Morning Ethics Warm-Up. 11/27/18: Unethical Perry Mason, Icky Science, Race Card-Playing Democrats, Intrusive Bosses And Slanted History

Good morning…

1. They are showing “Perry Mason” reruns again on cable TV. That was the show that made my generation want to be lawyers, under the delusion that a defense attorney could regularly prove a criminal defendant innocent. (Pssst! They are almost all guilty.) The show holds up, but boy, Perry was sleazy. In an episode I watched while I was sick, he had his investigator tell the hapless prosecutor, Hamilton Burger (Ham Burger to his friends) that he had found an incriminating piece of evidence that proved someone other than Perry’s client had committed murder. Ham relied on the information and got the killer to confess once he was faced with the production of the “smoking gun.” But Perry’s investigator hadn’t really found anything.

Having one’s agent lie to the state prosecutor is a serious ethics breach. Perry also caused the DA to tell a falsehood to get the confession, though Burger wasn’t lying, since he believed Perry’s contrivance. Prosecutors are no more allowed to lie than other lawyers, but when they do lie “in the public interest,” they seldom get more than a slap on the wrist from courts and bar ethics committees, if that. Burger didn’t seem very upset that Perry conned him, because the real killer was caught. The ends justifies the means, or did in “Perry Mason.”

2. Ick or ethics? A Chinese scientist claims that he had successfully employed embryonic gene editing to help protect twin baby girls from infection with HIV. We are told that bioethicists in China and elsewhere are reacting with “horror.” Writes the Times,

“Ever since scientists created the powerful gene editing technique Crispr, they have braced apprehensively for the day when it would be used to create a genetically altered human being. Many nations banned such work, fearing it could be misused to alter everything from eye color to I.Q….If human embryos can be routinely edited, many scientists, ethicists and policymakers fear a slippery slope to a future in which babies are genetically engineered for traits — like athletic or intellectual prowess — that have nothing to do with preventing devastating medical conditions.”

As with cloning, my view on this controversy is that a new technology does not become unethical because of how it might be used. That unethical use will be unethical, and that is what needs to be addressed when and if the problem arises. (Airplanes could be used to drop atom bombs!) The fear of “designer babies” also seems to be an example of “ick”—it’s strange and creepy!—being mistaken for unethical. Making stronger, smarter, more talented and healthier human beings is not in itself unethical, even if it is the stuff of science fiction horror novels and Josef Mengele’s dreams. Continue reading

On The Anti-Gun “Weapons Of War” Talking Point

I’m moving this essay up in the queue, because while walking my dog in the rain—such rote activities like dog-walking, showering and driving often trigger “right brain” activities and inspirations—it all became clear to me for the first time.

One aspect of the argument being offered by anti-gun zealots following this school shooting that is new compared to Sandy Hook is the sudden popularity of the term “weapons of war.”  it was used multiple times at the very start of the CNN “town hall,” for example. Rep. Deutch:

But, beyond that, the best way for us to show that is to take action in Washington, in Tallahassee, to get these weapons of war off of our streets.

and…

…and the answer to the question is, do I support weapons that fire-off 150 rounds in seven or eight minutes, weapons that are weapons of war that serve no purpose other than killing the maximum number of people they can, you bet I am.

…and

And that is making sure that we take action to keep our kids and our schools safe and to get dangerous weapons of war off of our streets. That has to be our priority and we’ve got to do it now.

My interest is not whether it is a wise or good thing to ban semi-automatic weapons. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled last year that Maryland’s ban was constitutional, and the Supreme Court, so far, at least, has not chosen to review it. A national ban, however, would certainly require SCOTUS assent, and my guess is that such a law would fail, and as I will continue to explain, should fail.

“Weapons of war” is nowa pejorative phrase designed to make the most popular rifle in America sound as if owning one is perverse. “Weapons of war” suggests not just self-defense, but active combat, and it certainly doesn’t mean hunting deer and rabbits. Following Sandy Hook, a lot of the anti-gun rhetoric, as from New York Governor Cuomo, involved the deceitful (or ignorant) argument that you don’t need a semi-automatic rifle to shoot a deer. This vigorous false narrative is as old as the Left’s anti-gun, anti-Second Amendment movement itself.

Thus  “weapons of war” is now the phrase of choice to persuade moderate, uncommitted citizens considering the gun controversy that it makes no sense to allow citizens to own such weapons. Hunting weapons, sure (at least until there’s a mass shooting in a school using those). A registered handgun to shoot a burglar, a rapist or a home invader?  Fine. But “common sense gun controls” can’t possibly allow citizens to have “weapons of war.”

The problem is that allowing private ownership of weapons of war is exactly what the Founders intended. The Second Amendment was devised to ensure that citizens would  not be disarmed by a government that needed to be overthrown, or, in the alternative, that some citizens wanted to overthrow, but wrongly.

The Founders were, it should not be necessary to say, revolutionaries. They believed that citizens had the right and even the obligation to bring down abusive  governments. Jefferson stated it directly in the Declaration of Independence:

“Prudence … will dictate that Governments long-established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Jefferson was a brilliant man, and no dreamy-eyed idealist. He could not have assumed, feeling the way he did about governments, government power, and the men who come to possess such power, that governments could always be dissolved peacefully. As a prudent and practical man, he was also saying that it is unwise to seek to change a government every time it fails or disappoints, and that long-standing systems deserve the public’s tolerance, patience and forbearance. Government should be a contract of trust, and that when that trust is irreparably broken by abuses of power, the people must have the right, and must have the ability to activate that right, to demand a new form of government.

This is, of course, exactly what the 13 Colonies did. The Constitution they adopted when they began their experiment in democracy naturally and necessarily included a crucial right without which future generations of Americans would not be able to “throw off” a government whose abuse of power had become odious. That was the right to bear arms, embodied in the Second Amendment. The arms one had the right to bear had to be weapons of war, because fighting—civil war, revolution, wars of resistance—was their explicit purpose. Continue reading

John Kelly’s Statement About General Lee And The Civil War Was Fair, Benign And Accurate, And The Historians And Journalists Claiming Otherwise Have Exposed Themselves And Their Professions, Not Kelly, And Not The President

[I’m sorry: this post is long. The provocation for it is serious, however, and I couldn’t thoroughly shred this despicable media effort to make what John Kelly said yesterday something it was not and not even close to being without going over my word limit. I hope you read it. It’s hard to try to counter a concerted effort to mislead and lie to the public from this tiny outpost.]

This development yesterday really depressed me. Either the leftward professions are losing their collective minds, or they are so dedicated to turning the public against the president that they will engage in complete fabrication. Both conclusions are frightening.

Yesterday, CNN reporter April Ryan thought it was appropriate to end a White House press briefing by shouting, “Sarah, is slavery wrong? Sarah, is slavery wrong? Does this administration think that slavery was wrong? Sarah, does this administration believe slavery was wrong?” What, other than a complete absence of fairness and professionalism, provoked this unethical outburst? It was this statement by Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly, as he was interviewed by Fox News’ latest star, Laura Ingraham, regarding the The Confederate Statuary Ethics Train Wreck, specifically the Charlottesville controversy over the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Here is Kelly’s entire statement:

“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War, and men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

Based on that statement, April Ryan, and other hair-trigger “resistance” zealots, concluded that there was now a question whether the Trump administration “thinks slavery is wrong.”

Astounding.

But such is the dishonest and biased state of the news media today.

Let’s begin by examining the components of Kelly’s statement.

A. “I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man.”

There are no contemporary  accounts from anyone who knew Lee that he was not honorable, meaning honest, moral, ethical, and principled, the usual synonyms for honorable. I doubt Kelly was using the word in its most literal sense, “worthy of honor,” but he might have been, The argument is, and I would make it, that such traits a honesty, integrity, courage and other ethical values make any individual, famous or not, worthy of honor.

Lee was terribly, tragically wrong in his choice regarding which side to fight for during the Civil War. I am not an admirer of Lee for this reason. However, during his life there were many episodes where he exhibited exemplary character.  His immediate acceptance of responsibility for the failure of Pickett’s Charge was one, meeting his returning soldiers personally and exclaiming, “It was all my fault.” Another was his insistence that the Confederate army surrender rather than take to the hills in guerrilla resistance that might have extended the Civil War indefinitely.  Lee was flawed, and few men in history who were so admired by their contemporaries have made such a tragic mistake. That does not alter the fact that he was an honorable man.

The problem is that the modern Left does not believe that it is possible to be honorable and to not embrace the Left’s most fervently held principles, even if you lived centuries ago. This is, in part, why  our politics are so uncivil, and why partisans today show less respect to those with differing opinions on public policy than Lee and many of his generation showed to members of the enemy army who were trying to kill them.

B. “He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today.”

This is a statement of fact. Lee’s position was certainly consistent with Kelly’s statement. In some kind of magic, un-negotiated  conspiracy to take what Kelly said to mean something he emphatically did not say, one writer after another has claimed that Kelly was arguing that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Here, for example, is Vox:

“Though this view has long been promoted and even taught in schools around the country, there has been a new push to recognize the cause of the Civil War as rooted in a disagreement about slavery and the refusal of Southern states to give it up…”

Though what view?  Kelly wasn’t opining on the reason for the Civil War, or what was the root cause. He was talking about Robert E. Lee. Is there any question that if Virginia had decided not to secede—as of course it seceded over slavery—Lee would have fought with the Union? I have never read any historian or biographer who said otherwise. Here’s Biography.com, usually an uncontroversial distiller of historical consensus in its Lee biography:

“But Lee’s commitment to the Army was superseded by his commitment to Virginia. After turning down an offer from President Abraham Lincoln to command the Union forces, Lee resigned from the military and returned home. While Lee had misgivings about centering a war on the slavery issue, after Virginia voted to secede from the nation on April 17, 1861, Lee agreed to help lead the Confederate forces.”

That’s what Kelly said. Not every soldier thought that loyalty to state over country was the correct priority, and Kelly wasn’t saying that Lee’s position was the dominant one. It was a common one, however. 1861 was less than a hundred years after the culturally diverse Colonies came together to fight the American Revolution, and the states had been fighting over the balance of power between the federal and state governments almost non-stop ever since. Kelly was acknowledging the fact that Lee’s extreme state loyalty seems odd today, when so many citizens live in several states during their lives, and move from one to another without giving it a second thought. 150 years ago, citizen bonds to the state of their birth was a far, far greater issue, and being asked to take up arms to fight against that state would have posed a wrenching dilemma for most Americans.

That is all Kelly said. If one doesn’t understand the context of Lee’s decision to fight on the same side as the defenders of slavery, then one cannot begin to assess Lee’s status as an American figure. Anyone leaping from that statement to “the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery” is engaging in a clinical level of confirmation bias, and that’s exactly where the attacks on Kelly are coming from. This statement, that doesn’t mention slavery, isn’t about the root cases of the Civil War, and that only explicates Robert E. Lee’s  overwhelming reason for fighting for the Confederacy, is being deliberately distorted to show that President Trump and others in his administration are apologists for racism. The fact that nothing in Kelly’s words even hint at that didn’t stop this example of mass race-baiting, based on air. Continue reading

“Print the Legend” Ethics: The Unjust Obscurity of Mary Quantrell

Barbara Fritchie, as in the poem. But the Barbara in the poem was really Mary.

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the single most bloody day in the Civil War, with nearly 21,000 casualties on September 17, 1862.  Most of us, at least those of my generation, were introduced to the battle with a poem, “The Ballad of Barbara Fritchie,” by John Greenleaf Whittier, telling the tale of a brave old woman, ninety years old, who confronted Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s troops as they marched through Frederick, Maryland to the battlefield, by waving Old Glory after the troops had fired at it, and saying,

Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,’ she said.

Barbara Fritchie is now an icon, and has been portrayed in novels and films. Her house is a historic landmark, and the town uses her name and the poem to market everything from candy to T-shirts. And, I learned this Sunday, it is all a lie, though not old Barbara’s fault. The poet got his facts wrong, or used excessive “poetic license” because “Barbara Fritchie” pleased his ear better than “Mary Quantrell”, the name of the real flag-waver, and a 90-year old patriot made for a more colorful plot than a mere 30-something with chutzpah. Whittier also made Jackson the antagonist of the tale, when in fact the general was the less flamboyant and famous A.P. Hill. In 1876 Quantrell wrote to Whittier pleading with him to correct the record, signing her letter, in quotes, as “Barbara.” He did nothing. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Flying the Confederate Flag…”

Blogger Edward Carney, who writes about the revelations of daily life (check out his blog here) put his finger on a central issue in the Confederate flag debate in his Comment of the Day.  Flying or displaying the provocative banner sends multiple messages simultaneously, and the individual responsible for the flag  is also responsible for the consequence of all of them. Claiming that one means no offense while knowing that one of the messages is unequivocally offensive is disingenuous,  naive, or willfully rude.

Here is the Comment of the Day on the post, “Flying the Confederate Flag..”:

“I’ll say this for those citizens and politicians who insist on flying the Confederate flag at local monuments and public events: at least they can make the argument that it represents history and a set of values that is still acceptable, even laudable, today. They can make that argument, however disingenuous it may be. The same cannot be said of everyone. Continue reading

Flying the Confederate Flag: Protected Speech? Of Course. Unethical? Absolutely.

Honor them for their valor if you must, but there was nothing honorable about their cause or their flag.

Once again, emerging from under-ground like a the seven-year locust, a controversy over the flying of the Confederate Flag is raging, this time in Lexington, Virginia, burial place of two Confederate heroes, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. A proposed city ordinance would prohibit the flying of the Confederate banner on downtown poles, and some Southern heritage buffs as well as Jackson and Lee fans are upset. “By all means [Jackson and Lee] should be honored,” said Brandon Dorsey, commander of Camp 1296 of the Stonewall Brigade of the Confederate Veterans. “I look at the flag as honoring the veterans.”

The problem is, Brandon, that a large number of Americans look at that same flag as honoring slavery and racism, and for good and historical reasons. Continue reading

Ethics, History, and Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator”

James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, a Civil War era Ethics Hero you've never heard of.

Throughout Hollywood history, there have been actors who regularly used their screen personas to explore ethical issues: Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Paul Newman, John Wayne of course, Clint Eastwood, and recently, George Clooney. None of these focused their artistic attentions on ethics more sharply than Robert Redford, however, in such films as “All the President’s Men,” “The Candidate,” “The Proposition,” and “The Natural,” and he has continues his exploration of ethics as a director, in such films as “The Milagro Beanfield War” and “Quiz Show.”

Redford’s most recent film, “The Conspirator,” is another ethics movie, as well as one that explores law and American history. I am a Lincoln assassination buff, and I was eager to see the movie until I read several reviews criticizing it as a heavy-handed allegory attacking the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. Score one for the confirmation bias trap: the movie is nothing of the kind. Continue reading

Robert E. Lee and the Abuse of Principle

Lee: Use his life as a warning, not an inspiration.

As both political parties and the President of the United States seem to be determined to subject the American people, economy and standing in the world to disaster in the defense of principles, it might be a good time to reflect on the fact that principles detached from reality have little value, and that rigidly adhering to principles to the detriment of the community and civilization is not a virtue.

In the current issue of Humanities, historian James Cobb makes these points vividly, if tangentially, while reflecting on the odd reverence with which Americans, and not just Southerners, regard Robert E. Lee. I am proud to say that the lionization of Lee never made sense to me, not even when I was a small boy. But he is the epitome of someone who is revered as a role model and hero for his supposed character and values rather than what he actually did with them.*

Cobb begins his essay with this anecdote:  Continue reading

Remember Gettysburg

Today is July 1, which is being treated across the United States as the gateway to a long weekend and the Fourth of July, and little more. July 1 is also, however, the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most important and most deadly battle of the many important and deadly conflicts in the American Civil War. The two American armies that clashed in the Pennsylvania town sustained more than 50,000 casualties on the Gettysburg battlefield, which may be the saddest and noblest place in America.

If you have not made at least one pilgrimage to the battlefield, you owe it to yourself, and to the memory of the combatants, to go. Continue reading