Review: Ethics Alarms Concepts And Special Terms

Recently updating the Ethics Alarms list of concepts and frequently used terms reminded me that I had been meaning to post them for review and assistance to those relatively new here. Of course, the link has always been right there at the top of the home page, but I have this sneaking suspicion that it isn’t visited very often.  Here, then, is the up-to-date list.


Non-Ethical Considerations: Defined above, non-ethical considerations are important because they are often the powerful impediments to ethical conduct, and the cause of many conflicts of interest. Non-ethical considerations are many and diverse, and include:

  • The need and desire for shelter, health, wealth, fame, security, self-esteem, reputation, power, professional advancement, comfort, love, sex, praise, credit, appreciation, affection, or satisfaction
  • The desire for the health, comfort, safety, welfare and happiness for one’s family, loved ones, friends, colleagues, an co-workers
  • The pursuit of vengeance or retribution
  • Hunger, lust, pain, ambition, prejudice, bias, hatred, laziness, fatigue, disgust, anger, fear
  • …and many more

Ethical Dilemma: This is an ethical problem in which the ethical choice involves ignoring a powerful non-ethical consideration. Do the right thing, but lose your job, a friend, a lover, or an opportunity for advancement. A non-ethical consideration can be powerful and important enough to justify choosing it over the strict ethical action.

Ethical Conflict: When two ethical principles demand opposite results in the same situation, this is an ethical conflict. Solving ethical conflicts may require establishing a hierarchy or priority of ethical principles, or examining the situation through another ethical system.

Ethical Gray Area: Gray areas are situations and problems that don’t fit neatly into any existing mode of ethical analysis. In some cases, there may even be a dispute regarding whether ethics is involved.

Reciprocity: The ethical system embodied by The Golden Rule, and given slightly different form in other religions and philosophies. It is a straight-forward way of judging conduct affecting others by putting oneself in the position of those affected. Reciprocity should always be available in any ethical analysis, but it is frequently too simple to be helpful in complex ethical situations with multiple competing interests.

Absolutism: Absolutist systems do not permit any exception to certain ethical principles. The champion of all absolutists, philosopher Immanuel Kant, declared that the ethical act was one that the actor was willing to have stand as a universal principle.

One principle of absolutism is that human beings can never be harmed for any objective, no matter how otherwise worthwhile. Absolutism has the advantage of making tough ethical calls seem easy, and the disadvantage of making debate impossible. One sees absolutism reflected today in the controversies over war, torture, abortion, cloning, and capital punishment.

Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism accepts the existence of ethical conflicts and the legitimacy of some ethical dilemmas, and proposes ethical analysis based on the question, “Which act will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people?’ It entails the balancing of greater and lesser goods, and is useful for unraveling complex ethical problems. Its drawback, or trap, is that utilitarianism can slide into “The ends justify the means” without some application of absolutist and reciprocity principles.

Consequentialism: In formal ethics, utilitarian schools of philosophy are sometimes lumped together as “consequentialism,” in that the ethical decision-making is based on seeking the best result. Here we just uses the above term, utilitarianism.  Consequentialsm, in contrast, is the flawed belief that the rightness or wrongness, or even wisdom, of chosen conduct is measures by its actual results rather than its intended results. If “if all worked out for the best,” in other words, the conduct that created the desirable result most have been ethical, whatever its intent or however the conduct was determined to be necessary or desirable. This is a fallacy.

Cognitive Dissonance:
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon first identified by Leon Festinger. It occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a person believes, knows and values, and persuasive information that calls these into question. The discrepancy causes psychological discomfort, and the mind adjusts to reduce the discrepancy. In ethics, cognitive dissonance is important in its ability to alter values, such as when an admired celebrity embraces behavior that his or her admirers deplore. Their dissonance will often result in changing their attitudes toward the behavior. Dissonance also leads to rationalizations of unethical conduct, as when the appeal and potential benefits of a large amount of money makes unethical actions to acquire it seem less objectionable than if they were applied to smaller amounts.

Moral Luck: The common situation where an unethical act is only discovered, noticed, or deemed worthy of condemnation due to unpredictable occurrences that come as a result of the act or that affect its consequences. Moral luck is the difference, for example, between two mildly intoxicated drivers, one of whom arrives home without incident, while the other has an unwary child dash in front of his automobile, leading to a fatal accident that he couldn’t have avoided if completely sober. Yet the unlucky driver will be a pariah in the community, while the more fortunate driver goes on with his life.


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Ethics Quiz: Honoring The Dead and Deadly Team Mate


When they take the field in Spring Training and for the rest of the 2015 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals will be wearing a memorial patch reading “OT” in honor of outfielder Oscar Taveras, the 22-year-old budding star outfielder who died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic last October. Such mourning patches have become common since 1972, when the Pittsburgh Pirates moved beyond the traditional black armband to a personalized patch following the tragic death of the team’s Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente in a plane crash, as he was flying humanitarian aid to Nicaragua.

Taveras, however, unlike Clemente, died in an act of reckless stupidity that took not only his own life but that of his 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, as well. Toxicology tests showed that his blood alcohol level was five times the legal limit before the crash. situation is more complex because toxicology tests showed that his blood alcohol level at the time of his death was five times the legal limit. Moreover, Taveras’, also was killed in the crash. If Taveras had lived and Arvelo alone had died, he would have been prosecuted for manslaughter.

And thus your first Ethics Alarms Baseball Ethics Quiz of 2015 is this:

Is it ethical for the Cardinals to publicly honor Taveras with a uniform patch?

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Comment of the Day: “Zero Sum Ethics Encore: When An Unfair Firing Is Still The Most Ethical Course”

 my hero

The dilemma posed in the recent post about the radio host fired because of the danger posed by her threatening, stalker ex-husband sparked some unexpected reactions, as many readers expressed frustration that Nancy Lane’s employer left her to her own resources in her peril. One of the more provocative alternatives proposed is Steven’s endorsement of what he calls the chivalristic response.

Here is his Comment of the Day, to the post Zero Sum Ethics Encore: When An Unfair Firing Is Still The Most Ethical Course.

The problem I have with situations such as here with Nancy Lane is there is no reason for this situation to result in an ethical dilemma or “Zero Sum”. I, as well as few others here recommend what can only be labeled as a chivalristic response. Now we are not talking the aristocratic, medieval ethos but more of a modernization of the gentlemanly behavior exhibited of those of the greatest generation without the bigotry or homophobia. With the feminization of our society it is incredibly hard to find the line between “modern” chivalry and misogyny, or at least feminism’s liberal application of the term. Continue reading

Zero Sum Ethics Encore: When An Unfair Firing Is Still The Most Ethical Course


Back in June, Ethics Alarms set off quite a donnybrook over a post about a second grade teacher in San Diego who was fired over concerns for the safety of staff and students after the teacher’s ex-husband came to the school to confront her. The teacher protested that the school was abandoning her when she needed support most, which was indeed true. But Ethics Alarms concluded…

“This is the kind of ethical conflict involving competing interests and obligations that only a balancing approach, utilitarianism, can address properly. The husband is Carie’s problem. He is not the school’s problem. It is not the students’ problem. It is not the children’s parents’ problem. I know it’s not an easy problem for her to solve, but she has no right to insist or demand that her inability to solve her problem should be permitted to put others at unnecessary risk…Sometimes ethics is a zero sum game, and someone has to lose. This is one of those times…”

Ethics conflicts (where two or more ethical principles are in direct opposition) necessarily require making tough choices, but many readers didn’t like the analysis, pronouncing it “cold.” “There has to be some other solution,” wrote one commenter. Certainly there are other solutions, but the school was obligated to choose the solution that resulted in the least risk to their primary charges, the kids.

And if children aren’t at risk?

That’s the question raised by the most recent occurrence of the zero sum ethics scenario, in which Nancy Lane, a popular Pennsylvania radio host, has been terminated by her employers because of the threats made against her and the company by her ex-husband. The ex, George Lane, is currently jailed for  impersonating police. In the recent past he has repeatedly threatened Nancy, her family and coworkers, and last year hired someone to slash the tires of several company vehicles at Forever Broadcasting, Nancy Lane’s now former employers, who severed its ties with her by writing,

“Regrettably recent events involving your former husband has caused severe disruption to our business and has made this decision necessary.”

Lane has posted a petition protesting her dismissal. It reads, in part… Continue reading

The Teacher, The Ex, and Zero Sum Ethics

"Carie? Your ex-husband is hear to see you!"

“Carie? Your ex-husband is here to see you!”

Domestic violence victims advocates are outraged over an incident in which second-grade teacher Carie Charlesworth, a teacher at San Diego’s Holy Trinity School, lost her job because of threatening conduct by her ex-husband.  After an incident where the school was placed on lock-down because Charlesworth’s ex, undeterred by a restraining order, came to the school to confront her, the school district decided that her continued employment was a risk to the safety of the school and its students.

In a termination letter, the district informed Charlesworth that her ex-husband’s “threatening and menacing behavior” made it impossible for her to continue teaching at the Holy Trinity School. Predictably, Charlesworth is angry, and suing. “They’ve taken away my ability to care for my kids,” she says.  She has four. “It’s not like I can go out and find a teaching job anywhere.”  Now she is publicizing her dilemma to dramatize the plight of domestic violence victims.

She is focusing her resources and anger on the wrong parties. Continue reading

Ethics Heroes: The U.S. Supreme Court

As the perfect tonic for all the attempts to silence Gilbert and Sullivan songs with controversial lyrics, reject bus ads espousing controversial positions, and declare that words like “target” are just too darn inflammatory for the sensitive, politically-correct ears of CNN viewers, here comes the U.S. Supreme Court, galloping to the rescue with a near unanimous (8-1), ringing reaffirmation that free speech is a bastion of American democracy, even when the speaker or speakers are vicious, unfair, cruel, radical and deluded. Continue reading

Should a Prosecutor Be Lenient So A Rich Felon Can Keep His Big Bucks Job?

Good intentions, it is said, pave the road to Hell. It’s an especially direct road when the good intentions are those of a prosecutor who doesn’t have the skills or common sense to reach the correct decision to resolve a rather easy ethical conflict. An ethical conflict occurs when there are valid ethical arguments for diametrically opposed actions, and one must weigh the priorities, implications and likely results in order to make the most ethical choice. Mark Hurlbert, the district attorney for Eagle, Colorado, faced such a conflict, as prosecutors often do. He botched it royally, and that road he’s paving is going to reach far beyond Colorado. Continue reading

Ethics Audit: the Deep-Water Oil-Drilling Ban Saga

President Obama’s ban on deep-water oil drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster pits important ethical values against each other: fairness vs. responsibility. On both sides of the equation is prudence. New Orleans federal judge Martin Feldman over-ruled the ban and issued an injunction against it, saying in effect that there was no contest: the ban isn’t fair, prudent, or responsible.

The Obama Administration’s ethical argument supporting the ban goes something like this: Continue reading

The 4th, the Crisis, and the Duty to Celebrate

The Fourth of July is less than 60 days away, and communities are looking hard at their budgets. The signs are ominous. This doesn’t seem like the right time to be throwing big parties.

This week, the Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross announced that it was canceling the Waterfront Festival, a summer community celebration with fireworks that it had sponsored since 1981. “We decided that responding to a fire in the middle of the night was a much better use of our resources,” said a local Red Cross’s executive director. Indeed. The total costs of the event totaled close to a quarter-million dollars. In times of financial stress, and even in better times, a service organization using resources and volunteer time to throw a community party of such magnitude seems irresponsible.

So what are we going to do about the 4th of July? Continue reading

The Unethical Ethics Attacks on Arizona

The anger, ridicule and threats being heaped on Arizona for its illegal immigration enforcement law defies fairness and rationality, and has been characterized so far by tactics designed to avoid productive debate rather than foster it. Now, with the help and encouragement of professional bullies like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, Arizona is facing an economic boycott, which, like all boycotts, carries the message “we’re going to force you to do what we want, whether we’re right or not.” Meanwhile, all of the over-heated rhetoric diverts the focus to side issues rather than the major problem that prompted the Arizona law in the first place: out of control illegal immigration, and its very obvious—and very serious—negative consequences to the entire nation.

Whether they know it or not, opponents of Arizona’s law are using a common ethics misconception to its advantage. Illegal immigration enforcement is an ethical conflict, which occurs when two or more ethical principles dictate different results, and thus have to be weighed against each other. The attacks on Arizona, however, have framed the argument as an ethics dilemma, defined as a problem in which the ethical course is clear, but powerful non-ethical considerations make rejecting it seem attractive. This allows the opponents of Arizona’s law to inaccurately place themselves in the moral high ground, sniping at Arizona as it supposedly wallows in a pit of greed, meanness, nativism and bigotry….non-ethical considerations all. Much of the media, to their discredit (but the media has so much discredit now that they don’t seem to care any more), is accepting this spin.

The spin, however, is nonsense. Continue reading