Tag Archives: cognitive dissonance

Clarence Darrow’s Reflections On His Birthday

Today I’m going to indulge myself here, as it is Cognitive Dissonance Day, December First, my birthday and the 9th anniversary of my biggest birthday surprise, finding my 89-year-old father, Jack Sr., dead in his favorite chair when I arrived to pick him up to go out for dinner. Even though I know, and knew then, that the end was well timed, exactly as Dad would have wanted, and perhaps even self-willed, it’s a tough day for me, added to the only periodically dawning realization that I’m not going to be around forever myself. Dad was a lifelong iconoclast, loner, idealist, joker, cynic, optimist, hero and seeker of truth, and the best role model any son ever had. After he died, his doctor told me that normal men would have been in bed for months. “All sorts of things were killing him, and he was in a lot of pain,” he told me. “His attitude was ‘Just keep going, and nobody wants to hear old people complaining.'”

But I digress. Here’s today’s first installment of Ethics Alarms self-indulgence, frequent guest here Clarence Darrow’s reflections on his birthday. The SOB called himself an old man at 61. He was a kid!

I have always yearned for peace, but have lived a life of war. I do not know why, excepting that it is the law of my being. I have lived a life in front trenches, looking for trouble.

If I had known just what I was to run into here I would have worn a gas mask. A man is never painted as he is. One is either better or worse than the picture that is drawn. This is the first time that I have felt that I was worse. No one ever gave me a dinner like this before, and I really do not know how my friends happened to take into their heads to do it this time. I am sure it has been pleasant, although in spots more or less embarrassing; still on the whole I prefer the embarrassments incident to this dinner, rather than the ones I often get.

Like most others who reach the modest age of sixty-one, I have hardly noticed it. Still this morning for the first time in more than twenty yeas I felt a twinge of rheumatism, a gentle reminder on this birthday that I am no longer a “spring chicken.” On the whole the years have passed rapidly. Some of them, it is true, have dragged, but mainly they have hurried as if anxious to finish the job as soon as they possibly could. So quickly have they sped that I hardly realize that so many have been checked off, in fact I have scarcely thought about it as they went by.

I have been congratulated a good many times today, no doubt on the fact that I am so nearly done with it all. One scarcely feels as they go along that they are getting–well older. Of course I know my intellect is just as good as it ever was; I am sure of that. Everyone tells me that I am looking younger. I had my hair cut about a month ago; a friend remarked, “It makes you look ten years younger,” so I had it cut again. Perhaps I shall keep on getting it cut. Of course, one more or less doubts the truthfulness of thee old friends, when they say you are getting younger, but at the same time you try to believe them and do not contradict.

Perhaps it would be proper at a time like this to reminisce more or less, but I am always afraid to do it. I am never quite sure whether I might not have said the same things before . Neither am I certain that I shall not say something I had better leave unsaid. If one has lived an active life, as he grows old he finds that he has gathered a large fund of facts and fictions that he should keep to himself; and yet he always feels an urge to tell. Then I have had Tolstoy’s frightful example before me all my days. You know he lived a busy, useful life, getting about all there was out of it, and then after he got–well, past sixty-one, he grew good and began to moralize I presume Tolstoy did not know just what was the matter with him. Continue reading

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The Return Of Louis C.K. For Ethics Dummies

Ick.

Reading the news media and entertainment websites, one would think that Louis C.K.’s return to stand-up comedy after nearly a year in exile or rehab or something raises ethics conundrums that would stump Plato, Kant and Mill. It’s not that hard. The fact that everyone, especially those in the entertainment field, are displaying such confusion and angst just tells us something useful about them. They don’t know how to figure out what’s right and wrong.

In case you have forgotten, cult comedy star  Louis C.K. admitted last November at the peak of the #MeToo rush that he had masturbed in front of  at least five women without their consent. Ick. His cable show and other projects were cancelled, and he disappeared from the public eye. Then, last weekend, he returned to the stage at the Comedy Cellar in New York, performed for about 15 minutes, and received a standing ovation.  This apparently alternately shocked or confused people. I’ll make it simple.

Does the comedian have a right to practice his art after the revelation of his disgusting conduct?

Of course he does. He wasn’t sentenced to prison. He has a right to try to make a living at what he does well. In fact, he has a First Amendment right to tell jokes any where others will listen to him.

OK, he technically has a right. But is it right for him to come back like nothing has happened?

What? The man was publicly shamed and humiliated. He can’t come back as if nothing has happened, because everyone knows that something has happened. Nevertheless, his art does not require the public trust. It does not demand good character, or even the absence of a criminal record. Does a great singer sound worse because he was abusive to women? No. Is there a law that says men who are abusive to women should never be able to work again? No, and there shouldn’t be. I wouldn’t hire C.K. to work in an office, because I see no reason to trust him around others. But he’s not a worker, he’s an artist. He never engaged in inappropriate conduct on stage. He can be trusted as an artist,at least when he’s performing solo.

Comedian Michael Ian Black tweeted regarding Louis C.K.that “Will take heat for this, but people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives.I don’t know if it’s been long enough, or his career will recover, or if people will have him back, but I’m happy to see him try.” For this he apologized,  saying this position was “ultimately, not defensible.” after he was broiled on social media. Should he have apologized? Continue reading

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Oh-Oh… I May Be Mellowing: I’m Not As Keen On The Felony Murder Rule As I Once Was

The New York Times recently had a story about the latest state, California, considering abolishing the felony murder rule, the tough American principle that if you participate in a felony and someone is killed, you can be tried for first degree murder even if you didn’t directly cause the death. Writing about the rule in 2014 as it  applied in a particularly odd case, I wrote,

I sort of like it, and always have. Like all laws, however, it doesn’t work perfectly all the time.

The reason I like the rule is that it acknowledges the real danger of initiating felonies, crimes that are serious and destructive. If you burn a business down to collect the insurance, for example, you should be held responsible by the law if the fire gets out of control and someone is killed. The law combines criminal and civil offenses; the felony murder rule is like a negligent crime principle. It is a law that implicitly understands Chaos Theory at a basic level: actions often have unpredictable consequences, and even if the consequences are worse than you expected or could have expected, you still are accountable for putting dangerous and perhaps deadly forces in motion. If you commit a felony, you better make damn sure you know what you are doing, because if people get killed,  you will be held to a doubly harsh standard. Better yet, don’t commit the crime.

Don’t commit the crime. I have this reaction to all complaints about harsh sentences when the individual complaining (or having an advocate complain on his behalf) is guilty of the crime involved…You knew the risk, and you get no sympathy from me. The same applies to felony murder. The felon rolled the dice, and lost. (Somebody else lost too: the victim who was killed.) Nobody made him (or her) roll.

The potential California reform would change state law so that only someone who actually killed, intended to kill or acted as a major player with “reckless indifference to human life” could face murder charges. That would avoid seemingly harsh sentences in cases like the one the Time story focuses on, in which Shawn Khalifa, 15 at the times, served as a look-out while some teenage friends broke into an elderly neighbor’s house in the  California town of Perris, looking for cash. The elderly homeowner was injured in the burglary and eventually died.  A jury convicted the teenager of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule, and he is serving a sentence of 25 years to life. I am tempted to support the California  measure, which would avoid Khalifa’s kind of sentence while keeping the possibility of a felony murder charge when the culpability is more than just moral luck. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/6/2018: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Gooooood Morning!

1. From the Moral Luck files:

What you just saw is a bald eagle landing on Seattle Mariners starter James Paxton’s shoulder during the National Anthem before yesterday’s Mariners-Twins game.  Here’s a closer look…

The eagle got confused: it is supposed to go to his trainer, in one of the more spectacular Anthem displays that has ever been devised: I’ve seen this performance several times.  After the game, Paxton was asked why he didn’t try to escape. His answer:

“I’m not gonna outrun an eagle, so just thought, we’ll see what happens.”

Heck, he had already endured the horror of Dessa’s incredibly off-key rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” what’s a mere bald eagle attack? Seriously, Paxton’s quote is an ethics guide: Don’t panic, don’t act on emotion, assess the situation, see what happens, and act accordingly. Of course, the fact that this strategy worked out well helps: if the eagle had ripped his eyes out, everyone would be saying Paxton was an idiot not to run.

How I would have loved to see this happen to Colin Kaepernick!

2. How the President gets himself into ethics trouble. I just watched a clip of Trump speaking yesterday about California’s sanctuary cities. “The thing is that these cities are protecting bad people,” he said, with emphasis. Naturally, this will be characterized as racism. It’s not racism, however. The statement is just overly simplistic, and exacerbated in its inflammatory elements by the President’s rudimentary vocabulary, in which the only operable adjectives appear to be great, bad, horrible, wonderful, terrible, sad, and a few more. It is impossible to communicate about complex issues competently and fairly with such meager tools. Illegal immigrants have broken our laws and willfully so. That is not good, but it does not make all of them bad people….though many are. Continue reading

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Review: Ethics Alarms Concepts And Special Terms

Recently updating the Ethics Alarms list of concepts and frequently used terms reminded me that I had been meaning to post them for review and assistance to those relatively new here. Of course, the link has always been right there at the top of the home page, but I have this sneaking suspicion that it isn’t visited very often.  Here, then, is the up-to-date list.

CONCEPTS

Non-Ethical Considerations: Defined above, non-ethical considerations are important because they are often the powerful impediments to ethical conduct, and the cause of many conflicts of interest. Non-ethical considerations are many and diverse, and include:

  • The need and desire for shelter, health, wealth, fame, security, self-esteem, reputation, power, professional advancement, comfort, love, sex, praise, credit, appreciation, affection, or satisfaction
  • The desire for the health, comfort, safety, welfare and happiness for one’s family, loved ones, friends, colleagues, an co-workers
  • The pursuit of vengeance or retribution
  • Hunger, lust, pain, ambition, prejudice, bias, hatred, laziness, fatigue, disgust, anger, fear
  • …and many more

Ethical Dilemma: This is an ethical problem in which the ethical choice involves ignoring a powerful non-ethical consideration. Do the right thing, but lose your job, a friend, a lover, or an opportunity for advancement. A non-ethical consideration can be powerful and important enough to justify choosing it over the strict ethical action.

Ethical Conflict: When two ethical principles demand opposite results in the same situation, this is an ethical conflict. Solving ethical conflicts may require establishing a hierarchy or priority of ethical principles, or examining the situation through another ethical system.

Ethical Gray Area: Gray areas are situations and problems that don’t fit neatly into any existing mode of ethical analysis. In some cases, there may even be a dispute regarding whether ethics is involved.

Reciprocity: The ethical system embodied by The Golden Rule, and given slightly different form in other religions and philosophies. It is a straight-forward way of judging conduct affecting others by putting oneself in the position of those affected. Reciprocity should always be available in any ethical analysis, but it is frequently too simple to be helpful in complex ethical situations with multiple competing interests.

Absolutism: Absolutist systems do not permit any exception to certain ethical principles. The champion of all absolutists, philosopher Immanuel Kant, declared that the ethical act was one that the actor was willing to have stand as a universal principle.

One principle of absolutism is that human beings can never be harmed for any objective, no matter how otherwise worthwhile. Absolutism has the advantage of making tough ethical calls seem easy, and the disadvantage of making debate impossible. One sees absolutism reflected today in the controversies over war, torture, abortion, cloning, and capital punishment.

Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism accepts the existence of ethical conflicts and the legitimacy of some ethical dilemmas, and proposes ethical analysis based on the question, “Which act will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people?’ It entails the balancing of greater and lesser goods, and is useful for unraveling complex ethical problems. Its drawback, or trap, is that utilitarianism can slide into “The ends justify the means” without some application of absolutist and reciprocity principles.

Consequentialism: In formal ethics, utilitarian schools of philosophy are sometimes lumped together as “consequentialism,” in that the ethical decision-making is based on seeking the best result. Here we just uses the above term, utilitarianism.  Consequentialsm, in contrast, is the flawed belief that the rightness or wrongness, or even wisdom, of chosen conduct is measures by its actual results rather than its intended results. If “if all worked out for the best,” in other words, the conduct that created the desirable result most have been ethical, whatever its intent or however the conduct was determined to be necessary or desirable. This is a fallacy.

Cognitive Dissonance:
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon first identified by Leon Festinger. It occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a person believes, knows and values, and persuasive information that calls these into question. The discrepancy causes psychological discomfort, and the mind adjusts to reduce the discrepancy. In ethics, cognitive dissonance is important in its ability to alter values, such as when an admired celebrity embraces behavior that his or her admirers deplore. Their dissonance will often result in changing their attitudes toward the behavior. Dissonance also leads to rationalizations of unethical conduct, as when the appeal and potential benefits of a large amount of money makes unethical actions to acquire it seem less objectionable than if they were applied to smaller amounts.

Moral Luck: The common situation where an unethical act is only discovered, noticed, or deemed worthy of condemnation due to unpredictable occurrences that come as a result of the act or that affect its consequences. Moral luck is the difference, for example, between two mildly intoxicated drivers, one of whom arrives home without incident, while the other has an unwary child dash in front of his automobile, leading to a fatal accident that he couldn’t have avoided if completely sober. Yet the unlucky driver will be a pariah in the community, while the more fortunate driver goes on with his life.

SPECIAL TERMS USED ON ETHICS ALARMS

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/1/2018: The Easter-April Fools Edition [UPDATED]

Happy Easter, or April Fools Day,

…whichever you chose, or both.

[My family celebrated Greek Easter (next Sunday, this year), or not, depending on how Greek my mother was feeling. The whole thing left me thoroughly confused. And why no Greek April Fool’s?]

1 Hey, it’s only the Pope carelessly allowing centuries of Catholic teachings to be declared, if informally, null and void. What’s everyone so upset about? Recipe for a fiasco:

  • The Pope inexplicably has a meeting with a 93-year-old atheist reporter, Eugenio Scalfari, who has reported on the alleged contents of their private meetings before.
  • Scalfari has admitted “on more than one occasion” that he doesn’t take notes or record his conversations with the Pope.
  • The Pope either opines, or doesn’t, or sort of does depending on your interpretation, and if you are an atheist confirmation bias comes into play, opine that Hell doesn’t exist, saying, according to his pal, “Hell does not exist…The disappearance of sinful souls exists.”
  • Scalfari, presumably without permission or consent, but he’s a journalist, so he’s going to report the news, and the Pope saying that all that stuff in the Bible about Satan is a lot of hooey is, you have to admit, news (although who knows if Matt Pearce would report it as news; I guess it would depend on whether he wanted the public to know there was no Hell, right?), naturally lets the world know that the Pope doesn’t believe what his predecessors and follower have been using to scare the Hell out of sinners all this time.
  • The Vatican issued a statement saying:

“What is reported by the author in today’s article is the fruit of his reconstruction, in which the precise words uttered by the Pope are not cited. No quotations in the aforementioned article, then, should be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”

That’s called “spin.” Why do we trust these people?

2. Why is NPR taxpayer-funded again? This “correction” actually appeared in the NPR story about the Pope’s Hell problems:

Correction March 30, 2018: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described Easter as “the day celebrating the idea that Jesus did not die and go to hell or purgatory or anywhere at all, but rather arose into heaven.”

Competence? Editors? Basic education? Respect for people’s faith? Knowing something about the predominant religion ins the nation you are reporting on? Hello? Continue reading

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Ethics Warm-Up, Valentines Day, 2018: Of Mummies, Mockingbirds, Hunchbacks, And Sperms….

Happy Valentines Day!

1 Jeremy gets a vacation! As some of you may know, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill’s mentor and the founder of utilitarianism, has been stuffed and kept in a glass case at the College of London since his death in 1832 as a condition of his will. I’m not kidding! (A photo has appeared periodically in the Ethics Alarms header from the blog’s first day.) Here he is…

That’s Jeremy’s real head on the floor: the one on top of the stuffed body around his skeleton is wax. Jeremy still attends all meetings of the school’s board, wearing his own clothes.  Now he’s visiting the U.S., something he always wanted to do when he was alive.

2. The message is increasingly clear: everything is racist. Got it, thanks! Working from her mummy, scientists from the University of Bristol reconstructed the face of 3,400-year-old queen Nefertiti, King Tut’s mother, using 3D imaging technology. The process required more than 500 hours. Nefertiti was Egypt’s queen alongside Pharaoh Akhenaten from 1353 to 1336 BC. Heeeeeeere’s  NEFI!

Now the project is under attack on social media because the reconstructed Nefertiti face isn’t dark enough, not that anyone has a clue regarding how dark or light anyone who lived over 3000 years ago was.

This is the kind of gratuitous race-baiting that causes well-deserved backlash.  It’s also redolent of an old whitewashing theme, dating back to the “Cleopatra was black” and “Jesus was black” claims of activists in the 1970s.

3. Segue Alert! And speaking of stupid whitewashing controversies, the cancellation of that high school production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” because the student cast as the gypsy ingenue Esmeralda was “too white” provoked a backlash….from Nazis.

Naturally, this means that the race-based attack on the innocent student cast because she was the most qualified to play the part was justified, thanks to the trampoline effect when a bad idea is attacked by even worse extremists.  (Don’t make me put the cognitive dissonance scale up twice in one day.) The New York Times reports that the students who intimidated school administrators into cancelling the show “are now besieged by an online mob targeting them with threats and racial epithets after the incident was reported in right-wing publications like Breitbart News, then spread to the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer. Via Facebook, the students received pictures of themselves with swastikas plastered on their faces. One parent had what was thought to be her home address (it wasn’t) posted online with a comment seeming to encourage harassment: “Do your thing social media.” Another parent received a profane email, assailing her for embracing “anti-white racism,” adding: “I feel sorry for your brainwashed child.” The way this phenomenon works is that now, when someone legitimately objects to the unethical handling of this episode by the school, they can be portrayed as agreeing with white supremacists.

We saw this effect in full bloom in Charlottesville. Tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee is a form of historical airbrushing and censorship, and principled, objective critics (like me) condemned the statue-toppling mania. Then the alt-right and the white nationalists marched against the removal of a Lee statue, and suddenly if you objected to a memorial to a major figure in American history and a bona fide military hero whose life is a wealth of lessons for all of us, it meant you were siding with racists.  President Trump was effectively trapped by this Catch-22. Continue reading

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