At Yale, An Unethical Question And An Ethically Ignorant Answer

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx) was recording a live episode of his podcast “Verdict” at Yale with his co-host, conservative writer Michael Knowles. The topic was the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson as the next member of the Supreme Court, but a student, “Evan”, asked Cruz a question that was juuust a bit off-topic.

“Assuming it would end global hunger, would you fellate another man?” Evan queried as the audience guffawed. Hahahaha, you’re an asshole, Evan. The question is rude, unserious, and designed to embarrass a U.S. Senator. It’s Golden Rule breach, of course, because the question is of the “when did you stop beating your wife?” variety. For a conservative like Cruz, any answer would get him into trouble.

I would have shut the student down, myself, and asked him to leave. A question like that is the live equivalent of trolling. Instead, Cruz threw the question to his co-host.

Big mistake.

Knowles answered, “Like a typical left-wing undergraduate, you are engaging in consequentialist ethics…You are attempting to justify flagrantly immoral behavior to achieve a good end. And I tell you, my friend, the ends do not justify the means. Absolutely, absolutely not,”

The answer was, in some ways, worse than the question. First, the hypothetical wasn’t about “consequentialist” ethics. It was, to the extent that it was anything other than a way to get a cheap laugh, an example of utilitarian ethics, which Knowles clearly doesn’t understand at all. Second, he’s confusing morality with ethics. In his moral code, a religious one, fellatio is a moral breach, a sin. Ethically, mutually consensual sex between males isn’t ethical or unethical. It isn’t harming anyone.

Third, ethically Knowles’ answer is idiotic. Of course a man should give a man a man a blow job to end world hunger; it’s just too stupid a hypothetical to answer. And it would be ethical and mandatory to torture someone if it was the only way to stop a nuclear bomb from exploding in Los Angeles. And I would have sex with my sister (Ew!) if it would cure cancer. How hard is that to figure out?  My father killed human beings during World War II to defeat Hitler, and killing someone is quite a bit more immoral than giving a man a blowjob. The ends sometimes do justify the means; that’s what Bentham, Mill and others, as well as human experience have taught us. That’s the importance of ethical balancing.

The student’s question was obnoxious, and didn’t deserve to be answered. However, to answer it as foolishly as Knowles did demonstrates how ethically obtuse so many of our “opinion leaders” are.

17 thoughts on “At Yale, An Unethical Question And An Ethically Ignorant Answer

  1. If Cruz understood the question why didn’t he say to the student, “Well now that you’ve gotten your sophomoric laugh, I think you can sit down”, but I think Cruz threw the question to his co-host because he might not have known what “fellate” meant, heck I was ignorant enough that I had to look it up.

    • I just noticed that “fellate” is actually Latin, nice. Yes the student is a sophomoric asshole.

      Here is one I’ve used before with people that constantly leave unconsumed fluid in the bottom of their glass, I know a few. If you didn’t know Greek you’d never understand what was being said.

      Pisoplysiphobia ( fē’-sō-fē-lē-sē-fō-bē-ə) The fear of drinking your own backwash at the bottom of you glass. The word is derived from the English spelling of the spoken Greek words for back (píso) and wash (plýsi).

  2. Just armchair anti-heckling here, but at least now I’ll be ready for one of these dipsticks.

    “This is a serious interview, not a game of Would You Rather. Tell you what, once you have the ability to end world hunger, then maybe someone will put up with your sexual harassment. (Goodness knows people who don’t end world hunger get away with it…) Until then, though, would you keep your inappropriate and extremely contrived scenarios to yourself, if it meant being allowed to remain in this room?”

  3. This sort of thing may be a new tactic in leftist disruption of presentations they don’t like. A similar stunt is noted in this article (below) where a mob disrupted a talk by Allen West at Univ. Buffalo. A student in the Q&A segment read off a 10 minute rambling pointless “question”, apparently with the intent of just running out the clock or otherwise spoiling the presentation. In this case, it looks like they still followed up with their usual violence, though.

  4. Quick Google search of the word ethics has everything from Webster to Wikipedia defining it as moral principles; only a law website defined it, loosely paraphrased as “character and customs.”

    Ending world hunger is about as pie in the sky as the song “Imagine”.

    Cruz and Knowles are known Christians, so the question was absolutely posed in terms of violating one moral in return for a greater “moral” good, even if presented as nothing more than smartassery for it’s own sake.

    Killing human beings (as distinct from murder) isn’t immoral unless all human life is untouchable for any reason whatsoever – the ethics of war and punishment are immense topics by themselves.

    Your statement about the curing of cancer is as dumb as the question posed, I’m surprise you used it as a reference point. Any simplistic act posed as the solution to a massively complex issue is nonsensical and unserious.

    You may not like how Knowles responded, and others here have presented responses you do like, but his response was not so bad as you assess. I don’t think it was great, but, let’s see what we all come up with on the spot in a public forum.

    • It was bad because it really did mix up morality and ethics. Check the glossary. Yes, dictionaries essentially follow the lazy, interchangeable definitions, which only reflects the public’s use of the word.

      1. “Cruz and Knowles are known Christians, so the question was absolutely posed in terms of violating one moral in return for a greater “moral” good” Yes, and that’s utilitarianism. Politicians have to understand that: it’s what they do. Knowles does not.

      2. Killing is still a moral breach. The Judeo-Christian moral code, the Ten Commandments, says no killing, not no murdering. Unless Knowles is a pacifist (and he isn’t) it’s absurd to say he’d kill for the greater good, but he would never give a blow-job.

      3. “Your statement about the curing of cancer is as dumb as the question posed, I’m surprise you used it as a reference point. Any simplistic act posed as the solution to a massively complex issue is nonsensical and unserious.” Except I didn’t pose it as question. I used it as a pure example of an obvious and justifiable ethical trade-off, which it is, in the magical or hypothetical circumstances in which it could happen. Ethics thought experiments often involve impossible conditions (Would you eat a talking pig?). The student’s question wouldn’t be obnoxious in an ethics seminar, or if asked of theologians.

      The options are not to answer the question, or to answer it correctly. Knowles did neither.

      • I remember utilitarianism as more choosing between alternatives of a good that satisfies the self, or doing a good to satisfy others – not committing an evil that would result in a benefit for others (which certainly seems to say the ends justify the means). In any case, both the question and your example strike me as unserious analysis, no better than Knowles’ answer if we say it wasn’t a very good.

        The proper translation is murder, not just killing.

        Simple search, picked the first three obvious specifically Jewish sites.

        I’m going with the Hebrews on that one.

        • So Christians are being held to a double secret moral code in which they don’t know what the words mean? Uh-uh. Find me an English version of the Commandment that says “murder.”

          Utilitarianism is one of the three most important ethical systems, holding that actions are right if they are useful or for the benefit of a majority, resulting in the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people in society. By that measure (and it is not always appropriate or ethical at the extremes), the student’s question is an easy call. The blow job hurts no one, and ending hunger (or cancer) helps many. It’s not an unserious point, because so many people, like you, I guess, don’t understand why morality isn’t the same as ethics. I don’t deal with morality here, for the most part. Morality involves standards that come from an authority, and has nothing to do with experience or reason: things are good or bad because some authority says so.

          Fellatio is a great example of why it is so often a confounding factor. The ancient taboo on fellatio made sense when it interfered with procreation: it literally hurt society. Now, that’s not true, and while still “immoral,” there is nothing unethical about it at all.

          Calling it “evil” is so 3rd Century of you.

          • Boy, you know I love you, Jack, but am compelled to give a little push back here. Many Christians have understood, for some time, that the more accurate translation of the 6th specifies murder. The commonly used NIV version has it as “You shall not murder”.

            • But “many” isn’t enough, is it? If a moral code is to work, especially one enforced by God, it better be clear and understood by everybody who feels bound by it. I have three bibles (old ones, from my parents) here in front of me, all different versions. All say “kill.” “Murder makes more sense legally and ethically, but again: a moral code tenet is like a law. A law that has various versions is void for vagueness. Let’s check Google: The first and featured version says “Kill.” Then come two links to the movie, which I know by heart: God says “kill.”

              Wikipedia indeed uses “murder,” and the next several references use murder. Most of the illustrations use “kill.”

              It is also a side issue to the discussion. OK, “murder’ it is. Then you have the “Baby Hitler” scenario, or “The Dead Zone.” Same result: if a murder would stop a global catastrophe, then murder, although immoral, is ethical. As in Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Letting Joan Collins die was ethical. It was still immoral.

              • Jack, you made an argument about Knowles having a predicament in regard to a moral choice, referencing “killing”. The point I was making is the commandment is from the Jewish religion, and if we’re going to verify the accuracy of the translation, we should see how those whose language it is translate it. The distinction is important.

      • Jack,
        Help me understand consequentialism vs utilitarianism a bit. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy directly connects the two in an intuitive way that is at odds with your statement that seems to imply they are mutually exclusive.

        Referring to this page, specifically:

        Two representative (summary) quotes:
        “Classic utilitarianism is consequentialist…”
        “The paradigm case of consequentialism is utilitarianism…”

        I admit my knowledge of philosophy is limited and I can imagine there is much more to it.

        Why is Knowles wrong about whether it is consequentialist or not?

        • Ugh. That link is the kind of circumnavigated Authentic Frontier Gibberish that has killed ethics as a discipline. Using “consequentialism” as Knowles does is a reference to morality, not ethics. In morality, consequences don’t matter: moral edicts are absolute. Look at all the different kinds of consequentialism that the article describes. What I mean by consequentialism is what the article terms “Actual” or “Direct” consequentialism, which is nonsense when applied to ethics. In ethics, and utilitarianism, whether an act is ethical or not depends on the ethical value of the choice when it is made. That evaluation doesn’t change regardless of what the actual consequences are, because the actor cannot know what will happen after he or she has acted. Utilitarian decisions are based on balancing and assessing what the actor believes, rationally and reasonably, what the consequences will be. To a moralist, this is repugnant. The moral mandate is the moral mandate, and consequences aren’t even to be considered. It’s like actual law: we obey the laws. We don’t get to breach them because we’ve decided that the consequences are unethical Like law, but not law. That’s where Knowles defaulting to consequentialism is part of his substituting morality for ethics, which is the process of deciding what conduct is right or wrong. In Knowles’ universe, there are no choices. Moral Codes make those choices for you.

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