Ethics Quiz: The Milking Class Gaffe

The photo above was taken in a Plains state elementary school in the early 1950s, and depicts a cow-milking exercise. It is, obviously, one of those “Oops!” unfortunate—but funny!—shots that ended up in a local newspaper somewhere because nobody noticed the problem until it was too late.

A Facebook friend posted it on the social media platform for “a chuckle”, and it was clear that the reaction was…restrained.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is tougher than it may seem…

Is posting that photo unethical, as it will be legitimately offensive to some, or is it innocently funny, and only objectionable to the political correctness scolds?

I thought it was funny when I saw it. I also thought my friend would get a fair amount of flack. But the more I think about the factors involved, the more uncertain I am of the answer to the quiz question…

  • Is posting the photo in a public forum a Golden Rule breach? Obviously the photo embarrasses the teacher who, as my freind wrote, “probably wishes she had been standing for the photo.” My friend, however, was a professional performer, in a field where being able to laugh at moments that would humiliate normal people is essential.
  • Based on the period of the photo, it is certain that the teacher by now must be either dead or too old to care about an old newspaper clipping. Does that take the Golden Rule off the table.
  • It is more likely that the children shown might be embarrassed by the photo, or were when it was originally published. Does that matter? Was showing it more unethical then than now, when parents (unethically, even though “everybody does it”) post videos of their children in embarrassing (but funny!) situations constantly?
  • Some people thought  the photo was very funny, and appreciated seeing it. It brightened their day! Is that enough to make showing the picture ethical? What formula should we use to determine whether utilitarian analysis justifies an action where the benefits are tangible and the “harm” is ephemeral? If the photo brightened one viewer’s day, isn’t that enough?
  • One critic of the photo sniffed, “Photoshopped!” If so, and I note that there is always someone who will try to discredit any photo they object to as photoshopped whether it was or not, does it matter to the question at hand. If it’s funny, it’s funny. Or, since it is theoretically funnier if genuine, does being photoshopped change the utilitarian analysis? Should it?
  • Can showing the photo be justified as a social statement and attempt at a course correction, echoing the common lament that the culture is becoming humor adverse thanks to woke-poisoning, and it is a serious problem?

8 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Milking Class Gaffe

  1. Come on! It’s Iowa! Look how diligent the boy is being. He’s going to show everyone in the room how good he is at milking cows. Farm culture is different.

    I’d also guess the photo is two or more decades more recent than the ’50s. That teacher’s haircut dates from the ’70s at least.

    Also, if the photo were current, given what’s going on in schools today, I wouldn’t put it past some school to actually conduct an exercise where the students would actually milk a lactating teacher for some bizarre reason. Maybe the teacher would be a guy who’s transitioned to a woman and the exercise is to show how his/her plumbing actually works.

    • And who milked cows manually even in the ’70s? The class should have been practicing hooking Elsie up to a milking machine. I bet the boy in the photo already knew how to run every machine in his family’s dairy.

      • Several small farms and homesteads in my area even today have a couple of milk cows -or goats- that are milked manually. (The demise of the local dairy farm is another sad tale of modern rural life.) Milking manually isn’t altogether a discontinued practice or lost art.

  2. Given that the image creates only an appearance and does not actually show the teachers body parts I would say that this is no different than a photo of a person standing in front of any other object that creates an appearance of the object is sitting on the person’s head or growing out the subject’s head. The photographic image is in black and white, and the teacher’s blouse may have been a different color from the device. So, in real time the perception of color variations between the blouse and the device may have been significantly different than what could be imaged on film. Had this been a color shot, the distinction might have been more apparent, and the inference might not have been drawn.

    Yes, it is funny and there is no reason for the teacher to feel any sense of shame or embarrassment. I do not see the application of the golden rule here as I see no harm done. Had I been the teacher, I would have laughed at the image.

    People need to laugh as much as possible today because the alternative is to cry.

    • This was pretty much my sentiment.

      It’s an optical illusion that does not show her in a compromising position.

      The only thing I would add would be to question why anyone would be “legitimately” offended by this. It does not show anything actually profane or obscene.


    • I think it would have been unethical to knowingly publish the photo contemporarily, as it would unfairly reflect on the teacher’s judgement.

      The photo is funny *because* it was an innocent illusion mistakenly published. We have institutional trust that teachers don’t pose for naughty illusions. It is like the “that’s what she said” joke: it is rarely funny when deliberately set up. Inadvertent publishing is funny, because she’s embarrassed; her embarrassment preserves trust, and laughter defuses the situation. If the teacher posed, or shared it with parents afterwards, they would be right to question her judgement. It would be creepy, not funny. Deliberate publishing by the newspaper would be malicious.

      Publishing it today, however, is so far removed from it’s original context to create legitimate harm or embarrassment to the teacher or students. It’s has value for being amusing, and reminding everyone that we are one photo away from potential embarrassment, and should treat others with kindness when it happens.

  3. Like OB, my first impression was that the photo is newer than early50’s. In any case, all the subjects are at least well into adulthood, in their 50’s or beyond, by now. They are the only ones whose opinions might matter. There’s no way of knowing what those might be, & a very low likelihood of anyone identifying a person unless that person spills the beans, themselves. I’d guess that the odds favor anyone in the photo would now be amused and glad to have that unique childhood memento to share with friends. I would.

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