Pandemic Ethics Observations, Part 2: Reality

(Part I is here.)

I’m going to try to keep this chapter as free of politics as possible for as long as possible.

It won’t be easy.

In general, the unprecedented society-wide obsession with the Wuhan virus pandemic in the U.S. is a product of mass media and social media as much as the virus itself. One could almost call it a parallel epidemic here, one of distorted behavior and social norms rather than illness. The question is whether that behavior and those norms are ethical in nature or if they are propelled by non-ethical considerations—fear, for example; not just fear for one’s own welfare being threatened, but fear of being made a pariah. It also matters if they work. Ethical requirements that are certain to be futile in practice because of well-known aspects of human nature are not ethical. They are delusional and harmful.

For the short term, one could give everyone the benefit of the doubt and call this mass Golden Rule behavior: each of us would like to have everyone else behave so as to minimize the likelihood that we would be infected, right? However, like so often is the case with the Golden Rule, this calculation only works in an imaginary vacuum that ignores the complex systems that are society, culture and civilization.

Do we really want “everyone” to behave in this extreme risk-averse manner if it crashes the economy? If it puts friends, neighbors and loved ones out of work? If it makes day to day life impossible? This is why Absolutism and Reciprocity fail so often as ethical systems, and why Utilitarianism is required in some measure to temper their effects and distortions.

However, in the outrageous scaremongering we are witnessing, some of it simple hysteria, some ignorance, and much of it motivated by that which I am going to try not to talk about until Part III, the real trade-offs are being obscured or missed. This is, to name  a single ethical breach, incompetence. I actually read several pieces yesterday that argued that to understand how the pandemic spreads, one should consider “World War Z,” the graphic novel-turned Brad Pitt horror movie. I understand the narrow point being made, but it’s still an irresponsible and stupid thing to say or write. “World War Z,” is dystopian future film in which a rampaging virus turns most of the world’s population into mad, speedy, flesh-craving zombies. It is the likely end of the world, with everyone doomed to a horrible death.  That is not what faces the United States, or anyone, with this virus. Shut up! Continue reading

“Miracle On 34th Street,”An Ethics Companion, Continued….Chapter 2: The Story Unfolds…

The Introduction is here.

Chapter I is here.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: Kris is not really Santa Clause. The sooner you understand that, the more sense the movie will make.

Now onward:

2. The bad mother and the sneaky lawyer.

While Kris is enjoying his starring role in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we meet Susan Walker, Doris’s young daughter, and Attorney Fred Gailey,  who lives in the apartment next door. Susan has been raised  to be a joyless little cynic, the victim of an arrogant and misguided single mother who needed to read more Bruno Bettelheim ( except that Bruno didn’t write The Uses of Enchantment  until 1976).  Doris, as we soon surmise, has allowed a bad marriage to make her suspicious of dreams, hope, and wonder, and she is passing her own disappointment in life off to her daughter at the tender age of nine. Nice.

Lots of parents do this, I suppose, but that doesn’t mitigate how cruel and damaging it is. I remember how horrified I was at Susan’s brainwashing when I first saw the film at about the same age as Natalie Wood was in the movie. My parents, particularly my mother, surrounded my sister and I with fantasy and whimsy. They went to elaborate measures to make Santa Claus seem real, and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. At one point my sister, having read a story about a lollypop tree, planted a lollypop stick in the back yard. My mother pooh-poohed the idea, telling my sister that this was just a fantastic story she was believing, and that she was  going to disappointed.  Then, three days later, my father exclaimed as he looked out the kitchen window,  “I don’t believe it! Look at that!” And there, about four feet height and covered with lolly pops of all  the colors of the rainbow, was the lollypop tree.

My sister and I weren’t idiots; we knew that our parents had made the tree. But we played along, and the lesson was taught.  Life is more fun and bearable if you believe in the unbelievable, and are open to a little magic in the world. Our parents gave my sister and me a gift that made us love music, literature, humor, mystery, and surprises. Doris Walker, out of ignorance, grief or anger, was an incompetent and selfish parent. ” We should be realistic  and completely truthful with our children  and not have them growing up believing in  a lot of legends and myths like Santa Claus, for example,” she says.

And your authority for this proposition is what, Doris? Generations of children have grown to healthy, happy maturity being raised on myths, legends and fairy tales, and you, with your invaluable perspective as a department store employee, are confident in your certitude that their parents were wrong, and you are right. Wow. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “Saturday Ethics Warm-Up, 10/12/2019…” Item #2, Dan Hudson’s Paternity Leave

“Wait, What??? YOU’RE SKIPPING THE GAME THAT WILL DECIDE THE PENNANT???”

In a post sparked by the the current National League Championship Series (boy, I hope I don’t have to add that the sport is baseball) I had written in part,

“The ethical thing would have been [for Washington Nationals relief pitcher Daniel Hudson, the team’s closer] to pass on the opportunity to take the game off. The Nationals major weakness is a terrible bullpen, and Hudson is one of the few reliable  relief pitchers on the team. As it happened, the Nats won a close game, but that’s just moral luck. They might have lost because of his absence. That loss might have cost the team its chance to go to the World Series. Millions of dollars would be lost to the franchise that pays Hudson seven figures to improve its fortunes. The careers, lives and family fortunes of his team mates would be affected; the jobs and income of hundreds of merchants and others who rely on the success or failure of the team would have been put at risk. How could anyone argue that the emotional support Hudson would lend his wife during childbirth outweighs all of that, or constitutes a superior ethical obligation?”

Who? Why reader Tim Hayes, that’s who, who not only argued thusly, but did so at a Comment of the Day level, and then responded to my subsequent challenges with equally excellent responses. This gave him the Ethics Alarms equivalent of a three home-run game, and I’m going honor him with the whole sequence.

Here is Ethics Alarms slugger Tim Hayes‘s three-dinger Comment of the Day, on Item #2 in “Saturday Ethics Warm-Up, 10/12/2019…” :

Counter-argument on the Hudson situation – For the Nationals to have placed themselves in a position where a single player taking advantage of a promised benefit at his job (the paternity leave) created a realistic chance of them losing the game (due to their lack of hiring sufficient healthy talent into their bullpen) is inherently unethical as an organization, because it creates a situation where all the groups you mentioned can be placed in dire straits by what happens to a single performer. Attaching the consequences for the team’s unethical staffing decision to Hudson’s personal behavior is unfair; The team did not choose to get him to negotiate away the benefit he invoked (which, for the appropriate compensation, they presumably could have), and was therefore at least aware of the possibility that something outside their control could sideline Hudson. That it was his wife giving birth, and not Hudson being hit by a self-driving car, which resulted in their not having access to him, was merely a result of luck (pregnancy and births being both notoriously difficult to plan, and the Nationals presence in the playoffs being, from the admittedly little I understand of baseball, something which was unexpected to say the least). Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms Archives: Two Ethics Takes On Columbus Day

In 2011, I wrote an Ethics Alarm post extolling Christopher Columbus, and urging readers to celebrate this day named in his honor. Two years later, I wrote a post arguing that the holiday was a mistake. Which is how I really feel? Which is correct? I have no idea. I just read both, and found each persuasive. You know the famous observation in thethe essay “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”? Today I like that line. Sometimes I don’t.

I certainly don’t like the current movement to cancel Columbus Day, and Columbus, out of the culture and historical record because he was not appropriately sensitive to indigenous people by 21st Century standards. That is no better than tearing down statues of Robert E. Lee, airbrushing history to avoid the inherent conflicts and dilemmas that make it invaluable to us going forward into the unknown…like Columbus did.

Here are the two posts. You decide. Meanwhile, I’m thrilled I could find the great Stan Freberg’s version of Columbus’s quest (above). More of my sensibilities about life, humor and history were effected by Freberg’s satire than I like to admit…

I. Celebrate Columbus Day, Honor Columbus

Continue reading

One More Time: Leadership, Moral Luck, Accountability, And Scapegoating, Baseball-Style.

Here is part of the statement released by  Boston Red Sox owner John Henry yesterday after the team fired its head of Baseball Operations, essentially the team’s General Manager, Dave Dombrowksi:

“Four years ago, we were faced with a critical decision about the direction of the franchise. We were extraordinarily fortunate to be able to bring Dave in to lead baseball operations. With a World Series championship and three consecutive American League East titles, he has cemented what was already a Hall of Fame career.”

Wait…HUH? He was hired four years ago, the team won three consecutive American League East titles (for the first time in the franchise’s history), a World Series Championship (following an epic 2018 season that saw Boston win 108 games) and he’s fired? What did he do, sexually harass players? Flash the owner’s daughter? Continue reading

Why Did A Judge Let A Man Who Was Trying To Kill His Wife Get Off With A Tough, “Now, Now, Don’t Try To Poison Your Wife Again!” [Updated]

[Notice of corrections: This post had way too many typos, and I apologize profusely. Thanks to Crella for alerting me. I think I got all of them.]

I have a theory.

I wish I didn’t.

Therese Kozlowski got a videotape of her husband Brian poisoning her coffee with sleeping pills. Even with this evidence, the poisoner received a sentence of just 60 days in jail, which he will be allowed to serve on the weekends. The prosecutor called the sentence “a slap in the face” of the victim. Oh, it’s much worse than that.

It all started after Therese said she wanted a divorce. Then she noticed that she was feeling drowsy and tired on mornings when Brian made the coffee. She narrowly avoided an accident when she fell asleep while driving to work. So she secretly installed a small video camera by the coffee machine, and sure enough, Brian was putting the equivalent of eight sleeping pills in the morning java.

“Brian’s continuous, methodical, and calculated plot to poison me included a complete disregard for human life, including his own daughter [she also drank some of the spiked coffee], along with hundreds of other drivers who he put at risk every day for weeks,” Therese Kozlowski said in court. “I believe this was attempted murder. Once Brian realized he lost me and there was no getting me to stay in this unhealthy marriage, his goal was to eliminate me.”

This convinced Macomb County (Michigan) Circuit Court Judge Antonio Viviano , he said, to give Brian jail time instead of merely probation, which was his initial instinct. Continue reading

More On The Acosta-Epstein Scandal: Leadership, Moral Luck, Accountability, And Scapegoating

Veteran commenter Glenn Logan expressed  doubts about the fairness of current criticism of the Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta (above right) for his approval of a ridiculously lenient plea deal for jet-setting sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein (above left). Glenn’s objections  prompted me to search for prior posts here on the ethics issue of high level accountability for disasters and fiascos. In this morning’s warm-up, #3, I discussed the reasons I feel the criticism of Acosta is justified (re Glenn’s complaint that journalists are determined to destroy Acosta because of his connection to their primary target, the President, my response is that  critics being biased and having unethical motives doesn’t mean their criticism is necessarily wrong), and concluded,

“Finally, there is the basic ethical issue of accountability. Prosecutors allowed Epstein’s lawyers to talk them into a ridiculously lenient plea deal with minimal prison time for a privileged criminal and sexual predator with endless resources and a high likelihood of recidivism. It was completely predictable that he would continue to harm women after his release, and the new charges against Epstein show that he did exactly as expected.It is appropriate that someone’s head roll for this, and Acosta’s is the logical choice.”

Glenn responded that this sounded more “like scapegoating than accountability.” “’Somebody must pay,’ he said, “is not convincing to me.” Hence my search of the Ethics Alarms archive. This is a topic of long-standing interest for me, in great part due to my military-minded father.

I also recently watched the Netflix series “Bad Blood,” about Montreal’s Mafia. The accountability of leadership is a recurring theme in that series:  we see the father of the future head of the powerful Rizzuto family telling his son as a boy that he is now responsible for caring for and cultivating several tomato plants. “If a plant produces good tomatoes,” the father explains, ” you will be rewarded. If a plant produces poor tomatoes, you will be punished.” Even if the reasons a plant fails to produce good tomatoes has nothing to do with the son’s efforts and were beyond his control, the father goes on to say, “I will still punish you. For that is the burden of leadership. When that for which a leader is responsible goes wrong, he must be accountable and pay the price whether it is his fault or not. Only then is he worthy of his followers trust.” Continue reading