From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: “Are Unwritten Rules Unethical?”

unwritten rules

The short answer is “No,” but the context of the question is fascinating, because it’s an example of the problem with unwritten rules generally. Unwritten rules are cultural norms, that’s all, and all cultures have them. They serve as manners, social balms and traditions that fill in the inevitable gaps and loopholes that formal, written rules inevitably leave uncovered. But cultures evolve, and extreme situations create exemptions where cultural norms no longer make sense.

No culture has more so-called unwritten rules than baseball, and this situation from two days ago triggered the question.

With the Chicago White Sox, currently with the best record in baseball, were ahead of the pathetic Minnesots Twins 15-4. The Twins, not wanting to waste a real pitcher on a blwo-out, turned to utility infielder Willians Astudillo to face the ChiSox in the final inning. Throwing a the classic “nothing ball” that most non-pitchers bring to the mound in such situations, Astudillo retired the first two batters but fell behind 3-0 to White Sox catcher Yermin Mercedes. On the next pitch, a lob to get the ball over the plate, Mercedes swung away blasted the 47 mph toss out of the ball parkfor a 16-4 lead.

The Twins broadcasters and many of the Twins players were offended, saying that Mercedes had breached the unwritten rule that says players shouldn’t try to “show up” the losing team in a rout. You don’t steal bases, you don’t sacrifice, and you don’t swing away at an “eephus pitch” to get a cheap home run. It’s essentially a Golden Rule based unwritten rule, though when it applies is a matter of dispute. Baseball teams have made up some very large deficits through the decades: a win is never a sure thing no matter what the score. Eleven runs, however, is certainly a big enough gap to make the rule relevant: the odds against a comeback are astronomical.

On the other hand, players are paid according to their statistics. Mercedes’ homer off of a non-pitcher will look the same in the record books as if Jacob DeGrom had thrown the ball.

But wait…there’s more! In the next game, an eventual 5-4 Minnesota win,Twins manager Rocco Baldelli andT wins reliever Tyler Duffey were ejected (they will also be fined and suspended) after Duffey threw a fastball behind Mercedes in retaliation for the “unwritten rule” breach. Baldelli, following the usual script, swore that the pitch was an accident, and that it was just a coincidence that his reliever scared the hell out of the same player who hit the controversial home run the previous night.

Then White Sox manager Tony La Russa announced that he agreed with the Twins throwing at his player, because Mercedes had broken an unwritten rule! This, in turn, was also an unwritten rule. Managers must not criticize their own players in public, and never, ever endorse the opposing team throwing at one of them. (I’ve never heard of any manager doing this.)

The White Sox did not take LaRussa’s violation well. Chicago pitcher Lance Lynn tweeted, “If a position player is on the mound, there are no rules. Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”


Unwritten rules are ethical if:

  • Everybody knows what they are
  • They have a legitimate purpose
  • It is understood that as there are always exceptions where written rules don’t apply, there are exceptions where unwritten rules don’t apply,
  • Everyone pays attention to the evolving nature of the culture involved, and
  • It is understood that unwritten rules exist to make a culture more reasonable and rational. If an unwritten rule doesn’t accomplish that, then the rule should be revoked.


Pointer: JutGory

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Ethics Dunces: Bismarck, N.D. Supporters Of A.J. Clemente, The Obscene Ex-Newscaster

A.J. Clemente.

A.J. Clemente.

In an earlier post I referenced A.J. Clemente, a newscaster for KFYR-TV in Bismarck who debuted in his new role by saying “…fucking shit!” on the air, because he didn’t know his mic was on. Not surprisingly, he was fired. Now, apparently, many viewers have come to his defense and are admonishing the station for being too harsh.

The station is not being too harsh. The station is upholding correct professional standards, and removing an unprofessional employee whom they do not trust and have no reason to trust. The episode showed him to be careless, reckless and, obviously, subject to obscene outbursts, which only are appropriate if you are David Ortiz. Ah, but some of the good citizens of Bismarck, displaying the same entrenched ethics cluelessness that led to the nomination of the ridiculous Mark Sanford, ex-Romeo governor, to lose a GOP House seat in South Carolina, don’t comprehend accountability, trustworthiness or responsibility, because to them, the only values that matter are forgiveness and compassion. The technical terms for such people are “patsies” and “marks.” They would cripple society, business and government with their mindless, deadly niceness. Examples: Continue reading

“The Ortiz Standard,” With An Ethics Note To High Appointed Officials: If You Can’t Say Something Responsible And Intelligent, Please Shut Up!

Gee, thanks, guys. Fuck.

Gee, thanks, guys. Fuck.

Apparently April is officially “Let’s Make The U.S. Permanently Vulgar and Uncivil Month.”

We’ve had a University of Maryland sorority lovely ream out her charges with a rant that would, in the words of Henry Higgins, “make a sailor blush.” Kmart launched a potty-minded commercial based entirely on the hilarious similarity between the phrase “ship my pants” and “shit my pants,” including two happy seniors boasting how they “shipped our pants.” In Bismarck, North Dakota, a local station’s brand new anchor man’s very first words to the audience were “…fucking shit!” because he didn’t know his mic was live.  And, of course, given the honor of representing his team during the Boston Red Sox’s pre-game ceremony honoring the heroes of the past week in their terror-besieged city, slugger David Ortiz told 35,000+ spectators, including many children, and a large TV audience, also including young children, watching the event, “This is our fucking city!” He was then unanimously praised for his passion.

Not to be left out of this full-throated endorsement of public incivility and locker room banter as the new normal, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski sent out a tweet for those wondering how Ortiz’s outburst would be received by the FCC, which has previously threatened fines of networks that didn’t take sufficient precautions against live obscenities. He wrote,

“David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today’s Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston – Julius.” Continue reading

“House of Cards” Ethics: Zoe’s Unethical Tweet And The Right To Talk To Just One Person


At the risk of stirring up the incorrigible defenders of the vigilante Applebee’s waitress, I must again point out that using social media to make a private indiscretion a public disgrace is terrible, grossly unethical conduct that threatens our freedom, trust,privacy and quality of life. The fact that the practice is gaining acceptance as something to be feared and expected is a frightening cultural development, and we are all obligated to do what we can to condemn it and eradicate it before it becomes a toxic social norm.

The Netflix political drama “House of Cards” provided a perfect example of what is wrong with this despicable trend in its fourth episode.  Zoe Barnes, the ambitious, unethical reporter in league with Kevin Spacey’s deliciously diabolical House Majority Whip, has brought her newspaper’s editor to the point of apoplexy in a confrontation in his office.  Already considering leaving for greener pastures, the reporter goads her sputtering boss into calling her a misogynistic epithet that she senses is just on the tip of his tongue. “Go ahead,” she taunts. “Say it.”

“You’re a cunt,” he finally replies. Zoe whips out her smart phone and tweets this exchange to her thousands of followers. “Call me whatever you want, “she sneers, “but remember, these days, when you’re talking to one person, you’re talking to a thousand.”

Wrong—not unless the person you’re talking to is unethical, vindictive, has rejected the social conventions of private conversation and is consigning the Golden Rule to the cultural trash heap. Continue reading

On Tolerance, Religious Freedom, and “Ain’t No Homos Gonna Make It To Heaven”

It is generally true, as the indignant members of Greensburg, Indiana’s Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church say, that what they include in their church’s services is nobody’s business, and the fact that the congregation loudly applauded the horrific spectacle of a 3-year-old boy singing the hate anthem, “Ain’t no homos gonna make it to heaven!”would have never bothered a soul if it hadn’t been videorecorded and placed on YouTube. At this point, however, that no longer matters. The cat is out of the bag, the horse has left the barn and the beans are spilled, and now millions of Americans know that this church teaches hate, indoctrinates young and vulnerable children with its poison, and sows the seeds of prejudice and the active deprivation of American citizens of their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Since millions of people know this now, a critical number of them will go out of their way to make life in this country a living hell for members of that church and the church itself by demonstrating at every turn that we don’t want churches like that in America, or people like that in America. They aren’t good for society, they cause positive harm without any compensating benefits, and they need to change their ways or suffer the consequences. And to that I say: Good. Go to it. Continue reading

OH NO! Political Correctness Got Me!

Late last night as I was battling worry and insomnia, my TV remote transported me to the Cartoon Network where I encountered, for the first time  in 40 years, a minor Hanna-Barbara animated series called “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop.” Like all Hanna-Barbara shows, but especially the Saturday morning variety, “Penelope” was crudely drawn and aimed its humor at the lowest common denominator: compared to it, Woody Woodpecker is Faulkner. Drawn in by the comforting sounds of great vocal artists of the era like Mel Blanc and Paul Winchell, however, I watched about ten minutes of the show and realized, to my horror, that I now found it offensive…and not for the reason that I found it annoying in 1970 (it is, after all, moronic).

The plot of  every episode of “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” (a spin-off of H-B’s more successful but just as repetitious and silly “Wacky Racers”) was the same. A female auto racer who is also a blonde, helpless bimbo with a Southern accent is stalked by a villain called “The Hooded Claw,” voiced by the great Paul Lynde.  The Hooded Claw, for no discernible reason,  concocts elaborate plots to kill Penelope, but is foiled, at the last second, every time. The cartoon is an obvious riff on “The Perils of Pauline,” the famous Pearl White silent movie cliffhanger serial in which each segment ended with the heroine tied to a railroad track or falling to earth dragging a collapsed parachute. Yet I found it impossible to appreciate the cartoon’s meager charms because of the loud clanging of  ethics alarms in my brain. Why is the only woman in the show portrayed as a walking, talking Barbie Doll? And why are kids being encouraged to laugh at a woman being stalked by a homicidal maniac? Because he’s an inept homicidal maniac? What could possibly be funny about stalking, an insidious phenomenon that every year leads to multiple murders?

“Oh my God,” I thought. “I’m politically correct!Continue reading

Colorado’s Adultery Dilemma

Relax! It's're in Colorado!

In most states, adultery is one of the great examples of how something can be wrong and destructive without being illegal, a useful concept to have in mind when a corrupt politician or a crooked corporate executive  says “I didn’t break any laws!” It is also a good example of unethical conduct that is better controlled by ethics than law. A law against adultery is theoretically defensible as a deterrent of harmful social conduct, and the state definitely has an interest in preserving family stability. The problem is that regulating offenses triggered by love, lust and romance feels excessively intrusive to most of us. It has overtones of the Plymouth colony. For better of worse, minimizing adultery belongs in the realm of ethics, not the criminal law. Continue reading

Lesson of the Asian-Bashing UCLA Video: Shunning and Intolerance Work. Good.

Alexandra Wallace...cultural critic, YouTube star, pariah, GONE

Alexandra Wallace, the UCLA student who created an obnoxious and offensive video stereotyping her Asian colleagues as gibberish-spouting boors,  announced that she was leaving the school as a result of “being ostracized” by “an entire community.”  Yes, I’d say that was the idea, and it is how cultures enforce its values. And it works.

Wallace picked the day of the Japanese tsunami to post her anti-Asian rant on YouTube, where it promptly went viral. It also made her an instant pariah on her campus, where over a third of all students are of Asian heritage, and the rest of them, unlike Alexandra, have at least a vague concept of mutual respect and decorum.

You can read a complete transcript of the three-minute diatribe here, but this shortened version gives a sense of what infuriated Asians, UCLA, and just about everyone else: Continue reading

The Bi-Partisan and Unethical Niggerizing of Political Discourse

Marl Levin, virtuoso niggerizer

The ethics problem with the use of “nigger,” or “bitch,” or “fag,” or any of the other culturally disapproved denigrating labels for human beings belonging to particular groups, is not that they are insulting—adults should be able to  handle mere insults—but that they unfairly diminish the status of individuals, their character, opinions and deeds before they have had the opportunity to be judged on their merits. It isn’t the words, but the effect, in essence sticking a foot out to trip a runner at the beginning of the race—and the race may be a job, an election, a debate, an argument, or policy deliberations.

The No-Labels movement focuses on characterizations and civility, but these are far too vague as concepts to enforce culturally, and subject to easy manipulation for political ends. John Avlon, a leader of No-Labels, still calls politicians he disagrees with “wingnuts.” Why? Because, well, they are wingnuts! Just ask John. Niggerizing, however, goes well beyond labels, and fair people should reject it from either side of the political spectrum. It is a bully tactic, and it is a dishonest debating technique, completely delegitimizing an adversary before addressing his arguments, or giving them an objective hearing. Continue reading