I come here, I go through the list: family and medical leave, climate, the issues that are in there.”

      The “selling” being discussed here is informing the public about what is in the bill. Commenter “Other Bill” gets this, but your editing may make this unclear to other readers.

      To the extent that “reality has a well know liberal bias” (to quote Steven Colbert), an informed public may benefit Democrats, but there’s still a distinction between informing the public and propaganda.

      • kennethalmquist wrote, “The “selling” being discussed here is informing the public about what is in the bill.”

        In my opinion, that’s trying to put lipstick on a pig. Selling and reporting are two entirely different things kennethalmquist; selling a bill is pure activism, reporting is not selling.

        Pelosi said, “every time I come here, I go through the list: family and medical leave, climate, the issues that are in there.”

        A couple of ideological catch phrases in a brief list is not what’s needed to “sell” a massive spending bill, where are the details?! As usual Pelosi is trying to “sell” a massive spending bill using a couple of ideological catch phrases and she offers absolutely no details. The devil is in the details and over and over again Pelosi doesn’t want the people to know the details. Pelosi is pulling the same kind of crap she did when she stated years ago, “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it” she’s just using different words. It’s never up to Pelosi to sell one of her bills by actually telling we the people the real details, it’s only up to her to pass the with as little effort and as little clarity as possible. She’s an arrogant narcissist that thinks she knows better than all the little people, she’s again trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

        kennethalmquist wrote, “your editing may make this unclear to other readers.”

        No I don’t think it makes this unclear at all, it literally clarifies an actual intent by emphasizing what Pelosi actually thinks, she said it herself! If you don’t think that stating to reporters “well I think you all could do a better job of selling it, to be very frank with you” is a signature significant statement that’s fine, you’re welcome to your opinion.

  2. Jack, Regarding #1, do we know if Bezos actively recruited Shatner to go to space or did Shatner peruse this himself and Bezos simply jump on board. Either way I think you presented a good argument for the whole thing being unethical.

    Side Note: I watched the whole thing live and Shatner seemed a bit weak in the knees after they landed, of course maybe at 90 years old he’s not very stable anyway.

  3. Regarding #1, do the same arguments apply to putting Wally Funk on the first manned New Shepard flight? She was 82 at the time, I think. What about John Glenn’s Shuttle flight at age 73? What’s the age cutoff?

    • According to Wikipedia, Glenn was 77 when he flew n the Space Shuttle. He evidently thought NASA should be studying the effects of space on older persons, and it says he passed the same physical as the younger astronauts (pretty amazing, if true).

      He was not, apparently, in favor of flying tourists into space, at least on the Space Shuttle. So I’d think he would not have approved of Shatner’s flight.

      It is an interesting concept of studying the effects of space travel on older folks. If there were a valid research program and if NASA conducted regular experiments and testing along those lines — one could see where there might be some potential benefits. There’s still a greater risk of a 60, 70,. 80 year old person dropping dead from the stress one would have to believe.

      • Certainly, but there’s a greater risk of an older person dying from almost any activity than a younger person. Should older people not be allowed to participate in physically stressful activities?

        If the only argument against Shatner’s participation in this is that he’s old, that’s pretty weak. Now, if he were in the deteriorating mental condition of a certain president, there’s a case to be made that he’d been exploited. Absent dementia, though, he wanted to go to space and Blue Origin wanted publicity, and presumably there were some medical tests to confirm he wasn’t likely to liquify on lift-off, so I don’t see an ethical problem.

          • So, what’s the cutoff age, then? Wally Funk’s 82? John Glenn’s 77 (thanks for the correction on that, Diego)? 70? 60? If his age, not his physical condition, is the determining factor, what’s the oldest age at which this arrangement would be ethical?

            • The issue is exploitation, not a specific age. Who was exploiting Glenn or Wally? If some veterans groupd talked Bush I into doing his paratrooping stunt, the same ethical breach would have been involved. He decided to do it on his own, and that was 100% his choice and business. Kant was not involved.

              • The very same people who “exploited” Shatner recruited Funk for her flight. It was only three months ago! Every criticism of Shatner’s flight applies to hers, as well. The only reason she was on that flight was to garner woke PR points.

  4. 1) You know, I wonder if Shatner might have secretly hoped that that flight would kill him — it would certainly get him a certain amount of immortality. And it would be somewhat fitting to have Captain Kirk actually die in space, now wouldn’t it?

    But…….not so great for Bezos, to be sure.

  5. “So if someone consents to being used as a means to an end, that makes using a human being as a means to an end ethical?”

    It’s not inherently unethical. It depends on what both parties get out of it. Unsurprisingly, I’m going to be contrarian and disagree: It’s certainly a risk to Shatner’s health to do this, but taking risks isn’t in and of itself, unethical. And facilitating risks that everyone walks in to eyes wide open isn’t unethical in and of itself. The one argument I think I’d have more sympathy for is that it might be that it’s unethical for Bezos to risk the image of his company on Shatner’s health, but I don’t think that’s the point you’re making.

    If we prevented people from activities that they want to do, fully cognizant of the risks involved, because there is an increased risk to their health, where is the natural stopping point? How much risk has to be involved? At what point do people give up their ability to take on risk? At what point are other people made responsible for throttling your risk? How do we justify deep sea fishing, northern logistics, stunt work, skydiving, driving a car or gun ownership? The answer is that we don’t have to.

    • Agreed. It’s unethical to be paid to do something dangerous now?

      Do the people who employee loggers or roofers unethical now too?

      • FYI – Not really a response, but I was tempted to draw a differentiation between business and recreational risk… But I thought better of it.

        Businesses have the duty to minimize risk, and are responsible for workplace injuries, but we can’t mitigate against everything, so there is *some* inherent risk in anything, and the question seemed to be how much risk was acceptable and at what point does the risk become unethical. That led me to consider whether risk was offset by necessity; We could argue that loggers and roofers are essential, so maybe there was more room for risk… But I realized that I was going down a rabbit hole that didn’t really matter, there are all kinds of unnecessary risks we take, particularly when it comes to entertainment (my example that made it through was stuntmen), we generally don’t think about risks in terms of necessity (although necessity might cause us to take risks), we think about risk in terms of reward…. Generally in terms of salary.

        And so again… The question isn’t whether Shatner or Bezos took risks, it’s whether the risks were adequately compensated.

        And I’m just saying… I’d go to space.

        • Tom’s distortion of the issue is (typically) infantile, and I’m surprised you would endorse it. Kant never implied that merely paying an individual to do a job was “using him.” Such arrangements cross into unethical Kantian territory when an inequality of power and circumstances enable a powerful individual to place a far less powerful one, perhaps a desperate one, at unreasonable risk for the powerful individual’s agenda.

          Bezos obviously didn’t give two craps for Shatner. He calculated that even if Shatner perished in space under the stress of the flight, his goals would be accomplished—and taking a man’s life, with consent of not, to advance an objective is the ultimate breach of the Categorical Imperative. The death would be ruled unfortunate, but all of the rationalizations would be live: “He would have wanted to go that way,” “He knew the risks”; “He was 90: how much longer was he going to live anyway?” Shatner, like most celebrities and old actors in particular, and Shatner especially, is a fame addict. Sean Connery could retire; Gene Hackman could retire. Shatner doesn’t need the money, but he does need attention like an addict needs heroine. An ethical Bezos—that doesn’t exist, but let’s pretend—would say, “Thanks, Bill, but the flight might kill you. Go home.”

          It was like giving a drunk booze so he will dance so the bar patrons could laugh at him. The currency is attention. 90! At 90, a fall can kill you. At 90, almost anything will kill you. The fact that Bezos was willing to risk Shatner’s life for PR, and that’s all it was, is unconscionable. Life is life—the fact that Shatner was willing to throw it away for one last headline doesn’t change a thing.

          • Jack:

            “Bezos obviously didn’t give two craps for Shatner. He calculated that even if Shatner perished in space under the stress of the flight, his goals would be accomplished—and taking a man’s life, with consent of not, to advance an objective is the ultimate breach of the Categorical Imperative”

            Okay, that is where we disagree (see below). Star Trek fanatics went bat-shit crazy against Malcolm McDowell for killing a fictional James T. Kirk. Had Shatner died, the shitstorm would be less fictional. And, would have hit Bezos hard. This is the advent of space tourism. Had Shatner died, Bezos would be doubly screwed: 1) he killed Kirk; and 2) his product is deadly. He got a high-profile exhibition of a safe trip into space. If that went south, he may have killed space tourism the way the Hindenburg killed the dirigible.


            • That may have been your calculation, and you may be right, but obviously it wasn’t his. He had to have a full-blown plan if Shatner died, and it had to represent a win-win. He would have been nust to risk his whole profect on whether a 90-year-old man would survive in space. He’s not nuts. He’s ruthless.

              • You might be right, but egomaniacs are half ego, half maniac. If he is so blinded by egomania, that qualifies as hubris.

                You think he was ruthless. I am not sure that he just believed his own press that this was safe. Before Shatner went up, I thought he could die. Maybe that’s why I never launched anyone into space: lack of confidence.

                Who dares, wins. And Shatner and Bezos double-dated.


              • You seem to be discounting the possibility that Bezos thought his product was relatively safe, and that the risk to Shatner was low. Bezos’ company currently has a better track record than NASA, and Bezos has done that flight with his brother beside him… What do you think the risk quotient actually was here?

            • The Hindenburg didn’t kill the dirigible, not even if you only meant large, rigid dirigibles. That is a myth. War and technological change did that.

              You do know that Nazi Germany continued and completed the Graf Zeppelin II’s construction and even used it to probe British naval defences and radar just before hostilities, right? There is no doubt that it would have entered regular service had it not been for the war – though probably on the South American run and not to the U.S.A.

          • Jack, as usual you have failed to address my main point and instead argued against things I never said. Do you even read what people write?

            Jut said:

            Both sides risked A LOT. Arguably, both sides benefited. And, both sides did it with full knowledge of the risks.

            He is correct in that it’s ethical.

            • As I explained to Jut, in Bezos’s view, he wasn’t risking anything. And “a lot” compared to someone’s life is no contest. That’s something Kant made clear as well. I don’t always agree with him, but that score, he was plain and correct.

          • Ah, here’s the crux of the issue, then: the difference between inviting a regular person to take a risk for compensation and inviting an addict to do so in pursuit of their addiction. There’s a lot of gray area in between those extremes, but the endpoints are clear and distinct.

            I think we’re all in agreement that paying a person to take a risk as a stunt is not automatically unethical, assuming that the person deliberately weighs the risk and reward and goes into it with their eyes open. Ideally, I would say they should “make the decision with their whole self.”

            I suspect that when Jack refers to such an arrangement as using someone as a means to an end in violation of Kantian ethics, the assumption is that the person is under the influence of the liability of stagnation: their motivations are fixed and predictable. They may be addicted to something, or they may have rigid dogma, but either way in such cases the effect is less like negotiating for mutual benefit and more like positioning pieces on a game board. The person is incapable of refusing even if the deal were to their long-term detriment.

            Similarly, a person might be subject to the liability of scarcity, in which case it’s a leonine bargain: they cannot refuse because they don’t have an acceptable Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). They can’t afford to walk away from the table.

            In my opinion, what makes the difference between a “voluntary” agreement and manipulation depends on the degree to which it empowers the undersigned to deal constructively with their liabilities, the degree to which they have the ability to establish and abide by a standard for themselves on what deals they would accept, and they degree to which they have the ability to walk away without ruin.

            That’s why I’m trying to get a better BATNA for everyone in the form of UBI. As it stands, I think most aspects of the economy involve manipulation: consolidations of power form by taking advantage of customer addictions (including laziness), as well as leonine bargains for both the employees and the customers. I think UBI is one of the steps that is necessary to empower people to deal as equals.

            I also think it would be much to the good of humanity if people started adopting the vocabulary of liabilities, so that they could better describe the ethical nuances of situations like this that come up thousands of times every day across the world.

            Does that all make sense?

          • “He calculated that even if Shatner perished in space under the stress of the flight, his goals would be accomplished—and taking a man’s life, with consent of not, to advance an objective is the ultimate breach of the Categorical Imperative.”

            This is, of course, not universally true. It fails at all kinds of places, and the most obvious would be the military. Now, you might argue that the military is special, but Kant might have a thing or two to say about special circumstances.

            Kant died in 1804. The workplace fatality rate looked kind of different than then it does now. There were jobs where a certain amount of fatality was expected. There still is, but we’ve spent a whole lot of time and energy trying to mitigate them. Kant did not, as you say, make the point that employing someone was using them, despite the relative likeliness of workplace death. Take that a step further… Why not?

            And there are all kinds of questions that I asked that you seem to be purposefully ignoring: If you want to say that Shatner is obviously a thrill seeking publicity junky and should be protected from his own agency like an addict, then what are the standards? If he’s the low hanging fruit, where’s the line? At what age do people nolonger get to get on an airplane? They could die, don’t you know.

    • I was going to make a similar comment. But the dividing line is not dangerous activity.

      Every single commercial endorsement by a celebrity involves using someone as a means to an end.

      Every person who throws out a first pitch is being used in some sense. Fauci was not selected to throw a first pitch based upon his physical prowess.

      Consent, while not necessarily dispositive, sometimes can be. In the case of Shatner, I think consent is determinative. Both sides risked A LOT. Arguably, both sides benefited. And, both sides did it with full knowledge of the risks.

      I disagree with Jack’s conclusion.


  6. re 1: I’ll say again that this flight was way safer than is popularly believed.

    Part of my job was running the numbers. At a broad range it was somewhere between parachuting in tandem with an instructor and riding a recently built rollercoaster, probably closer to the second. And from the videos it looks like Shatner is in pretty decent physical shape so very little concerns about the flight stress.

    If we reframe the question as “would it be unethical for William Shatner to ride a newly built Star Trek themed rollercoaster at Universal Studios?” would it change the answer. Even if there is some compensation going on, as per the above discussion? What is Mr. Shatner really wants to ride the roller coaster, should he be denied his individual autonomy?

    I’m not saying this was a pure selfless act, but I don’t think it’s the slam dunk you’ve been making it.

    (Disclosure: I’m biased, BO paid my salary for a number of years, and I worked on that specific project)

  7. … there are no absolutes.

    If that were true, it would imply that there are some absolutes. Think about it, if necessary after refreshing your knowledge of logical paradoxes.

    … the vile act of disrespect to the office of the President …

    Hang on a bit. All such offices ought to be disrespected at a certain level, for the alternative is a particular variant of idolatry. That means it cannot be vile in and of itself (regardless of particular cases that might be), or anything short of idolatry would be vile. Contrariwise, a sort of decent respect is due to everybody, regardless of persons, and failing in that may be vile – but that is not something idolatrous that is invoked by an office.

    … my Dad called me up, laughing. “I’m sorry, son, this is all my fault,” he said. “You caught my idealism. Now you’re doomed!”

    The time has come to recall Huey Long’s immortal words, “the time has come for all good men to rise above principle”.

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