The Edison Contradiction, Or Why Great Achievers Are So Often Unethical People, And Civilization Is Still Better Off For It

When I noted Thomas Edison’s birthday recently, and pointed readers to the two classic old movies about Tom as a man and boy, reader Chris Marschner wrote,

Re Edison I have seen the films with Tracy and Rooney. Tracy’s portrayal was historically one sided depicting Edison as merely a slave to his inventiveness. I dont recall it showing him as an egotistical tyrant who put real meaning into unbridled competition with Nikolai Tesla. I believe the director conveniently left out the part when Edison electrocuted an elephant to show alternating current was dangerous.

Edison’s inventions are ubiquitous and spawned the growth of the American economy but I would suggest his understanding of ethics would be on par with Harry Reid.

After my response noted that Edison, “like most who reach the absolute top of a field or profession…was absolutely obsessed with one single mission, and was an indifferent father, husband, friend. That’s the sacrifice such people make; yes, ethics is not on their agendas. Nonetheless, they are essential to the advance of civilization. He was a great inventor, not a great man….and he would have never claimed otherwise.”

Reader Steve-O added,

It doesn’t stop with the great scientists and inventors. A lot of the great leaders, political, military, business, arts, and otherwise, were TERRIBLE at human relations and dreadful even as colleagues. A random sampling might include:

Political:

1. FDR – a sociopath and an adulterer.
2. Churchill – a heavy-handed functional alcoholic.
3. Clemenceau – anti-clerical bully who married one of his students.
4. Ataturk – Brute, racist, alcoholic, looked the other way on genocide.
5. Bismarck – “blood and iron.”

Business:

1. Rockefeller – intentionally drove competitors out of business, monopolist.
2. Henry Ford – anti-Semite, conspiracy theorist, Nazi sympathizer.
3. Andrew Carnegie – anti-religious bully, deliberate indifference to poor conditions on his watch.
4. George Pullman – tried to set himself up as king as well as boss of his workers.
5. James “Diamond Jim” Brady – glutton, playboy.
6. Howard Hughes – one word: Yikes!

Military:

1. Douglas MacArthur – the only difference between him and God was that God didn’t think he was MacArthur.
2. George Patton – a warrior who couldn’t live in peacetime, his own staff despised him.
3. Joseph Joffre – indifferent, borderline incompetent, very little regard for the lives of his men.
4. Horatio Nelson – extremely poor treatment of his wife, who never did him wrong.
5. Joe Stilwell – “Vinegar Joe.”

Music:

1. Richard Wagner – tenth-rate human being all around.
2. W.A. Mozart- tortured genius who sometimes tortured others.
3. Johannes Brahms – dark genius who was more at home with music than relationships.
4. Anton Bruckner – macabre, possible pedophile.
5. Rimsky-Korsakov – nasty drunk.

I nearly answered, “Don’t get me started on actors, singers, artists and directors!”

Or, for that matter, Presidents of the United States.

However, this is a serious and confounding problem in ethics. History teaches us that our greatest achievers often not only give very little priority to ethics, but that a strong argument could be mounted that a concern for ethics would have seriously curtailed their positive effect on human progress and society. Is this, in some ways, a direct challenge to the position, my position, that it is every human being’s duty to strive to live by ethical values and decision-making. It is indeed. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 6/29/2018: Reflections On Hubris And Chaos

Good Morning!

 I’ve been feeling sorry for my Democratic and progressive friends ( less so for their ideological allies in government and the news media) who are obviously upset and angry about how matters have proceeded, spinning horribly out of control from their perspective, since November 8, 2016. I hate to see friends in pain, even if they react to it by lashing out against me—well, maybe especially if they lash out against me—and I think I could help them understand why this happened if they were willing to listen, which they are not.

Most of all, their fate is due to hubris of a Euripidean scale, or perhaps Icarus (above) is the better comp. A truly democratic public understands and accepts–must understand and accept— that their side won’t always prevail , and that democracies are like a roller coaster on the way to someplace arguably better over time, based on common principles all of its citizens understand and embrace. Democracies are based on trust in the essential good will of neighbors, and also respect for adversaries, an ethical principle that has great pragmatic benefits as well: eventually, you will be on the bottom looking up, and if you didn’t plant your boot on the faces of those above you now, you are less likely to be tasting leather on a regular basis.

Despite historical lessons such as the nation swinging from Johnson to Nixon and Carter to Reagan, Democrats began to believe their own hype that they were on “the right side of history” in all things, and that the election of Barack Obama guaranteed a constantly ratcheting process towards the transformation of the United States into a socialist, European-style culture. Obama’s smug, superior character catalyzed this fatal error, and the device (which he permitted, if not encouraged)of automatically condemning his critics as racists became a mindset: anyone who disagreed with progressives were racists, sexists, bigots, and otherwise villainous. (You can see this attitude in the recent article in Splinter, a left-wing site, that refers to all of the jurists on the Federalist Society’s Supreme Court candidate’s list as “monsters.” )

This persistent contempt for the humanity of one’s political opponents in a nation is the stuff that totalitarian regimes are made of, and the Democrats, without (perhaps) even realizing it, were well on their way. Adding to their cockiness was the complete abandonment of objectivity by the mainstream media, which during the Obama administration devolved into an uncritical cheering section. Nobody was going to call them racists! Continue reading

Chaos, Kindness, Vivian Landis, and Me

Yesterday I attended the funeral of Vivian Landis, mother of my long-time friend Lise Landis. Vivian was 98 years old when she died, and by all accounts had a wonderful and rewarding life. She also played a big part in mine, by doing what she apparently did routinely: being kind.

Mrs. Landis, along with her late husband Paul, were, by sheer chance, placed in the position of being the Chaos Theory butterfly in the Amazon jungle that causes a momentous chain of events by flapping its wings. They exemplify to me why it is vital for all of us to strive to live using ethical values. We have often no idea what the results will be, but the odds are they will be more good than bad.

In 1972, I had been rejected by all of my choices for law school, though I had been wait-listed at Georgetown. However, it was August, the fall semester was looming, and no word from Washington, D.C. had reached me. Discouraged but resigned, I said the hell with it, and resolved to take a year off, perhaps to craft my thesis on character and the American Presidency into a book. In the meantime, I decided to join my parents and sister on what bid fair to be our last family vacation. Dad had planned one of his typical forced marches, this one through Reno, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, San Francisco, and Seattle.

I was having a great time, relaxing, enjoying the sights, when a ranger tracked us down on the Yosemite canyon floor. Our next-door neighbors in Arlington Mass. had sent a telegram forwarding a Georgetown telegram to the Marshall homestead: a slot for me had just opened up in the 1975 Class, but to claim it, I had to be at the Law Center to register Monday morning—and it was Sunday. And I was in California.

I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go to law school at that point, but my dad was determined that I should take the opportunity. We cut short our Yosemite visit and drove to San Francisco, where I was deposited on a red-eye to Dulles. I had few clothes, and knew nobody in the District of Columbia or anywhere near it. Somehow, I was assured, my family would have a plan for me by the time I arrived. I was to call their hotel in Frisco once I had registered. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/29/18: Baseball Opening Day Edition, Plus Earlobes, Insults, And Tampons…

Good Morning, And Play Ball!

1. To Tony C.  This is always a happy day for me, but I want to mute my joy a bit by dedicating this baseball season to the late Tony Conigliaro. Since my teens, he has been my constant inspiration to live every day to its fullest, because no matter how bright and promising the future seems at any moment, everything can change in the blink of an eye, or an errant pitch from Fate right into your face.

That’s what happened to Tony C. on a cruel August night in 1967. He was playing right field and batting clean-up for his home town baseball team, in a season that would see them win a miracle pennant. He was young, handsome and incredibly talented. He had become the youngest player ever to hit a hundred home runs,  and was in his fourth big league season at the tender age of 22.Then everything changed. Tony’s existence was swept up and placed on a new and dark road that ended with a fluke heart attack and stroke at the age of 37, and a lingering twilight half-death in brain damage until he mercifully passed away eight long years later.

All we can do now is remember a beautiful young man and a brilliant athlete who gave his home town many thrilling moments to savor in the brief time allotted to him, who had everything, and then lost it without reason, warning or justice…and also remember that every day should be lived right, and well, with the determination to be the best we can be, because we may never have a chance to be any better.

Yes, this baseball season is dedicated to you, Tony.

For me, I guess they all are.

2. No, this isn’t The Onion. This is a real tweet from the Democratic Party, authored by Congresswoman Grace Meng:

She continues

“Women deserve equal access to our economy, not punishment for their gender. That’s why I’ve been working with my fellow women to fight for more access to tampons, pads, and the full range of menstrual products since 2015. …I’ve introduced legislation to make these products more affordable — because leveling the playing field and stopping period-shaming give women, especially low-income women, a better chance to succeed in our economy…What else would give women a better chance to succeed? Electing more women to fight these fights with me — because we need leaders who understand the experiences of those they represent. ..Head to and commit to vote in 2018 and beyond, because women can’t wait for economic fairness any longer.”

I hope I don’t have to explain what is wrong with this, and I eagerly anticipate being able to parry any brain-melted partisan who reads something like this and says, “Hey, what a good idea!” Yet obviously millions of people are in thrall to this kind of slippery slope progressivism: if a gender, or a race, or a nationality or any other tribe has a unique need or problem, then all of society must help pay for it, or life is unjust. Was a virus released into the water system of certain major cities.? What else can account for such abdications of personal responsibility being accepted as fair and reasonable?

Hey! Why doesn’t the government pay for my electric razor? Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/23/18: Stupid And Incompetent Edition

Good Morning…

(That’s Phathon, by the way, the son of Helios, the Greek sun god, falling to his death after trying to drive his father’s sun-chariots across the sky. I’m sure you knew that...)

1 “Children or Guns?” We can’t be too critical of 16 and 17-year olds who employ poor reasoning and bumper-sticker rhetoric to demand “something” [New York Times two-page paid ad—sure,  the kids are responsible for it; you believe that don’t you?—reads: “We’re children. You guys are the adults….get something done.”—Parkland school shooting survivor] When the adults are making similar “arguments.” “Children or Guns?”  was the title of the  New York Times editorial two days ago. Yup, that’s the choice: either we can have children, or we can have guns! The Facebook declarations from users too old to go trick or treating are similarly hysterical. This messaging maleducates our young, especially the already harmed shooting survivors. The shooting made them justifiably angry and paranoid, now the cynical adults exploiting them are making them stupid. More notes from the re-invigorated Sandy Hook Ethics Train Wreck:

  • A teaching moment: Ethics Alarms has a flurry of high school students weighing-in here, some with more success than others. This is a good teaching blog for a lot of skills and disciplines, like rhetoric, logic, political debate and, of course, ethics.  At least one college course on ethics uses EA as a permanent resource (or did).

I’d love to see more students comment here, as long as they don’t expect to be coddled. This is a tough forum, and was designed to be. One piece of advice: Read the comment policies and the list of terms and concepts.

The armed officer stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., resigned Thursday after an internal review found he did not enter the school during last week’s deadly shooting. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel announced Deputy Scot Peterson chose to resign after Israel suspended him without pay. “Scot Peterson was absolutely on campus through this entire event. He was armed. He was in uniform,” Israel said at a press conference…

“We’re not going to disclose the video at this time, and we may never disclose the video, depending on the prosecution and the criminal case,” Israel said. “But what I saw was a deputy arrive at the west side of building 12, take up a position — and he never went in.”

When asked by a reporter what Peterson should have done, Israel said the deputy should have “went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.” Israel said the video made him “sick to [his] stomach” and left him feeling “devastated.” “There are no words,” he said.

Sure there are: “Moral luck” are two of them. So is “chaos.” Children and journalists are screaming with fury at the NRA, whose sole job is to set up the most absolute defense possible to protect the Second Amendment as the ACLU is pledged to do with the First, for what we now know was a catastrophic breakdown in multiple human government systems.

We know that the school, the police and the FBI were warned that Nicholas Cruz could be a school shooter multiple times. We know he posted a YouTube video with  the comment: “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” Law enforcement reportedly flagged the comment last September so YouTube would remove it. Problem solved! Now we know that the professional with a gun—the fail-safe— whose job it was to protect the students from exactly this kind of threat was derelict when the system needed him to do his job rapidly and well.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an anomaly, and it would be helpful if the students learned that. The government is made up of fallible humans, and often fails, even when it isn’t corrupt and abusing power. Systems, even the best ones, break down and allow metaphorical dinosaurs to run amuck. You’re never going to be “safe,” and if you think so, someone has lied to you, or you are deluded. For many years beginning in high school, I kept a newspaper clipping about a man, minding his own business and walking home from work ,who was killed by “a flying mailbox”–a truck had slammed into one and it was hurled hundreds of feet in the air, eventually landing on this poor guy, who not only didn’t know what hit him, he wouldn’t have believed it if he had been told.

This has always been the brilliance of the Founders’ vision of a nation and a culture where citizens not only take individual responsibility for their lives, but are guaranteed that right. The bad luck and confluence of unpredictable and uncontrollable circumstances (chaos) tell us that a society where citizens have freedom and guns  available will have periodic tragedies. The fact that multiple government employees and systems failed in Parkland also tells some citizens that the more they are able to protect themselves, the safer they will be.

They are not wrong.

  • The Second Amendment version of the Streisand Effect. Gun sales, which spiked to record levels during the Obama administration because of its irresponsible anti-gun rhetoric, is booming again, as citizens decide they better arm themselves, especially with semi-automatic weapons, before the Left’s “sensible” gun grab. Thus the end result of all the screaming and finger-pointing  will be more guns than ever.

Good job!

  • New vistas in virtue signalling…My Facebook friends, who are drooling all over themselves right now, were cheering the viral video of the guy burning his own AR-15 so it “would never be used” in a mass shooting. This is right up there with Rhett Butler shooting Bonnie Blue’s pony because she was killed trying to ride it, but even dumber. Yes, that rifle is going to escape and kill kids.

The words this time are “showboating” and “virtue-signalling.” That gun was never going to used in a shooting. It’s fungible, so its destruction does nothing and means nothing. The individuals who would misuse their weapons would never do what he’s doing. This is like a non-drinker pouring a bottle of whiskey down the drain before he gets in a car, to protest drunk-driving. It’s like the owner of a loving American Pit Bull Terrier killing his dog because he’s been convinced the breed is dangerous. It’s like him castrating himself so he won’t rape anyone, like Harvey Weinstein.

It’s not an argument, it’s not an example, it’s not intellectually honest. Naturally, everyone is cheering.

This is the incompetent level of the current gun debate.

  • And so is this: At President Trump’s White House meeting with survivors of school shootings and their family members, a father asked, “How many more children have to get shot?”, and this was deemed worthy of a front page headline. That’s an unethical question, a “When did you stop beating your wife?” question, in which answering it accepts a false premise. “No more!” would be a commitment to installing a police state. “647!” would also be unacceptable, presumably.  The President, neither a deep thinker nor a Constitutional expert, gamely foundered with random suggestions, one of which, the arming of teachers, was furiously attacked and ridiculed by the anti-gun zealots, who have yet to suggest a measure that would have stopped the latest shooting and wouldn’t involve gutting the Bill of Rights.

2. We are poor little lambs who are dumb as hell...I suppose it is gratifying to know that Yale’s institutions are as silly and self-destructive as Harvard’s. I was expecting this one: it is Hasty Pudding Show Redux. Harvard was stupid first, though!

Yale’s Whiffenpoofs, the country’s oldest collegiate a cappella singing group, capitulated to #MeToo anti-male  attacks on campus and this week named Sofia Campoamor, a junior, as the first female member of the all-male  singing group since its founding in 1909. Well, that’s the end of that. Apparently certain kinds of sounds are now politically intolerable in Progressive Cloud Cuckoo Land. All male singing groups, all female singing groups, and mixed gender singing groups have different, distinctive and aesthetically pleasing sounds. Unless Sophia is a bass, or plans on taking hormones, the addition of a female voice to an all-male harmony ensemble changes its sound. Have you ever heard a mixed gender barbershop quartet? It doesn’t sound like a barbershop quartet, just as adding a male to the Supremes would mean the group wouldn’t sound like the Supremes.

The Progressive drive for agenda-driven conformity is a symptom of its totalitarian proclivities. There is nothing wrong or unethical about all-male musical ensembles, and the sound they create is worth preserving. I wouldn’t cross the street to hear the ‘Poofs, but the group has allowed itself to be sacrificed to political correctness.

3. Finally, this entry in the “When ethics alarms don’t ring” files. A dining hall at New York University advertised a special meal in honor of Black History Month:  barbecue ribs, corn bread, collard greens, Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water. After black students complained, two low-level black employees were fired for choosing  a menu that Andrew Hamilton, the president of New York University, called “inexcusably insensitive.” 

Foul. The black employees were given an impossible assignment, a trap, really: “OK, decide what we’re going to serve for the Black History meal.” Their supervisors gave inadequate guidance, and no oversight. What would you serve? My answer: nothing different from any other meal, except maybe better than usual. But without guidance, I can see how this gaffe was made. And so self-righteous, privileged black students got two people fired as retribution.  Victory.

Now THIS Is An Untrustworthy Legislative Staffer…And Incidentally, We’re Doomed

In March of 2016,  Stacey Plaskett, the delegate to the United States House of Representatives from the United States Virgin Islands’s at-large congressional district. entrusted her iPhone and its password to staffer Juan McCullum, who copied nude images and videos of legislator after offering to take the phone to an Apple store for repairs.

After he left Plaskett’s office, McCullum created a Hotmail account and “sent at least eleven e-mail messages to multiple persons, including politicians, members of the media, and other persons known to [Plaskett].” The e-mails contained “one or more of the nude images and videos,” according to this week’s indictment against McCollum. He also created a Facebook account, uploaded the visual content, and then Facebook-friended people in Plaskett’s district to spread the nude images far and wide.

A few questions: Continue reading

The Ethics Lessons In The Tragic Death Of Harambe The Gorilla

The primary lesson is this: Sometimes bad things happen and nobody deserves to be punished.

The tragedy of Harambe the Gorilla is exactly this kind of incident.

In case you weren’t following zoo news over the long weekend, what happened was this. On Saturday, a mother visiting the Cincinnati zoo with several children in tow took her eyes off of a toddler long enough for him to breach the three foot barricade at the Gorilla World exhibit and fall into its moat. Harambe, a 17-year old Lowland gorilla male, took hold of the child, and zookeepers shot the animal dead.

Then  animal rights zealots held a vigil outside the zoo to mourn the gorilla.  Petitions were placed on line blaming the child’s mother for the gorilla’s death. Other critics said that the zoo-keepers should have tranquilized the beast, a member of an endangered species. The zoo called a news conference to defend its actions.

Lessons:

1. Animal rights activists are shameless, and will exploit any opportunity to advance their agenda, which in its craziest form demands that animals be accorded the same civil rights as humans. Their argument rests equally on sentiment and science, and takes an absolute position in a very complex ethics conflict. This incident is a freak, and cannot fairly be used to reach any conclusions about zoos and keeping wild animals captive.

2. Yes, the mother made a mistake, by definition. This is res ipsa loquitur: “the thing speaks for itself.” If a child under adult supervision gets into a gorilla enclosure, then the adult has not been competent, careful and diligent in his or her oversight.  The truth is, however, that every parent alive has several, probably many, such moments of distraction that could result in disaster, absent moral luck. This wasn’t gross negligence; it was routine, human negligence, for nobody is perfect all the time. You want gross negligence involving animals? How about this, one of the first ethics essays I ever wrote, about the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin holding his infant son in one arm while feeding and taunting a 12-foot crocodile? You want gross negligence amounting to child endangerment? Look no further than the 6-month-old waterskiier’s parents. Taking one’s eyes off of a child  for a minute or two, however, if not unavoidable, is certainly minor negligence that is endemic to parenthood. Zoos, moreover, are not supposed to be dangerous. Continue reading