Mayberry Ethics

A theme here at ethics alarms is that ethics, unlike morality, is fluid and dynamic. Society gains in ethical enlightenment over time with reflection and experience.

Since I have been severely limited in my activity of late, I found myself watching an episode of the classic sitcom “The Andy Griffith Show.” Many, indeed most, of the popular shows from the Fifties-Sixties era feel stilted and naive today, but not all of them: “The Andy Griffith Show” is one that holds up beautifully. Like many TV shows then (but few today), the continuing saga of Sheriff Andy Taylor’s challenges as a single dad and the center of sanity in a small town full of Southern eccentrics often focused on societal values and ethics lessons, though it never crossed into preachiness.

The episode I happened across, “One Punch Opie,” was about peer pressure and bullying. A new kid in town is bullying the other children to do things they shouldn’t, like raid Mr. Foley’s fruit and vegetable stands outside his store and steal apples and tomatoes. When Opie (the then-unbearably cute Ron Howard) refuses to follow the gang, the much larger kid threatens him. Opie ultimately confronts the boy who quickly proves that he is a coward, and backs down, ending his malign influence over the other boys.

The bullying theme was not what struck me about the episode, however. The new kid breaks a street lamp with an apple, and Sheriff Andy has Opie round up the other boys who witnessed the crime so he can have a chat with them. (The troublemaking new kid refuses to come along.) The boys all say they witnessed the act, but didn’t throw the fateful fruit. Andy tells them that he’ll let their error in judgment go this time, but the next time, he’ll tell their fathers. “And you know what that means,” Andy says. “It means you’ll get a whippin’!”

Yes, in 1962, a wise and reliably benign TV authority figure casually referenced corporal punishment—probably with a belt, no less, as Andy didn’t say “spanking”—- as a fact of childhood and responsible parenting. Nobody blinked. Sixty years later, such a statement would cause an uproar, and be considered an endorsement of child abuse.

What accepted conduct today will seem equally wrongful in sixty years?

21 thoughts on “Mayberry Ethics

    • Absolutely. We have normalized something that if it wasn’t normalized, we would be revolted by it.

      Westerners are revolted by female circumcision, yet normalize male circumcision. The rationalization will be to compare medical circumcision of males vs. the most extreme, debilitating and unhygienic female circumcision and pronounce the two radically different. But it ignores to facts. Firstly, in many places that practice extreme forms of female circumcision, also practice barbaric, unhygienic and damaging forms on boys. Some places open the urethra for most the length, or split the head. Secondly, not all female circumcision is the same. In SE Asia Muslims practice a form of female cutting that involves a vertical slice to the hood. It in no way harms function and even is less damaging than male circumcision. Yet doctors who do it here are derided and prosecuted.

      100 years from now people will look back on it and be appalled by it being a barbaric practice and fail to grasp how anyone could support it.

      • One of the forms of mutilation you mention is not actually circumcision but rather subcision. And you should not describe circumcision as normalised by western culture, as that is only true of some segments of that; in particular, France has always had a dim view of it, to the point of occasionally if inconsistently making it part of a “No True Frenchman” test, e.g. in marginalising Algerian Arabs and Berbers (though not, ironically, Algerian Jews).

  1. Back in 2017 I found my nostalgic self watching “The Andy Griffith Show” and after 3 or 4 episodes I just couldn’t watch it any more. Here’s what I wrote on Ethics Alarms in 2017 about my experience…

    Now that you brought up “The Andy Griffith Show”; a month or so ago I was watching the show on Netflix from the first episode on and I had to stop a few episodes into it to reevaluate the childish fondness I had for the show because of the sexism written into the show, of course most of it was to teach a lesson, but it sure dated the show because of those kind of attitudes. We’ve come a long way since then.

    I still haven’t gone back and watched any more of the episodes.

    Jack asked, “What accepted conduct today will seem equally wrongful in sixty years?”

    How about the way people immerse themselves in their phones and completely ignore the physical world around them?

    How about participation trophies?

    How about the irrational behaviors of “the woke”?

    How about all the shit that the Democrats have pulled over the last 6+ years? But I suppose the victors do get to write history.

    Okay, I think I should stop now before I get irrationally angry and what’s happened in the USA over the last 15 years.

    • It might make sense to start again on the second season. They retooled some of the characters to make it a bit less folksy. I also think watching three episodes of anything in a row breaks the illusion; people “binge” watching shows these days are missing a big part of the experience by not letting individual episodes settle.

      • Oh, the show famously changed after the first season! The original Andy was like the character Griffith had played on Broadway and in several films..a charming con-artist. It was Griffith’s idea to make Barney the comic center of the show, and have Andy as the straight man, the real fish out of water, a sane, reasonable, thoughtful guy trying to keep everything from spinning out of control. The first season is unwatchable now.

  2. Wait…how is spanking unethical just because a larger number of people now recoil because of it?

    I disagree with this: “A theme here at ethics alarms is that ethics, unlike morality, is fluid and dynamic. Society gains in ethical enlightenment over time with reflection and experience.”

    That just doesn’t make sense. Either something is wrong now and it has always been wrong and we just didn’t know it. Or something was wrong then and we’ve forgotten why nowadays.

    We didn’t own slaves because it was ethical to do so and ethics changed. No. It’s always been unethical to own slaves we just didn’t recognize it at the time.

    • I’m not sure what you disagree with. While there are many kind of conduct that were always wrong but society hadn’t figured it out yet, many kinds of conduct were wrong under the conditions that existed at the time, but over time no longer could qualify as good or right. And vice-versa. Homosexual relationships posed a threat to the existence of the human race in small tribes. The traditional hierarchy of power and roles in which women were child-raisers and men providers made sense and needed to be enforced before civilization advanced. Corporal punishment was a reasonable utilitarian solution to child-rearing before modern society and research devised better, kinder, less risky alternatives. Morality is involves stating and enforcing what is right. Ethics is the process of determining what is right, and that process involves learning and adapting to change.

      • But it’s a GREAT ethics topic, and I thank you for raising it. Some things that are unethical now just weren’t unethical always—even slavery and racism may be in this category. Polygamy made perfect sense once. So did genocide. It’s a long and complex issue; I’ll need time and energy to do it justice. But if you think about it, your stated position leads directly to presentism.

    • … It’s always been unethical to own slaves we just didn’t recognize it at the time.

      Neither of those happens to be the case. Rather, there was a generational lag in recognising that the harsh necessities that justified it had ceased to operate. Those necessities included dealing with prisoners* that could neither be safely kept nor be safely released – the former from lack of guards, food etc. unless someone guarded and grew food (whether slaves or others freed up for it by slave labour), and the latter from the ease of their taking up arms again (Caudine Forks fashion). Unless and until that changed, slavery was as ethical as a doctor choosing to sacrifice a mother for her baby or vice versa, a dilemma deliberately condoned in laws. One may no more argue that such considerations are mitigating factors or extenuating circumstances but not actual justification than one may argue that doctors acted unethically as regards difficult births; by the time it came up, the issue was no longer whether to harm but who to harm.

      * This dilemma even faced the Navy when they apprehended slave ships: what to do with slaver crews, with neither supplies nor guards enough? One approach was to maroon them on the Slave Coast, which effectively killed nearly all of them. And massacre was the usual option in tribal wars, before the more enlightened possibility of slavery became more widely practical (though the Byzantines often merely blinded and released their prisoners, the best known Byzantine practioner is still known to history as Basil the Bulgar Slayer).

        • “It’s ethical to keep slaves because bad people might attack me so it makes it easier for me to defend myself and produce food” isn’t the defense you think it is.

          Not only do I agree that that is a terrible defence, but also I note that that is not what I told you, which makes all that rubbish a straw man. It also completely omits the dangers prisoners present (think Warsaw Ghetto or Treblinka, for modern examples – claiming those revolts were right is not denying but acknowledging the threats).

          The real argument starts by asking: I now have a whole load of prisoners, what do I do with them that it is practical to do?

          There is nothing there about:-

          – bad people (the prisoners can be caught in a successful defence, or as a result of aggression; after that, the issues are much the same either way, as Tamurlaine found);

          – preparing against future attack; or

          – arranging my own food supply (the constraint there is feeding the prisoners; no prisoners, no shortages).

          The first answer was, kill them all. This was usual among the Aztecs and common (for adult, male prisoners) in Dahomey, which is in West Africa. It is also the fallback Tamurlaine ordered during his strategic retreat from Delhi. No prisoners, no problem, whether the problem be one of food shortages arising from having them or of the risk that they might revolt with some success (I again remind you of the Caudine Forks; that issue also comes up in one of Lord Dunsany’s short plays). Slave prevention patrols faced the very same issues dealing with captured slavers; their response was marooning, which amounted to much the same thing, considering how few survived.

          Somewhere along the line, some bright spark came up with the idea of slavery for profit, which was the second answer. In the right circumstances, that was practical (but do read up on the work of Evsey Domar for an insight into this). In modern times western traders could buy captives from the King of Dahomey, which was quite precisely a win-win: the traders, the King and the captives were all better off. It didn’t even lead to more slave raids just then (it got worse that way, later on), because prisoners were being taken anyway as part of recruiting the tribe with women and children, making men an unwanted bycatch to get rid of, unless especially useful.

          So, slavery was an improvement on previous practice that could be applied at scale, when there was nothing else other than massacre available that was practical at scale (you could only blind and geld a few pirate bishops of the Isle of Man and hand them over to monks to look after; Basil the Bulgar Slayer’s wholesale approach often meant the prisoners mostly died anyway, only off stage). And that is the real argument, which rests on choosing among bad choices. It does not say it is good that it ever came up, only that even “good”* people may be faced with it in harsh cases, as well as the Tamurlaines of this world who create those cases. I gave the real world example of doctors choosing between mothers and babies to illustrate that dilemma, an example that was once not rare.

          * This is also comparative. No-one is good save God alone.

  3. What is accepted today that would have been rejected in the past, that is the question! To which I would reply the list is myriad.
    1. Teachers who act and dress unprofessionally.
    2. Students with no fear of retribution for acts committed.
    3. Churches and communities of faith that have disregarded their tenants to curry favor.
    4. Medical professionals who have set aside the art of diagnosis and treatment of patients and accepted the new approach of acquiescing to the client’s demand.
    5. Gratuitous sexual encounters which are overtly portrayed in entertainment.
    6. Too much sensitivity directed toward insensitivity.
    7. A military that has lost its mission.
    8. Parents being friends with their children.
    9. Airlines that treat their passengers like chattel.
    10. Lack of resect for the USA.

    • Churches are notorious for disregarding their tenants. They have a cloak of moral authority as landlords that has for centuries allowed them to get away with taking rent derived from immoral earnings. There was even a mediaeval joke that called the whores of Southwark the “Bishop’s geese” because the Bishop of London got so much from them.

  4. In all fairness there was an episode of Law and Order (it must have been in the first six years since Jill Hennessy was in it) in which Jack McCoy, stymied in his efforts to break a high school group of rapists, decides to get the parents involved, saying they can make a stronger appeal than he can. It works, as one of the dads pulls his son before McCoy and tells him to spill, or he’ll regret it.

  5. All excellent comments, but getting back to the ethics of child rearing punishment…forgive the personal aspect of my remarks. Some 60 years ago my father in an effort to be a good father raised five children. Of course he has the help of my mother, too much help (“I’m going to tell your father when he gets home and you’re going to get it!”). Get it we did. Even my own twin sister got it. He mostly used a belt but sometimes he had us cut our own switches from a Box Elder tree. We grew up knowing that if we screwed up then dad would take the offender out to the garage. Years later at his death we sat around the kitchen table laughing at those days, each with our own stories of dad correcting us.

    My wife would later say “you were all abused.” Nonsense, we were simply raised to understand crime and punishment.

    Fortunately none of used our parents methods.

    • I was raised Italian, so the wooden spoon was the spanking element of choice. I never had kids, but I for one would be partial to the rattan cane. After age 16, though, I think it’s ok to use your fist.

  6. “What accepted conduct today will seem equally wrongful in sixty years?”

    I guess that depends on whether society manages to push through the current Dim Age and make progress, or whether the purveyors of The Great Stupid continue to drag us all backward…

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