Thoughts Upon Reading The Comments To The Recent “Conscience Clause” Post

The comments on the recent post regarding the so-called conscience rule being voided in court generated the comments the topic always does. What follows is a relatively short, general post to frame the issues as clearly as possible.  Admittedly, when a post is titled “When Law and Ethics Converge,” perhaps I shouldn’t have to explicate with a post focusing on the difference between law and ethics. I strongly believe that conscience clauses undermine the law, and are unethical, as you will see.

Law and Ethics are not the buddies people think they are, or wish they were. If you look around Ethics Alarms, you see why. Ethics, as the  process by which we decide and learn what is good and right conduct, evolves with time and experience. A predictable cut of a society’s ethics are always going to be a matter of intense debate. Ethics are self-enforcing, for the most part and by nature, because being ethical should make us feel good.  Once an authority or power starts demanding conduct and enforcing  conformity, we are mostly out of the realm of ethics and into morality, where conduct is dictated by a central overseer that, if it is to have genuine authority, must be voluntarily accepted by those subject to its power.

Society cannot function on ethics alone. Without laws, chaos and anarchy result. Because chaos and anarchy are bad for everyone, no individual who has accepted the social compact may decide which laws he or she will follow and which he or she will defy—at least, not without paying a price, which is society’s punishment. In ethical terms, this is a utilitarian calculation: we accept laws that individually we may find repugnant, because allowing citizens to pick and choose which laws they will obey as a matter of “conscience” doesn’t work and has never worked. Ethics pays attention to history.

Thus it is ethical to obey the law, and unethical not to,  even if good arguments can be made that particular laws are themselves unethical. This is where civil disobedience comes in: if a citizen chooses to violate a law on a the basis of that citizen’s conscience or principle, the citizen also has to accept the legal consequences of doing so as an obligation of citizenship. Continue reading

When Law And Ethics Converge: Goodbye To The Trump Administration’s Unconstitutional and Unethical “Conscience Clause”

Today’s decision by U.S. District Judge Paul Engelmayer, voiding the Trump administration’s “conscience rule” that resuscitated the Bush Administration’s similar rule, is right on the law, and, more important for this blog, right on ethics. The Trump version, which was yet to go into effect,  allowed health-care providers to refuse to participate in abortions, sterilizations or other types of care they if they disagreed with them on religious or moral grounds.

It was an invitation to open-ended discrimination, and as objectionable in principle as allowing public accommodations to refuse to serve Jews, blacks or gays. This topic has been thoroughly explored on Ethics Alarms over the years, and I don’t have anything much new to say. In fact, perusing my various essays on the topic, my favorite is one that is so old, it was on the Ethics Alarms predecessor the Ethics Scoreboard (on which I am slowly making progress in my efforts to get it back online) and mentions Paris Hilton, working at Blockbuster, and an earlier incarnation of Colin Kaepernick in the NBA.

I wrote, in 2005, 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

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Ethics Hero: Dave Chappelle

I know: just a week ago, I began the last section of the  day’s warm-up with “He’s not exactly an Ethics Hero, but…Dave Chappelle’s new concert video, now streaming on Netflix, is thought-provoking, brave, and full of ethical insights and analysis. I could do a two hour ethics seminar using just his material.” Several things have changed since then, however…

  • I am desperate for ethics heroes. We all are. If the Democrat candidates debate proved anything, it was that.
  • Chappelle is being attacked, hard, by the very same cancellation culture and political correctness dictators he has been willing to  challenge.
  • There is an organized effort to try to discourage the public from watching his Netflix special “Sticks and Stones,” not because it won’t be funny to anyone still capable of finding things funny, but because it will inspire people to think. Can’t have that…
  • Only one reader, the usually intrepid and culturally aware Humble Talent, commented on the issue last week. Sometimes I think that including a topic in the warm-up rather than devoting a whole post to it causes some Ethics Alarms readers to gloss over the issues involved, or maybe miss the item itself, as if each warm-up topic  is only 20% of a serious ethics topic because there are typically five in a post. The benefit to me of this format is that it saves time (you would not believe how long it takes to set up an individual post after the text is written) and helps me avoid an ethics backlog, but sometimes whether a particular issue is covered in a warm-up item or in a full post is arbitrary, a matter of timing, what else has occurred and my mood at the time.
  • Upon further reflection, I have concluded that Chappelle is an Ethics Hero.

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Schultz Bails. Good. [CORRECTED]

Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO who had announced a third party, independent  run for President, has withdrawn. Here, in part, is his statement:

Eighty-four percent of Americans do not consider themselves far right or far left. Among them are an “exhausted majority” who want common sense, collaborative and truthful governing. …Statistically and anecdotally, there is an undeniable appetite for meaningful political reform in America. I had hoped to represent this common-sense view, but I’ve come to face a few truths…First, despite a variety of efforts to initiate conversations about political reform, extreme voices currently dominate the national dialogue, often with a vitriol that crowds out and discourages thoughtful discussions. And despite their hunger for reform, the exhausted majority has largely tuned out of political life online and in the news, leaving the extreme voices to define the debate. In addition, not enough people today are willing to consider backing an independent candidate because they fear doing so might lead to re-electing a uniquely dangerous incumbent president. There is considerable concern that four more years of a Trump administration pose a graver threat to our democracy than four more years of political dysfunction. I agree, but I’m also concerned that far-left policy ideas being advanced by several Democratic candidates will further alienate voters who believe those ideas will inflict more economic harm than good. The nomination of a far-left Democratic candidate could result in more votes for Trump—unless a moderate independent is also on the ballot….If I went forward, there is a risk that my name would appear on ballots even if a moderate Democrat wins the nomination, and that is not a risk I am willing to take. Finally, a back injury in April and three subsequent surgeries have required a level of recovery that has prevented me from continuing my travels and engaging with people to the degree that is necessary. My belief in the need to reform our two-party system has not wavered, but I have concluded that an independent campaign for the White House is not how I can best serve our country at this time.I will spend this election cycle and the years ahead supporting bold and creative initiatives to transform our broken system and address the disparity of opportunity that plagues our nation. The money that I was prepared to commit to a presidential campaign will instead be used to invest in people, organizations and ideas that promote honesty, civility and results in our politics, and that move the country beyond two-party gridlock. Common-sense policies and initiatives that can help address widening inequality at home, while strengthening America’s standing in the world, will be a priority. Among my early efforts will be to advocate for increased national service opportunities for young people…. Let us agree that we will always have differences, because that is the nature of the republic we have created, but let’s also acknowledge that we are stronger when we unite under shared values. Let’s agree that we owe our children a less divisive America, and that we have the power to create a healthier climate, one where opinion and truth can stand side by side, where disagreement is followed by compromise, extremes are tempered by moderation, and divisiveness is eclipsed by decency.

Observations: Continue reading

Policing Ethics, Part One: Firing The Faint Of Heart

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department this week fired Officer Cordell Hendrex for “freezing” (it’s all on video) as a deranged sniper  fired hundreds of rounds into a crowd of county music fans below the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas in 2017. “I’m inside the Mandalay Bay on the 31st floor,” Hendrex said into his radio as he hid behind a wall. “I can hear the automatic fire coming from one floor ahead, one floor above us.”

As Hendrex stayed there in terror (by his own testimony), the gunman continued to fire, eventually killing 58 people and wounding more than 800 in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.  His lawyers are  appealing the decision. His defense? He was scared, that’s all. It’s unreasonable for the public to expect  police officers to rise to heroic standards and place their lives in jeopardy in a public safety crisis. The Las Vegas department’s training didn’t prepare Hendrex for storming the hotel room. He’s been a terrific cop, as long as he didn’t have to put his life on the line.

Oh. Continue reading

Family Ethics: Three Kennedys Choose The Public Good Over Family Loyalty. Excellent.

Three members of the fabled Kennedy Clan, that of Joseph P. and Rose, JFK, RFK and Ted, Caroline and the Late John-John, and all the rest, have publicly rebuked their vocal anti-vaxxer family member, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in a statement signed by his siblings Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Joseph P. Kennedy II, as well , Maeve Kennedy McKean, who is the executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiatives, and calls RFK jr, “Uncle Bob.”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the former chair of the Global Virus Network. [Full disclosure: she was also a resident in my undergrad House, Lowell House,  while I was in college, and we knew each other a little bit] and Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former member of Congress from Massachusetts, is the chairman and president of Citizens Energy Corporation.

Beginning with an overview of the harm caused by  Americans avoiding vaccines, including the current measles outbreak, the three write in Politico,

These tragic numbers are caused by the growing fear and mistrust of vaccines—amplified by internet doomsayers. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—Joe and Kathleen’s brother and Maeve’s uncle—is part of this campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases. He has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.

We love Bobby. He is one of the great champions of the environment. His work to clean up the Hudson River and his tireless advocacy against multinational organizations who have polluted our waterways and endangered families has positively affected the lives of countless Americans. We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong.

And his and others’ work against vaccines is having heartbreaking consequences. The challenge for public health officials right now is that many people are more afraid of the vaccines than the diseases, because they’ve been lucky enough to have never seen the diseases and their devastating impact. But that’s not luck; it’s the result of concerted vaccination efforts over many years. We don’t need measles outbreaks to remind us of the value of vaccination.

It is impossible to overstate what a stunning departure this joint essay (titled “RFK Jr. Is Our Brother and Uncle. He’s Tragically Wrong About Vaccines”) is from the traditions and practices of the Kennedy Family. It, they, all of them, have guarded the Kennedy name and legacy like Cerberus at the gates of Hell. They have intimidated historians, artists, government officials, prosecutors and others from actions and revelations that would expose the ugly (ugly, oh-so ugly) side of  many of the family’s most celebrated members.

I directed the first professional production of a drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis that avoided or debunked the various myths carefully embedded in the official narrative to make President Kennedy the hero of the event, when he most definitely was not.  The play had been blocked by the Kennedys twice. Continue reading