Friday Ethics Creature Features, 10/15/21: Florida’s Felons, Embarrassed Dogs, Huckster Huckabee

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On October 15, 1946, Hermann Göring cheated the hangman, as they say, killing himself in his cell by swallowing a cyanide tablet he had hidden from his guards. Göring was Hitler’s designated successor, as well as commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, and president of the Reichstag. As the man directly responsible for purging of German Jews from the economy following the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and initiating the “Aryanization” policy that confiscated Jewish property and businesses, he certainly was as deserving as any of the death sentence he received after being tried at Nuremberg for “crimes against humanity.” (He was also a very strange man, as this astounding tale about his relationship with his brother, who rescued Jews from the death camps, makes clear.)

I understand the ritual significance of the state killing a condemned prisoner, but I have never regarded “cheating the hangman” to be anything to lose much sleep about. Such people were determined to be unworthy of life in a civilized society, and they decided to carry out the sentence themselves. Thanks! The ethics of life-without-parole prisoners and the outrageously guilty (like Jeffrey Epstein) similarly shuffling off their mortal coils without permission is a tougher one, and some day I might ponder it sufficiently to write a coherent post. All I can say now is that when I hear of such an incident, or even when some particularly horrible murderer is killed by a fellow prisoner (as in the cases of Dickie Loeb and Jeffrey Dahmer), I’m not outraged, offended, or troubled by his fate.

1 A quickie ethics quiz was posed today on the Friday Open Forum, and I can’t resist commenting here. Esteemed commenter Willem Reese sparked a lively set of responses when he asked, “It’s clever, but is it ethical to do this with your dog?” regarding this photo:

Skeleton dog

My verdict? No, it’s not unethical, assuming the dog wasn’t in pain and wasn’t made uncomfortable. Dogs are not concerned with dignity in human terms, so “embarrassing” it is not a legitimate complaint. Nor is it signature significance for an unethical dog owner, because dog owners do these kind of things who love their animal companions beyond all imagining. However, I view doing such a makeover to a dog as a possible indication, rebuttable of course, that the human responsible does not have sufficient regard for living things. Dogs are not props, and an owner who makes a dog look like that is treating it as a prop. I feel the same way about parents who dress up babies, because this…

Baby costume

…too easily metastasizes into this...

Ralphie bunny

and worse, THIS:

Jonbenet

But I digress. My answer to Willem’s question would be one that I often put in my legal ethics seminar multiple choice answers: “It may not be unethical, but I wouldn’t do it.”

2. Baseball ethics. An umpire’s terrible call did terrible damage in the final second of the decisive Dodgers-Giants play-off-game last night. The San Francisco Giants, the team with the best record in all of baseball in the 2020 season, faced elimination from the play-offs by the team they beat, the L.A. Dodgers, over 162 games in a five game face-off. The score was 2-1, with the Dodgers having taken the lead in the top of the ninth. The Giants had the tying run on first, and though there were two outs, there was hope: a home run by batter Wilmer Flores, who had only one strike to spare, would give the hometown Giants a dramatic victory over their hated rivals.

Far fetched, you say? Not really: the last time the Giants were in that position against the Dodgers, this happened:

But what happened last night was that Flores checked his swing, and the first base umpire said his bat had crossed the plate.Flores was called out on strikes. The replay quickly showed that Flores’s at bat should have continued. The call was wrong. “This is bad,” opined Fox color man Ron Darling.

You bet it was bad. This was a historic game between the best two teams in baseball who had the exact same record including the post-season: each had won 109 games. Not only that, the two teams involved constituted the longest rivalry in sports, dating back 130 years when the Giants played in New York and the Dodgers played in Brooklyn. It was unjust enough that either team would be eliminated at such an early stage of the post season, but at least the elimination of the Giants should have been clean.

Two years ago, baseball analyst Bill James suggested that the calling of checked swings as strikes needed to be liberalized, with only the most egregious swings across the plate being called strikes rather than letting the umpires guess at close calls. That rule would have stopped last night’s botched ending. Just give the batter the benefit of the doubt, if there is any doubt.

3. Ethics Dunce: Mike Huckabee. According to reports, former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee and a 2016 candidate for the GOP Presidential nomination has a net worth of $18 million. So why is he shilling for a mail-order sleep aid on cheap TV ads? Ever since Tip O’Neil stepped out of his suitcase in a Samsonite ad, former elected officials and politicians have continued to further erode public trust by acting like snake-oil salesmen. Bob Dole pimped for Pepsi and an erectile dysfunction pill, for heaven’s sake. Yuck.

Fortunately, most former leaders get it: this is not appropriate, damages the public trust, and reduces public servants to a low status indistinguishable from other celebrities. Do you believe a celebrity who is hawking a product? I don’t. And when the likes of Mike Huckabee tells me that before Pill X, he never could sleep through the night and now he “falls asleep the moment [his] head hits the pillow,” I assume he’s like every other pitch-man reading a script.

Yes, yes, I know: Americans already think of politicians that way. Well, that’s a huge problem, and it is the job of responsible politicians to try to fix the problem, not to make it worse.

4. Tony Baretta has this one...Op-ed writer Jesse Wegman spun the sad tail in a recent Times essay about the convicted felons in Florida who can’t vote because Florida law requires them to serve their sentences and pay their fines before they can gain back the right to participate in elections. Apparently 700,000 people in Florida are barred from voting because they can’t afford the financial obligations stemming from a prior felony conviction. Wegman thinks that’s “too many.” Sure it’s too many: too many felons who have yet to pay their debt to society. “It’s like I’m not a citizen,” ex-felon Judy Bolden says. “That’s what they’re saying.” She owes over $53,000 dollars from a conviction 20 years ago, No, Judy, they are saying you’re a bad citizen, because few good citizens commit felonies, and if they do, they show their sincerity in wanting to become good citizens again by paying all fines and penalties as well as serving their time.

I don’t feel strongly one way or the other about allowing ex-felons to vote. Laws excluding them have gradually been eliminated in most states. Not to be cynical about it, but this has happened as Democratic legislators figured out that a disproportionate number of the felons are black, and thus are potential votes in their party’s column. You know the drill: that “disparate impact” allows Democrats to argue that the Republicans want felons banned from voting as a racist tactic to keep blacks from the polls—just like Jim Crow! I don’t trust the judgment of any ex-felon absent knowing more about them; on the other hand, I don’t trust the judgment of a lot of law abiding citizens either.

But Wegman’s efforts to make me feel sympathy over the great injustice Florida is inflicting on all these ex-cons desperate to vote are transparently political. Interestingly, all we are told is how long ago his examples were convicted and how long they served time in prison. We’re never told what they did: might make them less sympathetic, I guess.

Wegman makes valid points about how many of the former felons were not properly informed by the state of how much they owed, and according to some of those he interviewed, there isn’t a user-friendly method to pay. Florida also sells old unpaid fine debts to debt-collectors,who may charge high interest on unpaid debts, and the state suspends the driver’s licenses of people who miss a payment, making it difficult for them to work. These are all valid areas for reform. Nevertheless, all of these problem flow from an adult’s decision to defy society and break the law.

Tony Baretta, the quirky private eye played by Robert Blake in the TV series “Baretta,” liked to say (in addition to his catch-phrase, “And that’s the name of THAT tune!”), “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” He might have added “or you can’t pay the fine.”

19 thoughts on “Friday Ethics Creature Features, 10/15/21: Florida’s Felons, Embarrassed Dogs, Huckster Huckabee

  1. I just finished a biography of Albert Speer. The author, Third Reich citizen and expert Joachim Fest, noted how Goering confronted Speer about the latter’s alleged attempt to kill Hitler while he was in the bunker, accusing him of treason. Speer hotly reminded Goering that he’d also had a responsibility to his country, but like a coward, doped himself up with morphine and looted art instead.

    Goering was an odd man. He had a high I.Q., could speak more than one language (dancing circles around Robert Jackson at the tribunal) and may not have been as personally hostile to the Jews as he seemed. It’s very possible he went along with it the way many people stick with their preferred political party despite disagreeing with some of the platform. There’s no doubt that Goering bore responsibility for the decisions he made, nevertheless.

  2. “Florida also sells old unpaid fine debts to debt-collectors, who may charge high interest on unpaid debts…”

    Wait, I didn’t think it was legal for them to charge higher interest than the original agreement specified. Otherwise you could buy someone’s debt and unilaterally ratchet up the interest rate even when the original creditor couldn’t do that. If that’s legal, many people need to be publicly flogged for making it so and keeping it so.

    “…the state suspends the driver’s licenses of people who miss a payment, making it difficult for them to work.”

    Well, they’re technically allowed to do that, but yeah, it’s not something that’s going to help people make their payments. There’s a rebuttable presumption of racism or otherwise deliberate reinforcement of a poverty trap, and if they somehow manage to rebut that they’ll be stuck with a charge of stupidity. If you want to get money out of people, you have to make it easier for them to earn it. Of course, if the government were interested in doing that, the United States wouldn’t have half the problems it does.

  3. “I assume he’s like every other pitch-man reading a script.”
    “Americans already think of politicians that way.”

    Bingo…. Yes. And worse, perhaps, is the idea that no good crisis will go to waste and all they do is to line their own pockets or to gain more power. They can’t redeem themselves in my assessment. Between the two, I trust the salesman. At least he has limits.

  4. Hermann Göring surrendered to American forces who kept him as a prisoner of war. They did not shoot him out of hand.

    From the POW camp, he was arrested and taken to jail to await trial, there was no pistol and single bullet in the cell. He was not offered an honorable exit from the world. Instead, he was watched and not allowed any form of self-harm, he was seen by doctors who took pains to improve his wretched physical condition ensuring he was ready for the rigors of a trial.

    He received a trial, he has lawyers, he had the ability to present a case, he had the ability to tell his story, he had due process and he was found guilty.

    And they gave him the death penalty.

    But they didn’t choose to shoot him, a soldier’s death. They didn’t choose to behead him, a nobleman’s death. They didn’t choose to gas him, a poetic death. They chose the noose, a criminal’s death. The penalty for rapists and horse thieves and common murderers.

    He was to go to the gallows, he was to climb the steps and hear his death warrant read. He was to be full of cognizant of what was about to happen and why and by who. He was to spend the last moments of his life, the entire rest of his life if you will, reflecting on the things he had done. That was the penalty for his crimes.

    That is what he escaped, not death but justice. Justice imposed by the civilized nations of the world–and Russia–on him for his crimes. Instead, he got to give everyone one last middle finger and die before his sentence, not to die but to be executed, could be carried out.

    • Well-stated, and I get the argument. To a limited extent I agree with it. But dead is dead. The suicide didn’t benefit the bastard in any tangible way, his reputation is no different than if he had been hanged, and the indignity to justice is infinitesimal. I feel the same way about Goebbels and Hitler. They died horrible, desperate,ugly deaths, but of their own design. Sure, it would have been satisfying to be able to try thim and sentence them to being eaten live by crabs or something similarly worthy of their monstrousness, but in teh final analysis, “Meh.”

      • The proper death for a monster is the sword. I’d have done as the Allies did for the others and given Hitler the noose.

        For Göring, he avoided the walk to the gallows, he denied his captors the right to execute him, he took the power out of their hands and if you’re religious, out of the Lord’s hands and into his own. If the timing and manner didn’t matter then someone could have slit his throat for him at any point after his surrender.

          • Nope! It is never okay for anyone to slit anyone’s throat after they have surrendered. Sure it may seem okay because he would have been found guilty, but that is for the courts to find. He had been captured and was no longer able to do any harm. Where would society be if every Tom, Dick or Harriet decided to take the law into their own hands?

            • Let’s be clear, shall we? The statement was “If the timing and manner didn’t matter then someone could have slit his throat for him at any point after his surrender.” I replied, “Yup!” meaning “Yup! Anyone could have.” Anyone didn’t because it would be illegal. I care about following the law; I don’t care how unquestioned human monsters who have forfeited their right to live in society die, as long as they do so as quickly as possible. “Where would society be if every Tom, Dick or Harriet decided to take the law into their own hands?” wildly expands the topic at hand into straw man territory.

              How did you feel about the way the military killed bin Laden?

  5. Strangely Goring’s 2nd in Command in the Luftwaffe was a Jew. It’s almost like all the crap they fed us about WWII was really just lies.

    • That’s not exactly accurate. From his obituary:

      “Goering, who liked Milch and wanted him as deputy chief of the Air Force, had to overcome one factor. Milch’s father was a Jew. Goering had Mulch declared a full Aryan by having Milch’s mother produce a statement ‘saying that he wasn’t his father’s son at all.”

      What’s your point? I’m almost afraid to ask…

  6. Op-ed writer Jesse Wegman spun the sad tail in a recent Times essay about the convicted felons in Florida who can’t vote because Florida law requires them to serve their sentences and pay their fines before they can gain back the right to participate in elections.

    I wonder if this same logic applies to gun control laws.

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