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Holiday Ethics Assigment: Quick! Watch These 25 Great Old Ethics Movies Again Before You Go Bonkers Too!

movie-theater

I am compiling a new list of great ethics movies to help those troubled by the recently completed Presidential campaign, the election and its aftermath. I haven’t decided whether to reveal it piecemeal, or collectively as I have before, but I do need to begin by presenting the previous list of 25, actually the combination of several previous posts. Ethics films I have covered individually since those lists debuted, like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies, will eventually be added.

For now, here’s the top 25. Don’t pay attention to the order.

1Spartacus (196o)

The raw history is inspiring enough: an escaped gladiator led an army of slaves to multiple victories over the Roman legions in one of the greatest underdog triumphs ever recorded. Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandal classic has many inspiring sequences, none more so than the moment when Spartacus’s defeated army chooses death rather than to allow him to identify himself to their Roman captors (“I am Spartacus!”)

Ethical issues highlighted: Liberty, slavery, sacrifice, trust, politics, courage, determination, the duty to resist abusive power, revolution, love, loyalty.

Favorite quote: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” [Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)]

2.  Hoosiers (1986)

“Hoosiers” is loosely based on true story, but its strength is the way it combines classic sports movie clichés—the win-at-all-costs coach down on his luck, the remote superstar, over-achieving team—into a powerful lesson: it isn’t the final victory that matters most, but the journey to achieving it.

Ethical issues highlighted: Forgiveness, generosity, leadership, kindness, courage, loyalty, diligence, redemption.

Favorite quote: “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.” [ Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)]

3. Babe (1995)

A wonderful movie about the virtues of being nice, the greatest civility film of all time. Second place: “Harvey.”

Ethical issues highlighted: Civility, kindness, reciprocity, loyalty, courage, love, friendship, bigotry, bias.

Favorite quote: “Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise…The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise”  The Narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) Continue reading

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The Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide [UPDATED! ]

 Once again, Ethics Alarms re-posts its ethics guide to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece “It’s A Wonderful Life,”one of the great ethics movies of all time. It was written in 2011, and revised regularly since, including for this year’s version. I suspect we need it more in 2016 than usual.

It is fashionable now, and was even when the film was released, to mock its sentiment and optimism. On one crucial point Capra was correct, however, and it is worth watching the film regularly to recall it. Everyone’s life does touch many others, and everyone has played a part in the chaotic ordering of random occurrences for good. Think about the children who have been born because you somehow were involved in the chain of events that linked their parents. And if you can’t think of something in your life that has a positive impact on someone–although there has to have been one, and probably many—then do something now. It doesn’t take much; sometimes a smile and a kind word is enough. Remembering the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” really can make life more wonderful, and not just for you.

Here we go:

1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”

The movie begins in heaven, represented by twinkling stars. There is no way around this, as divine intervention is at the core of the fantasy. Heaven and angels were big in Hollywood in the Forties. Nevertheless, the framing of the tale advances the anti-ethical idea, central to many religions, that good behavior on earth will be rewarded in the hereafter, bolstering the theory that without God and eternal rewards, doing good is pointless.

We are introduced to George Bailey, who, we are told, is in trouble and has prayed for help. He’s going to get it, too, or at least the heavenly authorities will make the effort. They are assigning an Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Oddbody, to the job. He is, we learn later, something of a second rate angel as well as a 2nd Class one, so it is interesting that whether or not George is in fact saved will be entrusted to less than Heaven’s best. Some lack of commitment, there—then again, George says he’s “not a praying man.” This will teach him—sub-par service!

2. Extra Credit for Moral Luck

George’s first ethical act is saving his brother, Harry, from drowning, an early exhibition of courage, caring and sacrifice. The sacrifice part is that the childhood episode costs George the hearing in one ear. He doesn’t really deserve extra credit for this, as it was not a conscious trade of his hearing for Harry’s young life, but he gets it anyway, just as soldiers who are wounded in battle receive more admiration and accolades than those who are not. Yet this is only moral luck. A wounded hero is no more heroic than a unwounded one, and may be less competent as well as less lucky.

3.  The Confusing Drug Store Incident

George Bailey’s next ethical act is when he saves the life of another child by not delivering a bottle of pills that had been inadvertently poisoned by his boss, the druggist, Mr. Gower. This is nothing to get too excited over, really—if George had knowingly delivered poisoned pills, he would have been more guilty than the druggist, who was only careless. What do we call someone who intentionally delivers poison that he knows will be mistaken for medication? A murderer, that’s what.  We’re supposed to admire George for not committing murder.

Mr. Gower, at worst, would be guilty of negligent homicide. George saves him from that fate when he saves the child, but if he really wanted to show exemplary ethics, he should have reported the incident to authorities. Mr. Gower is not a trustworthy pharmacist—he was also the beneficiary of moral luck. He poisoned a child’s pills through inattentiveness. If his customers knew that, would they keep getting their drugs from him? Should they? A professional whose errors are potentially deadly must not dare the fates by working when his or her faculties are impaired by illness, sleeplessness or, in Gower’s case, grief and alcohol.

4. The Uncle Billy Problem

As George grows up, we see that he is loyal and respectful to his father. That’s admirable. What is not admirable is that George’s father, who has fiduciary duties as the head of a Building and Loan, has placed his brother Billy in a position of responsibility. As we soon learn, Billy is a souse, a fool and an incompetent. This is a breach of fiscal and business ethics by the elder Bailey, and one that George engages in as well, to his eventual sorrow. Continue reading

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From Facebook, Two Comments Of The Day: The Election

Police form a line to contain protesters outside a campaign rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Thursday, June 2, 2016, in San Jose, Calif.  A group of protesters attacked  Trump supporters who were leaving the presidential candidate's rally in San Jose on Thursday night. A dozen or more people were punched, at least one person was pelted with an egg and Trump hats grabbed from supporters were set on fire on the ground. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Two regular commenters,  johnburger2013 and Alexander Cheezem, cross-posted their Facebook essays about the election on Ethics Alarms. Both are worthy Comment of the Day.

First, from johnburger2013:

A  Facebook friend told me to let this go. However, I can’t, especially after reading countless postings about the end to the US as we know it. This post is most particularly directed at the person accusing me of white-male-entitled-complacency, who has never had to worry about storm troopers kicking in my front door.

Trump won. Clinton lost. This has been a long, painful, contentious election cycle, extraordinarily dividing the nation into bitter, blinded hemispheres with unbelievable and unnecessary bloodletting.

Yet, take heart. The US republic will survive. Will Trump be a good president? Who knows? Nobody. Got that? Nobody. Time will tell.

Give some credit to the citizenry. The US, for all of its past and present errors, has tried to live up to its mission to form a ‘more perfect’ union. It has constantly tried to right the ship and steer it away from the rocks. Hopefully, the thousand cuts inflicted by this election will heal and the nation will find itself stronger. I have read that a broken bone is stronger when it heals. Hope springs eternal.

To those lamenting and wailing that your candidate lost: Stop it. Please. For the sake of the nation. Just stop it. Trump’s presidency does not, and will not, lead to mass incarceration, deportation, or the building of ovens. The US is nowhere near where the Weimar Republic was in the 1920s. Nor is it anywhere close to pre-Mussolini Italy, pre-Franco Spain, pre-Chavez Venezuela, or pre-Morales Bolivia. And no, Trump’s presidency will not, under any circumstances, be a catalyst for religious reactionaries calling for pregnant women to be chained to the stove.

More particularly, stop hurling Nazi memes around. Nazi Germany led to unspeakable evil, targeting Jews for extermination. Do not, under any circumstances, diminish what Jews suffered under Nazi genocide by claiming that Trump and his supporters are one clothing store away from brown shirts. Do not tell me that my ‘white-privilege complacency’ blinds me to the realities of Kristallnacht. It is insulting and cruel. I am from the Cleveland, Ohio, area, which had a large survivor community. I saw the fear. I heard the stories survivors endured. Worst of all, I saw the despair in the eyes of ordinary people targeted because of their religion. I don’t need to experience first-hand what happened at Treblinka or Auschwitz to know that that is pure, unbridled evil.

Furthermore, I saw that Kristallnacht has been trending on Facebook, and, ironically, began on November 9, 1938. Believe, me, I do not support Donald Trump – I think he will be a terrible president (I hope I am wrong). However, I am disheartened and saddened that fellow citizens cannot put aside partisan differences. Reading Facebook postings comparing Trump to Hitler, and his supporters to the Schutzstaffel, is morally offensive, especially having known people who suffered through Nazi genocide, people forever scarred by the horror they lived and having to relive it every single moment they look at numbers brutally carved into their skin

Trump’s victory absolutely does not mean that minorities will be hauled back to plantations in chains, or marriages recently upheld will be obliterated.

As for Trump and his supporters: Drop the “Clinton-is-a-criminal” stuff. Your candidate won. Stop gloating. It is immature and unbecoming of the republic. Your candidate will take the highest executive office in the land. Demand that your candidate govern with the dignity, respect, and vision that office requires. Demand that he stop saying stupid things. Demand that he develop a filter and impulse control expected of the office.

Disagree over policy. Disagree over ideas. Disagree all you want about Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush or Obama, but they behaved in the manner called for by the Office of the President of the United States of America.

The US is a great place to live because of the liberties enshrined and guaranteed and protected by the Constitution. If we, as citizens, hold to true to those values, the nation will be a better place.

Now Alexander Cheezem’s Comment of the Day, on the theme of accountability, an Ethics Alarms favorite. I’ll have a brief comment at the end: Continue reading

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The 2016 Election And Ethics Zugswang

scylla-and-charybdis

In a July post I introduced the concept of ethics zugswang, described in the Ethics Alarms glossary as

From the chess term “zugzwang,” describing a board where the player with the next move worsens his position regardless of which move he chooses. Ethics Zugswang occurs when all the opportunity to choose ethical options has passed. Any course of action will have unethical consequences.

I often talk about ethics zugswang in my ethics seminars as well. It is a situation where  no ethical decision is possible, because of poor choices and a failure to play competent ethics chess, not thinking ahead, not anticipating worst case scenarios, and thereby creating a situation where  ethical options are unavailable. All that is left are options that do tangible harm. The idea is to avoid such messes by not blundering through life being governed by non-ethical considerations, emotions, rationalizations, recklessness and ignorance. Sometimes, however, despite all of one’s best efforts, ethics zugswang arrives anyway.

Such is the plight of the American citizen on Election Day, 2016. For months, thoughtful voters who care about democracy and want to participate in choosing their President responsibly have been trying to decide which of several unethical decisions is the best—the most ethical, or rather least unethical– of the available options. Being angry or indignant, or holding one’s breath until one turns blue, will not do. A decision has to be made, and refusing to make a decision is still a decision. (In chess, the most common response to ethics zugswang is to resign, to quit. But one cannot quit being a citizen in a democracy.)

In past posts, mostly in the comments, I and others have exchanged proposed analogies to describe the choice between choosing Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to lead the country. Arguing that it was a binary choice that could best be compared to having one’s commercial airline flown by an untrustworthy pilot of questionable skill, motivations and objectives or, in the alternative, a seven-year old, a monkey or a spaniel, my position was that one choice was terrible and the other was infinitely worse, but the terrible one as at least survivable, with luck. Classical literature provides another useful analogy: the myth of Scylla and Charibdis.

In Greek mythology, they were two immortal and deadly monsters who lived on opposite sides the narrow waters in the Strait of Messina, between Italy and Sicily. Odysseus, trying to return home after the Trojan War,  faced the dilemma posed by having to choose between them in Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII. Scylla had been a lovely a sea nymph who was loved by the sea god Poseidon, but Poseidon’s jealous wife Aphrodite treacherously cursed the waters in which Scylla bathed. The god-poisoned water turned Scylla into huge and vicious monster with twelve legs, six heads on long, snaky necks, with each head having a triple row of shark-like teeth. The transformed Scylla’s loins were also covered by the heads of baying dogs. (Note to self: don’t mess with Aphrodite!) When ships passed close to her, Scylla’s six heads would each snatch one sailor, then devour them in her cave.

Charybdis was also once a nymph, a daughter of Poseidon, who angered Zeus, Poseidon’s brother. Zeus turned her into an even worse monster than Scylla. The transformed nymph lurked under a fig tree on the opposite shore from Scylla’s rock, drinking down and belching out  the sea three times a day, causing  fatal whirlpools no ship could survive. Odysseus managed to get the worst of this dual  monster dilemma, sailing close enough to Scylla to doom six of his sailors (who he never warned about the threat) and still seeing his chip wrecked by Charybdis, with him being the only survivor. The shipwrecked Odysseus barely escaped her clutches by clinging to a tree until the improvised raft that she swallowed floated to the surface again after many hours.  To be “between Scylla and Charybdis” means to be caught between two equally horrible alternatives.

As today loomed and this metaphor appeared more and more accurate, I sought wisdom from various versions of the story, only to gradually realize that I was not as certain as I once had been which candidate was which monster. Continue reading

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Yes, Yes, We Know Who You Are Voting AGAINST…But You Should Know Who And What You Are Voting FOR…

“My conscience — as an activist, a strategist — is very clear…if I had to do it all over again, I would know a hell of a lot more about cybersecurity.”

—-Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, refusing to apologize for forwarding debate and town hall questions to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, thus breaching journalism ethics and betraying the trust of CNN, which was employing her as an analyst.

statue-of-liberty-cryingWhen you vote for Hillary Clinton—and voting against Donald Trump does not change the fact that you are still voting for Clinton—do understand what this statement, in an interview yesterday on satellite radio, really means.  It means that the Democratic Party officially embraces the anti-ethical principle that the ends justifies the means. It means that the party endorses lying and cheating, which was what Brazile did, as long as the “right” people lie and cheat. It means that the Democratic Party—-not just Hillary and her staff, who we know have the core political ethics of Lenin and Goebbels, but the entire party—agrees with Brazile. Her mistake was not cheating, but failing to get away with it, by hiding her conduct insufficiently.

She, like the party she leads, is so confident that the American public, at least the voters she and the party care about, accepts these ugly and undemocratic values that she is not even pretending to regret her actions. If it helps elect Hillary Clinton, it’s fine. It it acquires power for the Democrats, it’s fine. If it deceives the public to the “right” end, it’s fine.

The Democratic Party hasn’t condemned Brazile’s actions, and won’t condemn her smug words of endorsement of lying and cheating. It hasn’t asked her to step down, as her predecessor was made to step down after she was caught rigging the nomination process for Clinton. Thus it endorses Brazile’s  values, and openly so. President Obama also endorsed Brazile’s values, explicitly, by directing his spokesman Josh Earnest to praise her, and only praise her, as “a person of integrity and ..high character” after being asked about the first of Brazile’s cheats on behalf of Clinton (more have since been uncovered.)

Is that clear? The President of the United States publicly stated, through his agent, that an individual who lies and cheats has integrity. This is what integrity has come to mean under this leader, to his party. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Ethics Quotes, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership, U.S. Society

Of Bundys, Trump, Wikileaks, Rebellion—You Know, The Whole 2016 Election Thing

jury-nullThe jigsaw puzzle of an existential national crisis, a real one, are assembling sufficiently so an image can be distinguished. It is uglier than I imagined.

1. Item:  The Bundy Brothers were acquitted. This was pure jury nullification, because they were guilty as hell. It might be an aberration, but I fear it is not. The jury is a fractal of democracy, and when juries start finding lawbreakers innocent, they are sending a message that those in power ignore at their peril. They say “We don’t like or respect you or your laws, and you better change, or else.” The complete class, regional and ideological estrangement from the Federal government this decision represents shows how completely Barack Obama has divided the nation, and portend a long, long, difficult and, one can only hope non-violent recovery, if some competent leaders emerge who can handle it. As trust in our institutions have collapsed with accelerating speed over the last decade, civility has deteriorated and authorities have increasingly threatened the basic Constitutional rights of citizens while extending privileges to non-citizens for political motives, the connective tissue of our society has been frayed to the snapping point. Responsible leadership, objective  and rational citizens must not shrug this verdict off as just a bunch of gun nuts and cowboys throwing a tantrum.

2. Item: Donald Trump keeps saying that the election is “rigged.” This is beyond irresponsible, in isolation not more irresponsible than what Trump has said about other things, but the timing and sheer intensity of this drumbeat from him is truly horrible….and also likely to be effective.  Continue reading

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Debate Ethics: Trump’s “Breathtaking Repudiation Of American Democracy”

debate3

Substance, of course, is officially irrelevant to the 2016 Presidential election. This is a bitter “be careful what you wish for” realization for Ethics Alarms and its author, as I have long argued that leaders’ values and character are more important and should be given more weight in any choice of candidates than their political affiliations or official policy positions. I did not foresee  a race in which both candidates have definitively proven that they are unfit for office and corrupt beyond repair or redemption, and one of those candidates is so unfit that even the epic dishonesty and democracy-corroding conduct of his opponent cannot begin to justify a vote for him by anyone with the sense of a bivalve mollusk.

Thus, once again as in the first two debates, the leading story coming out of last night’s snark-fest relates to character, not substance. In this case, it doesn’t even relate to practical reality. Donald Trump was asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace,

Your running mate Governor Pence pledged on Sunday that he and you, his words, will absolutely accept the result of this election. Today your daughter Ivanka said the same thing. I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?

..and after talking around the question interminable, as usual, Trump finally answered,

What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?

Hillary Clinton immediately pronounced the answer “horrifying,” and her assessment is currently being echoed on editorial pages and by pundits and analysts as if Trump announced that he was raising an army of NRA members to take the White House by force. Gasped the Washington Post this morning, in an editorial titled, “Trump’s Breathtaking Repudiation of American Democracy,” “Respecting the will of the voters has since the end of the Civil War allowed for a peaceful transition of power that has made this country the envy of the world….[Clinton’s flaws] fade to the status of trivia in the face of an opponent who will not accept the basic rules of American democracy.”The New York Times, in its editorial titled “Donald Trump’s Contempt for Democracy,” pontificated,

Mr. Trump’s meltdown in the closing weeks could be dismissed as a sore loser’s bizarre attempt at rationalizing his likely defeat. But his trashing of the democratic process, in service of his own ego, risks lasting damage to the country, and politicians of both parties should recoil from him and his cynical example.

It in no way excuses Donald Trump to take notice of the “breathtaking” dishonesty here.

Continue reading

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