Roshomon, Good Citizenship And Ethics: The Case Of The Concerned Stranger And The Indignant Father

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!”

—Robert Burns bystander-effectJeff Gates, a writer and adoptive father, contributed a thought-provoking column in the Washington Post’s Outlook section this weekend, describing what seemed to him to be a traumatic experience at Cape May. It begins…

“After my family arrives on the Cape May ferry for our annual vacation to the Jersey Shore, I take pictures of our two daughters on the ferry’s deck as we leave the harbor. I’ve been doing this since they were 3 and 4 years old. They are now 16 and 17. Each photo chronicles one year in the life of our family and our daughters’ growth into the beautiful young women they have become….On that first day of vacation, the sea was calm and the sky a brilliant blue. As I focused on the image in my camera’s viewfinder, the girls stood in their usual spot against the railing at the back of the boat. I was looking for just the right pose…Totally engaged with the scene in front of me, I jumped when a man came up beside me and said to my daughters: “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay.”

He goes on:

“It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but then it hit me: He thought I might be exploiting the girls, taking questionable photos for one of those “Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!” Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away. But that perfect moment was ruined, and our annual photo shoot was over.”

Many of us might laugh off the experience as a funny anecdote, but not Gates, and not his daughters. He is Caucasian and they are both of Chinese heritage, having been adopted as infants in China by Gates and his wife. He obsessed about the incident for a while, and worked up sufficient indignation to track down the man and confront him, saying “Excuse me, sir, but you just embarrassed me in front of my children and strangers. And what you said was racist.” Continue reading

Psychic Ethics: Sylvia Browne’s Dilemma

Sylvia Browne, under fire for not being a real psychic by people who should know better.

Sylvia Browne, under fire for not being a real psychic by people who should know better.

Growing up, I knew Sylvia Browne as one of the more colorful friends of my father, who knew her brother in the army. She visited from Kansas City every year or so, and her claims of psychic powers never came up, perhaps because my father didn’t believe in such things. My first inkling of “Aunt” Sylvia’s other life was when she pulled me aside in the fall of 1966, after hearing me bemoan the low state to which my beloved Boston Red Sox had fallen. They were going to finish the season in last place, the team’s vaunted youth movement was a flop, and I was disconsolate. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, ” she told me, “but the Red Sox will be in the pennant race next year to the very end. It will come down to the last two games.”

This seemed incredible to me, but what the heck: when the 1967 season tickets went on sale that winter, I sent in an order for two seats on the third base side for the next-to-last game of the season, against the Minnesota Twins. Baseball fans will recall that the ’67 season featured the closest race in American League history, with four teams, including the underdog Red Sox, staying essentially tied for months, with the pennant decided in the last two days at Fenway Park. Sure enough, Boston swept the Twins twice to make up a one game deficit and go the World Series. Sylvia called it.

During college and law school, Sylvia Browne fell out of my family’s life, but our paths intersected again when she showed up for a surprise visit at our home while I was studying for the Massachusetts bar exam in 1975. My job with the Mass Defenders had fallen through, and I had received an unexpected job offer from my law school to work for the new Dean. It would mean moving to D.C., which I didn’t want to do, and I was torn. This was the big topic of discussion while Sylvia was having dinner with us; my mother was emphatic that I should turn the offer down. For the second time, Sylvia pulled me aside for an unsolicited consultation. “Go to D.C.,” she said. “Your future wife is waiting for you.” I naturally assumed that she meant my current girl friend from law school, who was still in the District. “Not her,” Sylvia said. “Another. This job will bring you together, for good.”

I did take the job, although Sylvia’s advice played no part in it. Indeed, I forgot about the conversation completely until it came back to me right before I proposed to my wife, now my wife of 33 years, who was a work colleague of mine at the law school. Sylvia was two for two, at least where I was concerned.

Why I only had dealings with Sylvia Browne when the Red Sox were destined to go to the World Series I can’t imagine (Boston played Cincinnati in the 1975 classic), but the next time I heard from her was in 2004, the year they finally won it. She called me in my ProEthics office on November 17 of that year, and she was distraught. She was calling me, it turned out, not to give advice, but to receive it.  Continue reading

The Ethics Conundrum of Jim Thorpe’s Body

Jim Thorpe: Native American, Olympic Champion, baseball star, football

Jim Thorpe: Native American, Olympic Champion, baseball star, football star…football.

One thing is for certain: Jim Thorpe doesn’t care. The great Native American athlete whose sports legacy was as sterling as his life was tragic died in 1953, recognized by the country he honored with his record-breaking performance in the 1912 Olympics, but like so many of his race, mistreated and exploited by it as well. Since his death, however, a bizarre battle over his body has raged, and it is a perfect example of the Roshomon-like nature of  ethics in some situations. What is the right thing, the fair thing, the ethical thing? The answer sometimes depends on whose viewpoint is applied, and objectivity, the ideal viewpoint we strive for, doesn’t even exist. In an ethical conflict, moreover, there are good ethical principles on both sides of a dispute.

In Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, the ethical verdict of what occurred in a Pennsylvania  court last month is clear: the town has been double-crossed. A federal judge ruled that Thorpe’s remains, which lie in a mausoleum built by the town, can be moved to Oklahoma by his family, to be buried on lands belonging to his tribe. In 1953, however, two Pennsylvania towns signed a contract with Thorpe’s widow, committing them to consolidate and rename themselves after the Olympic, football and baseball legend, in return for being able to house Thorpe’s body and reap the tourism benefits of doing so. The contract was valid, if venal in inspiration: Mrs. Thorpe wanted and received cash in return. But a bargain is a bargain, and Thorpe’s presence and name has defined the town for over half a century. Losing Thorpe means losing the town’s identity and signature feature, which is a calamity. Continue reading

Golden Globe Ethics: Ricky Gervais’s Hosting Dilemma

Hollywood is buzzing and griping about the manner in which Ricky Gervais chose to host the Golden Globe Awards last night. The L.A. Times pronounced him “too nasty,” and it was clear as the night went on that his pointed and often personal jibes at the film and television egomaniacs filling the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton were often infuriating or embarrassing his targets. There was even speculation during the show (via Twitter) that he had been fired mid-ceremony. Continue reading