Anthony Hopkins winning an upset Oscar this year reminded me of the action film he made with (yecchh) Alec Baldwin 25 years ago. I would have written about it then, but 1) I didn’t see it then, being driven to my sock drawer at the thought of paying for any movie with Baldwin in it, and 2) it was a long time before Ethics Alarms.
The film explores survival situation ethics, a topic that “The Walking Dead” has thoroughly beaten to walking death in the last decade, with the assistance of some sharp David Mamet dialogue. Hopkins, a wealthy, cocky and obnoxiously competent businessman, survives a small plane crash that dumps him and two other men in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. One of them, the younger Baldwin, is secretly having an affair with Hopkins’ super-model trophy wife, whom they left back at the hunting lodge.
Hopkins’ encyclopedic knowledge of everything and Eagle Scout-level survival skills keep his wilderness ignorant companions alive and hopeful until a rampaging Kodiak bear eats the man who isn’t Baldwin (thus showing good taste). Then the remaining two become the hunted. Eventually, after many scares and narrow escapes, Hopkins and Baldwin solve their hungry bear problem and find an abandoned cabin conveniently stocked with food, guns, and a canoe. Baldwin, confident that he no longer requires Hopkins’ expertise to survive long enough to be rescued, takes a functioning rifle, loads it, admits that he’s having the affair with Hopkins’ wife, and marches Hopkins outside to shoot him. But Fate takes a hand: Baldwin falls into a pit before he can shoot and is rendered helpless, with a broken leg and other life-threatening injuries.
In Part 2of the New York Times editorial board’s examination of the ethical and legal complexities of conflicting laws protecting the right to kill a fetus, the rights a fetus does have, and the mother’s rights, the question is posed:
Katherin Shuffield was five months pregnant when she was shot in 2008. She survived, but she lost the twins she was carrying. The gunman, Brian Kendrick, was charged with murdering them. Bei Bei Shuai was eight months pregnant and depressed when she tried to kill herself in 2010. She was rushed to the hospital and survived, but her baby died a few days later. Ms. Shuai was charged with murder.
Both cases are tragedies. But are Ms. Shuai and the man who shot Ms. Shuffield really both murderers?
It is an ethical question, a legal one and a logical one. Unfortunately, and typical of the entire series, the Times cannot play straight, or begin with basic principles. No, the questions is asked with an assumption in hand: the right to abortion must trump everything, even logic and justice The editors go on:
“Ms. Shuai is one of several hundred pregnant women who have faced criminal charges since 1973 for acts seen as endangering their pregnancies, according to National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which has completed the only peer-reviewed study of arrests and forced interventions on pregnant women in the United States. In many cases, the laws under which these women were charged were ostensibly written to protect them. Ms. Shuai, for instance, was charged under a law that was stiffened after the attack on Ms. Shuffield.
These criminal statutes are results of a tried-and-true playbook, part of a strategic campaign to establish fetal rights, reverse Roe v. Wade and recriminalize abortion. The sequence begins with anti-abortion groups seizing upon a tragic case in which a woman loses her pregnancy because of someone else’s actions. Public outcry then helps to strengthen a state feticide law that recognizes such lost pregnancies as murder or manslaughter. It’s a backdoor way of legally defining when life begins.”
In other words, the Times relies on ideology to duck an ethics conflict that points in a direction that radical abortion advocates don’t like, and thus refuse to acknowledge, because they don’t have a good answer for it. Here’s my answer: Yes, they are both murderers. If a mother who is gestating a child that she and her husband intend to have, and the child is killed by the act of a third party, a human being has been murdered, and charges are just. In the Sheffield case, her twins were within the protection of abortion limitations, though I would hold that this doesn’t matter, if they were both going to be delivered. If you don’t call this a murder, then a manic could perform an involuntary abortion on a 9 month’s pregnant women, ripping her fetus out of her with murderous intent, and still face no murder charges as long as the mother recovered. Were it not that all obstacles to abortion must fall, even logical ones, no woman, no human being would call such an act anything but murder. Once any rights are assigned to the unborn at all, however, such logic is impolitic. Continue reading →
1. “The Rifleman” and “Fix the problem.” I recently was interviewed by a graduate student in organizational leadership and ethics. One thing we discussed was how popular culture in America once dedicated itself to teaching ethical values and ethics problem-solving, especially in shows aimed at young audiences. This is not so true any more; indeed, popular culture models unethical conduct at least as often today.
I told my interviewer about recently watching an episode of “The Rifleman,” the early ’60s TV Western about a single father raising his young son while being called upon to use his skill with a rifle to fight for civilization in the harsh frontier. In the episode, hero Lucas McCain (played by the under-rated Chuck Connors) had to deal with an old friend, now an infamous outlaw, who had come to town. (The ethical conflict between personal loyalty and an individual’s duty to society was a frequent theme in Westerns.) Lucas was a part-time deputy, and at the climax of the episode, his friend-gone-bad is prepared to ride out of town to escape arrest for his latest crime. Lucas tells him not to leave, and that if he tries to escape, Lucas will have to let his custom-made rifle settle the matter, as usual. (Peace-loving Lucas somehow managed to kill over a hundred men during the run of the series.) Smirking, his friend (Richard Anderson, later known as the genius behind “The Six Million Dollar Man”), says that he knows his old friend is bluffing. For Lucas owes him a lifetime debt: he once saved “The Rifleman’s” life. You’re a good man and a fair man, the villain says. “You won’t shoot me. I know you.” Then he mounts his horse , and with a smiling glance back at “The Rifleman,” who is seemingly paralyzed by the ethical conflict, starts to depart. Now his back is all Lucas has to shoot at, doubling the dilemma. You never shoot a man in the back, an ethical principle that the two officers who killed Stephon Clark somehow missed. We see McCain look at his deadly rifle, then again at the receding horseman. Then, suddenly, he hurls his rifle, knocking his friend off his horse. The stunned man is arrested by the sheriff, and says, lamely, as he’s led away. “I knew you wouldn’t shoot me.”
I love this episode. It teaches that we have to seek the best solution available when we face ethics conflicts, and that this often requires rejecting the binary option presented to us, and finding a way to fix the problem.
Of course, it helped that Chuck Connors used to play for the Dodgers, and could hurl that rifle with the accuracy of Sandy Koufax.
2. Here we go again! Now that anti-gun hysteria is again “in,” thanks to the cynical use of some Parkland students to carry the anti-Second Amendment message without having to accept the accountability adults do when they make ignorant, dishonest, and illogical arguments in public, teachers and school administrators are back to chilling free speech and expression by abusing their students with absurd “no-tolerance” enforcement. At North Carolina’s Roseboro-Salemburg Middle School, for example, a 13-year-old boy in the seventh grade was suspended for two days for drawing a stick figure holding a gun.
I drew pictures like this—well, I was little better at it—well into my teens. It’s a picture. It isn’t a threat. It isn’t anything sinister, except to hysterics and fanatics without a sense of perspective or proportion—you know, the kind of people who shouldn’t be trusted to mold young minds. “Due to everything happening in the nation, we’re just being extra vigilant about all issues of safety,” said Sampson County Schools’ Superintendent Eric Bracy, an idiot. How does punishing a boy for a drawing make anyone safer? It makes all of us less safe, by pushing us one step closer to government censorship of speech and thought.
Then we have Zach Cassidento, a high school senior at Amity High Regional School in Connecticut who was suspended and arrested —arrested!—for posting a picture of his birthday gift, an Airsoft gun, on Snapchat. He was not charged, but was suspended for a day from school….for posting, outside of school, on his personal account, the picture of an entirely legal toy gun (It shoots plastic pellets: my son has several of them).
The people who do this kind of thing to children in violation of their rights as Americans are the same people who cheer on David Hogg while signing factually and legally ridiculous petitions. They should not be permitted to teach, and this kind of conduct ought to be punished.
Where is the ACLU? For the organization not to attack these abuses is an abdication of the organization’s mission. Continue reading →
1 One of my favorite Hollywood ethics scenes. I watched “Mrs. Miniver” again last night, the 1942 WWII drama starring the magnificent Greer Garson. It has a wonderful ethics moment late in the film, when Lady Beldon, the wealthy town battleaxe (and the grandmother Mrs. Miniver’s recently minted daughter-in-law, soon to die tragically) presides over the English village’s annual flower show, in which she has won the coveted “Best Rose” prize every year. But beloved old stationmaster Mr. Ballard has developed a magnificent new rose (named after Garson’s character) and desperately wants to win as well. The Minivers tease their elderly relative about the near certainty that she will win as always regardless of the relative merits of her entry and “The Miniver” entered by Mr. Ballard, since the judges are terrified of her, and Lady Beldon has made it clear to all that she regards the annual prize as a virtual entitlement. After all, the prize is even called “The Beldon Challenge Cup.” Sure enough, the judges, who seemed to be having a harder time than usual concluding that Lady Beldon’s rose deserved the award, hand her a slip that places her rose in first place, and Mr. Ballard’s in second.
Lady Beldon shows the slip to Mrs. Miniver with an air of triumph.
MINIVER: This is really important to you, isn’t it?
LADY BELDON: Yes. It’s stupid of me, but there it is. I’ve won that cup for as long as I can remember.
MINIVER: Mr. Ballard’s terribly keen too.
BELDON: Well, he’s had his chance. Hasn’t he? You have such a way of looking at people. What do you expect me to do? Reverse the judges’ decision?
MINIVER: I wouldn’t put it past you. If you happened to disagree with it.
“But I don’t!” she harrumphs. She keeps looking at the two competing roses, though, and also at old Mr. Ballard (played by Henry Traverse, later to portray Clarence the Wingless Angel”in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His look of anticipation and hope approximately mirrors the expression of a six-year-old on Christmas morning. And when it comes time to announce the winner, Lady Ballard pauses, looks at the two roses again, ponders, crumples up the judges’ slip, and announces that “The Miniver” wins the prize.
Dame May Witty, one of the best character actors England ever produced, shows us with her face that she realizes she did the right thing as soon as she sees Ballard’s reaction to winning. And the assembled crowd gives her an even louder ovation than they give the winner. They didn’t even have to see the slip like the Minivers: they know what she did. And she knows they know.
I had a Lady Beldon moment many years ago, before I had even seen the movie. Continue reading →
Just months after suburban Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were cited by Montgomery County’s Child Protective Services for “unsubstantiated neglect” for allowing their children Rafi, 10, and Dvora, 6, to walk home from a park close to home, the defiant parents let their kids to do it again. Again, someone called 911 (anonymously), and again the children were picked up by police.
This time, the police took the Meitiv children to Child Protective Services headquarters and for some reason didn’t tell the parents, who, naturally enough, freaked out. Five and a half hours later the agitated children and frantic parents were reunited. You can read about the initial incident from the mother’s perspective here; and obviously Lenore Skanazy is in full battle array on her “Free Range Kids Blog.” Columnists everywhere are rushing to their keyboards to write columns like this one, by the Washington Post’s Petula Devorak, titled “Why Are We Criminalizing Childhood Independence?”
The ethics of this issue are more complicated than simplistic “We used to walk around freely all the time when we were kids and it was more dangerous then than now” reminiscences are equipped to explore.
Analyzing this ethics conflict (“when two or more ethical principles are in opposition”) screams out for the useful starting point for ethics analysis:
The post generating texagg04‘s (latest) Comment of the Day dealt with the tricky and common ethics problem of enforcing reasonable rules strictly in the face of situations where compassion and sympathy pull us toward leniency, because the penalty for non-compliance seem out of proportion to the transgression. He correctly identified this as a problem involving the Ethics Incompleteness Theorem (or Principle), which is an ethics analysis concept used frequently here, and one of my favorites. The Theorem, as stated in the Ethics Alarms Concepts and Special Tools, a.k.a. “the Rule Book,” holds that…
The human language is not sufficiently precise to define a rule that will work in every instance. There are always anomalies on the periphery of every normative system, no matter how sound or well articulated. If one responds to an anomaly by trying to amend the rule or system to accommodate it, the integrity of the rule or system is disturbed, and perhaps ruined. Yet if one stubbornly applies the rule or system without amendment to the anomaly anyway, one may reach an absurd conclusion or an unjust result. The Ethics Incompleteness Principle suggests that when a system or rule doesn’t seem to work well when applied to an unexpected or unusual situation, the wise response is to abandon the system or rule—in that one anomalous case only— and use basic ethics principles and analysis to find the best solution. Then return to the system and rules as they were, without altering them to make the treatment of the anomalous situation “consistent.”
No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single ethical system is folly, and why it is important to keep basic ethical values in mind in case a pre-determined formula for determining what is right breaks down.
Yesterday traffic caused me to arrive a bit later than usual at my monthly gig as the instructor in the legal ethics portion of the D.C. Bar’s mandatory orientation session for new admittees. It was after 9 AM (my segment starts at 9:20), and as I approached the glass doors to the lecture hall lobby, I saw a distraught women angrily berating one of the D.C. Bar staff. I knew instantly what was going on.
You see, the courts approving the program insist that every attendee be there at the start: the doors close at 9, and anyone arriving late, no matter what the reason, is out of luck. They can’t attend the session, can’t get credit for it, and have to return the following month. That rule is on the website and in all communications with the Bar, along with the warning that there are no exceptions, and no effective excuses. Every month, someone misses the deadline; every month, that person goes ballistic. This women, however, was remarkable.
She had flown to D.C. on the redeye, she said. Her cab was stuck in traffic, and when she arrived in the cavernous Reagan Building where the day-long course takes place, she had ten minutes to spare. Unfortunately, the Reagan Building eats people. I have wandered its halls lost many times. I keep expecting to encounter a bearded, Ben Gunn-like figure who grabs my pant leg and jabbers about how he’s been trapped by the bewildering signage, and has been living off of Cub Scouts since 1992. The woman made it to the right hall in just 12 minutes, which is impressive without a GPS. But she was still two minutes late.Continue reading →
In Longwood, Florida, Patricia-Ann Jackson Denault thought it would be funny to post pictures of her son, 7, drinking whiskey on Facebook, titling it “first shot.” Someone thought it was more alarming than funny, and called the police. Three uniformed officers and Child Protective Services came to her house and interviewed both her and her kids. Denault explained her humor theory, and said she wanted the children “to experience alcohol in a controlled setting.”
They were not impressed. She was arrested and charged with child neglect.
Apparently this is becoming a cause celebre in conservative circles, and example of the nanny state going too far. I don’t see it:
A photo on Facebook showed an adult persuading a very young child to drink a substance that can be dangerous in large quantities. Was that the only sip, or the first of many? I think the inquiry was responsible.
The mother used her child not only as a prop, but as a prop involving alcohol. I would be dubious about the judgment of such a parent.
She said that she wanted a seven-year-old “to experience alcohol in a controlled setting” ??? Why? What else would she like to see a child experience in a controlled setting?
I think these were sufficient reason to check on the welfare of the children in that home, and to be concerned. Should she have been arrested? I don’t know what the children said, or what she told the police. The news reports make Denault sound like a fool, but being a stupid parent does not necessarily make one a dangerous parent. If this is all there is, the arrest is overkill. Continue reading →
I owe Carol Costello for this one, which she unveiled today while explaining why it was unfair to criticize Janay Palmer for marrying Ray Rice, the pro football star who punched her lights out in a hotel elevator when they were engaged. “It’s complicated,” Carol said, as her entire argument, as if this settled the issue. My rationalization alarm immediately began clanging. Then I thought about all the other times I have heard that explanation used to avoid accountability or blame for wrongful action. Thus Ethics Alarms will add to its useful and always growing Rationalizations List…
45.The Abuser’s License: “It’s Complicated”
Costello later noted that the decision to stay with a potentially deadly partner was related to the emotion of love, as if love deserves an ethics pass that other emotions do not qualify for. In this context, “It’s complicated” is a matched set with #23. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
Love does not get a pass, or warrant one. Love is one of the most powerful of the non-ethical consideration magnets that stop ethics alarm clappers from moving when they should, and the sentimental, warm and fuzzy tradition of excusing harmful, irresponsible, clearly wrongful conduct because it might have been motivated by love is a rejection of ethics in favor of romance. Love is not the most benign of impediments to sound ethical reasoning, but rather one of the most insidious. Some of the worst crimes in human history have been rationalized by lovers. If the the coded meaning of “It’s complicated” is “it’s love, and we can never plumb the mysteries of the heart!”, the sentiment should be received with exactly the same contempt as “It’s greed,” It’s hate,” or “It’s revenge.” Continue reading →
Jeff Gates, the father, photographer and writer whose essay in the Washington Post prompted my post here and a lively discussion thereafter, has been kind enough to contribute additional thoughts and clarifications in response. This is one of the really good things about the internet, and his willingness to enhance the discussion with additional perspective reveals good things about Jeff as well. His original article is here.
At the outset, I want to clarify something about my post that I kept intending to do but obviously did not, at least not well. The fact that the man who was suspicious of his photo-session with his daughter said later that he worked for Homeland Security didn’t figure into my analysis at all, and still doesn’t. I am concerned with the original encounter, and the question of whether this was excessive Big Brotherism clouds the issue, which I see, and saw as this: we should applaud and encourage proactive fellow citizens who have the courage and the concern to step into developing situation that they believe might involve one individual harming another. As the man needed no special authority to do that, I don’t care whether he was a federal agent or not; I thought it was pretty clear that this was not official action. Indeed, I think as official action, the man’s intervention was ham-handed and unprofessional.