David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) On Being An Ethical Adult

David_Foster_Wallace

The late author David Foster Wallace—who committed suicide in 2008, the victim of depression— gave a wise, inspiring, ethically-astute  commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005. The speech was later published as a book in 2009 under the title “This Is Water.” It was recently made into a vivid video, and has been viral on the internet. You can see it here, at least for a while.

If the video sends anyone to Wallace’s other works, it has done good; if it causes people to ponder what ethics really means, for that is what Wallace was talking about, it had done better. Apparently the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust is in the process of ordering that this video be taken down as copyright infringement, which if his words belong to the Trust, is their right. I wish they wouldn’t; I think letting Wallace’s eloquent life lesson reach as many people as possible, especially young people, would be both ethical and consistent with the values and aspirations of Wallace himself, but it is not my decision to make. I am a little conflicted about sending you to the link, in fact, if the piece was, in effect, stolen. I am applying utilitarian balancing here.

You can also read his speech, presumably legally, here, where it was republished upon his death. The essence of it is in this passage:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

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Pointer: Tim LeVier

Sources: Upworthy, The Guardian

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

Sending Teenagers To Prison Forever

He's only 14. Could he really be irredeemable?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld a life sentence for a man who helped throw a boy off a parking ramp when the prisoner was only 14 years old. At issue was whether sentencing someone to life imprisonment without parole for a crime committed at such a young age was prohibited by either the U.S. or the Wisconsin Constitution. The Court ruled not, finding that no national consensus has formed against such sentences.

I can accept that this is the proper legal standard, and that the decision may be correct regarding the law. It is also ethically wrong.

All such problems involve line-drawing and its well-known slippery slopes: if a 19-year old can be sentenced to jail forever, how different is an 18-year-old? 17? 16? Before you know it, we are sentencing 6-year-olds to life imprisonment. We do not have to fall into that trap, however, to declare that it is unethical, though legal, to sentence a 14-year-old boy to an endless jail term. Why? The sentence lacks compassion, mercy, proportion and common sense.

Certainly the crime was a horrible one. Omer Ninham was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide for his role in the death of 13-year-old Zong Vang  in 1998. Ninham and four others between the ages of 13 and 14 accosted the boy  as he was riding his bike home from the grocery store. Ninham and another member of the group teased Vang, punched him, and when Vang ran into a nearby hospital parking ramp, assaulted him on the top floor. Ninham and a friend seized Vang by the wrists and ankles, and as Vang screamed for help, threw him over the edge. He fell five stories, and hit the ground “like a wet bag of cement hitting the pavement,” as a witness put it. Two years later, when Ninham was 16, a judge sentenced him to life without parole. Continue reading