The 87th And 88th Rationalizations: The Reverse 15 And The Psychic Historian

Translation: “I got nuthin’!'”

I haven’t been in tip-top shape the last several days, making new posts more of an ordeal than they should be. Luckily this motivates me to catch up on updating the Rationalizations List, which has several waiting additions, including these:

Rationalization #15 A. The Reverse 15, or “If I don’t do it ( and I don’t want to) somebody else will.”

The Reverse 15 uses exactly the same excuse as #15. The Futility Illusion:  “If I don’t do it, somebody else will,” but for the opposite purpose. In #15, the rationalizer wants to avoid the consequences of doing something unethical by arguing that his or her refusal to follow orders would have no practical effect: someone else would just step in and do what was demanded anyway. How, asks the fictionalized version of Confederate Captain Henry Wirz in “The Andersonville Trial,” can a post-Civil War military tribunal fairly hold him responsible for cruelly mistreating the Union prisoners in the Georgia prison camp as he was ordered to, when if he refused he would have been shot, and his successor would have abused them anyway?

In 15A, the argument is the opposite. The rationalizer refuses to perform a necessary ethical act out of apathy, callousness or fear, but this was reasonable because he or she was certain that someone else would do the right thing instead. The Reverse 15 could also be called “The Kitty Genovese Rationalization,” recalling that the many people who heard the murdered woman’s screams chose not to “get involves” while convincing themselves that someone would come to her aid. All of the Mount Everest climbers who left a stricken colleague behind to die protested later that they were certain the next climber behind them (or the next, perhaps) would stop to help the man. We pass a stopped car in distress on the highway at night, reasoning that someone else will stop to help, sparing us the trouble.

Sometimes someone does. Sometimes not. This abdication of an ethical duty is accomplished by casting one’s lot, and gambling with the fate of another, while relying on the unpredictable quirks of moral luck. The only ethical decision is to take action. You must do what you know is the ethical act yourself, and not ignore your obligation because you can pass the buck and then argue, disingenuously, “How could I know that everyone else would be as unethical as I am?”

Rationalization #1B. The Psychic Historian, or “I’m On The Right Side Of History”

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Ethics Scoreboard Flashback: “Death on Everest”, a Real Life “What Would You Do?”

[ The discussion in the earlier post today regarding ABC’s revolting “What Would You Do?” convinced me that I should re-post this essay about a real-life “What Would You Do?”tragedy, which originally appeared on The Ethics Scoreboard in 2006.  Entitled “Death on Everest,” It has been lightly edited to bring it up to date.]

As 34-year-old mountaineer David Sharp lay near death on Mount Everest, over 40 other climbers trudged past him on their march to the peak. All had oxygen with them, and a few even stopped briefly to give Sharp a few breaths. But still they climbed on, and Sharp perished. His demise on May 15, 2006 has gone into ethics lore alongside the infamous death of Kitty Genovese on March 13, 1964. Genovese was murdered outside her apartment building in Queens while thirty-eight neighbors watched and did nothing.
The two incidents stem from very different causes, however. While Genovese’s death was fueled by urban fear and apathy, a mass failure of courage and the willingness to assume responsibility in a crisis, Sharp was the victim of that universal ethics-suppressant, the powerful non-ethical consideration. Continue reading