Ethics Article of the Week: George Will On His Son’s Birthday

Happy birthday, Jon.

Conservative columnist George Will has only occasionally mentioned his Down Syndrome-inflicted son Jon in his columns, but when he has, it has provided an extra dimension to Jon’s father, who usually comes across in print and on TV as cynical, dour, and archly intellectual. Today is Jon’s birthday, so Will devotes the full column to him, his challenges, and, when all is said and done, ethics.

It’s a beautifully written piece, as Will’s columns often are, and a tender one. More importantly, however, it is an essay that should provoke thought, beginning with the fact that the only reason Will wrote this column is that he and his wife chose, 40 years ago, to do what 90% of all parents informed that their gestating child has Down Syndrome refuse to do: allow the child to be born.

The column is here


Graphics: Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Folly of Sacrificing Integrity to Kindness in Competitions

"Great idea, Mandy! Let's elect President Obama our school Homecoming Queen! He could use a a boost."


Violate it at your peril. This is especially true if you are running a competition, no matter how trivial it might be.

Not only may a momentary waiver of integrity for what seems like an admirable cause permanently render a competition and the honor of winning it meaningless, it well may inspire the well-meaning and misguided to stretch the questionable logic of your decision to the breaking point.

Almost everyone has seen the heart-tugging TV ad from the mysterious Foundation for a Better Life, in which a high school girl with Down Syndrome is crowned Homecoming Queen. (“True Beauty. Pass it on!”) It bothered me the moment I saw it—at least after I wiped the tear from my eye. Based on a real incident in Missouri in 2008, the spot illustrates an ethical conflict between kindness and caring on one side and fairness and integrity on the other.

Of course this was a nice thing to do. It was undeniably kind, and the student involved will surely regard it as a high point in her life. But what does the Homecoming Queen title mean now, once it has been awarded for purposes completely divorced from its original purpose? If there is another Down Syndrome student in future years who doesn’t get a crown, will this indicate to her that she is less deserving of the award, and somehow lacking, since, after all, a girl like her won in a past year? Continue reading

Unethical Website of the Month: Wonkette

That's right, Wonkette---GET HIM!!!

Wonkette the left-leaning political snark site, showed its true colors ( I flagged the site as ethically unbearable in a post six years ago, when it defended Dan Rather during “Memogate”) when it allowed editor Jack Steuf to post “satire” early this week  ridiculing Sarah Palin’s toddler son Trig, who is a Down Syndrome child. Entitled “Greatest Living American: A Children’s Treasury of Trig Crap On His Birthday,” the post contains sick-humor jokes about the 3-year-old ( After quoting from a Palin posted birthday poem for Trig referencing his dreams, Steuf snickers, “What’s he dreaming about? Nothing! He’s retarded!”) and proceeds to use the child as its target while demeaning Palin.  A sample:

“That strange man yelling unintelligibly at Sarah Palin? He’s merely a lowly shepherd proclaiming the birth of our savior. Today is the day we come together to celebrate the snowbilly grifter’s magical journey from Texas to Alaska to deliver to the America the great gentleman scholar Trig Palin. Is Palin his true mother? Or was Bristol? (And why is it that nobody questions who the father is? Because, either way, Todd definitely did it.) Continue reading

TGIF Ethics Round-up: Killer Whales, Palin-Hatred, MagicJack and More

Brief ethics notes on a wild week…

  • How dare the killer whale be a killer?…Tilikum, the killer whale who either playfully or maliciously killed his trainer at Orlando’s Sea World this week, will apparently stay in the facility. Some pundits (the ones I have heard were of the foaming-at-the-mouth conservative fanatic variety) regard it as absurd not to put down a murderous whale when a dog, bear or tiger that similarly ended a human life ( Tilikum may have ended three) would routinely be destroyed. One doesn’t have to be a PETA dues-payer to see this as advocacy for blatantly unfair retribution. Let’s see: Sea World takes a top-of-the-food-chain predator out of the oceans out of its natural environment, earns admission fees by making it perform tricks for the amusement of humans in a theme park, pays relatively tiny and fragile trainers to interact with the three ton beast, and when the predators does what it is naturally designed to do—kill—we blame the whale? Continue reading

Comedy Ethics, Censorship, and Culture

(The current uproar over the use of  various versions of the word “retarded” by Rahm Emanuel and Rush Limbaugh seems to warrant a reprint, slightly revised, of the following essay on ethics and comedy, a January 2008 post on The Ethics Scoreboard. The word “retard” also came in for criticism in a comic context last year, with its use in the Ben Stiller comedy “Tropic Thunder.” Of course, comedy is one thing, and gratuitous cruelty is another. In either case, the issue is the use of a word, not the word itself. As discussed in the previous post, it is appropriate for any group to promote sensitivity and to encourage civility. It is unethical to try to bully others into censoring their speech by trying to “ban” words, phrases or ideas. )

Here is the essay:

Comedy Ethics

“Saturday Night Live” has, not for the first time in its three decade run, ignited an ethics controversy with politically incorrect humor. Was SNL ensemble member Fred Armison’s impression of  New York Governor David Paterson, who is blind, including as it did a wandering eye and featuring slapstick disorientation, legitimate satire or, as Paterson and advocates for the blind have claimed, a cruel catalyst for discrimination against the sight-challenged?
It is not an easy call, though the opposing sides of the argument probably think it should be. And it raises long-standing questions about the balance between ethics and humor. Continue reading