From Massachusetts: Proof That It CAN Happen Here…and Does; That It CAN Happen To You…and Might.

Tortured. At his Special Needs school. By good people like us.

As I recently wrote to a commenter on another post, Ethics Alarms is not intended to catalogue every prominent example of unethical conduct, and not just because attempting to do so would require a fleet of bloggers. If it is discussed here, an incident usually requires some kind of ethical analysis to determine whether it is ethical or not, or has larger cultural or societal significance. That the incident at the center of this post was unethical (as well as illegal), there can be no doubt, and that, ironically, is why it is worthy of special attention. The conduct is self-evidently horrific and beyond justification, and yet it occurred anyway, in a community, state and nation where virtually every sentient citizen over the age of nine would say that it could never happen—not here, not in the United States of America, not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. The fact that it did happen is both a revelation and a warning.

Film footage under seal since 2002 was finally shown in a Massachusetts courtroom this week. The film shows how the staff of a school for special needs students in Canton, Mass., the Judge Rotenberg Center, strapped a disabled 18-year-old student named Andre McCollins to a table and proceeded to torture him, administering 31 jolts of electricity to the screaming boy over a seven hour period. Lawyers defending the school in a lawsuit have claimed that the atrocity was “treatment,” but other evidence indicates that it was punishment—for  McCollins’ defiance of a teacher’s demands that he remove his jacket in class. Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011)

And he gave his book to Superman...

Author and folklorist Stetson Kennedy, who died this week,  is another important and courageous American that most of us never heard of. Let’s try to catch up.

After a back injury kept him out of World War II, Kennedy began a lifetime career of crusading against bigotry and what he called “homegrown racial terrorists.” He served as director of fact-finding for the southeastern office of the Anti-Defamation League and as director of the Anti-Nazi League of New York.

In his 1954 book “I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan,” Kennedy wrote that he gained entrance to the Klan by posing as an encyclopedia salesman and using the name of an uncle who was a Klan member. While posing as a member, he learned many Klan secrets that he put to use undermining the organization’s reputation and support. With evidence he snatched from the Grand Dragon’s wastebasket, he gave the Internal Revenue Service what it needed to collect an outstanding $685,000 tax lien from the Klan in 1944, and he helped draft the brief used by the state of Georgia to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947. He also testified in other Klan-related cases. Continue reading

Ethics Reading Assignment…

If you are waiting for Irene to hit or simply looking for some ethical enlightenment, here are some scintillating posts from around the web on ethics, social norms and morality. It is also an opportunity to check out some of the excellent blogs and websites in the Ethics Alarms links, which I heartily recommend.

Here are...

Biden’s China Gaffe

Homer Simpson made some comments in China yesterday,,,wait, my mistake. It was Joe Biden.

I saw the transcript of the Vice President’s remarks in China yesterday, and several thoughts went through my mind:

 How craven. How callous.What a betrayal of decency and American values!


 This is what happens when a once-great country is a trillion dollars  in debt to a human rights monster.


I hesitate to speculate what other nations that look to the U.S. as the champion of human rights must think when they hear the American Vice-President call forced abortion “a policy which I thoroughly understand.” Continue reading

Unethical Thought of the Month: Me

Of course,  I am likely to be the only one who can get this “award,” since I am not privy to everyone else’s unethical thoughts. Nonetheless, this was a thought that  deserves a special rebuke, and that raises many questions.

I have always been fascinated by unethical thoughts, because thoughts are not really ethical or unethical. Being ethical often requires transcending our worst instincts and selfish thoughts; one recurring theme in Julian Baggini’s collection of thought experiments, “The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten” is whether a person who automatically does the right thing is more, or possibly less, virtuous than the person who engages in the same conduct despite unethical thoughts that urge him to do otherwise. While some misguided social architects think that the way to a more ethical society is to make unethical thoughts more difficult to have through such measures as censorship and hate crime legislation, that strategy is itself unethical, offending the principle of human autonomy. An evil thought that is recognized as such, rejected and not acted upon has no true ethical implications at all.

Or does it? Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Daily Kos Blogger “bal”

Did Past Paul Ryan make Future Paul Ryan a hypocrite, or vice-versa? Is that even possible?

I sometimes comfort myself with the fantasy that the extreme left websites like The Daily Kos are written and read solely by 15-year-olds. While this adds to my anxieties about the public schools’ incompetence at teaching basic skills like logic, analysis and argument, it soothes my fears that our nation’s policies and political discourse are being dangerously warped by millions of addled adults whose passion is untempered by even a modicum of fairness and common sense. In this spirit, I am hoping that bal is a teenager, which would explain, though not justify, his absurd post on Kos. I fear he is not.

He writes, “I guess it’s only when social programs help other people that they’re bad, because I haven’t seen Paul Ryan acknowledging how Social Security benefits helped him and his family in trying times. Continue reading

Ethics Perils of an Over-eager Bieber Prompted By An Unethical Interviewer

In the current Rolling Stone magazine, teen singing sensation Justin Bieber opines on the morality of the U.S. health care system (Bieber is Canadian) and abortion, saying, among other things…

On abortion: “I really don’t believe in abortion. It’s like killing a baby?”

Abortion in cases of rape: “Well, I think that’s really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I guess I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that.”

On the U.S. and its current health care system: “You guys are evil. [Rolling Stone notes that he  says this “with a laugh.”] Canada’s the best country in the world. We go to the doctor and we don’t need to worry about paying him, but here, your whole life, you’re broke because of medical bills. My bodyguard’s baby was premature, and now he has to pay for it. In Canada, if your baby’s premature, he stays in the hospital as long as he needs to, and then you go home.”

So to sum up: in the course of one interview, Rolling Stone managed to prompt a 16-year-old to… Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Dr. Phil’s Child-Abusing Mom”

I don’t want to pick on Cara, who made this comment in reply to my response to her earlier comment that objected to the original post referring to forcing a seven-year-old child  to drink hot sauce and making him stand in a cold shower as punishment as “abuse.” That comment had such gems as “screaming is not necessarily an indication of abuse, some children just can not express themselves” and “depending on how you look at it, all disciplinary methods could be called abusive.” Her follow-up message, even more than her first, shows how people can come to excuse, rationalize and eventually accept truly terrible and cruel conduct, by others and eventually themselves. Rationalization cripples the ethics alarms, and eventually, as in Cara’s reasoning, we are excusing evil, and condemning those who stand against it, arguing, as she does here, that they have no standing to judge others, since everybody makes mistakes.

The comment makes a better case than anything I have written thus far for the importance of us all to engage in constant efforts to perfect our ethical sensitivity, to improve our ethics alarms, and to be vigilant against facile rationalizations.

Here’s a challenge: How many rationalizations can you count being used here? I find at least six, and perhaps as many as eight.

Here is the comment, by Cara, on “Dr. Phil’s Child-Abusing Mom”: Continue reading

Study: Doing Good Makes You Stronger…Unfortunately, So Does Doing Wrong

New research from Harvard University suggests that exemplary ethical conduct may increase an individual’s willpower and physical endurance. Research subjects who performed good deeds or who only imagined helping others excelled over others of similar physical strength in a subsequent task of physical endurance presented by behavioral scientists.

This is good news: the boost in self-esteem, certitude and commitment created by the decision to do something noble and good helps enable us to actually do it, if it is physically challenging. The bad news seems to be that the same holds for people who have made up their minds to do something particularly dastardly, according to the same data. Continue reading

“The Ethicist” and His Definition of “Unethical”

Eureka! Bingo! At last!

While explaining in this week’s column why he hesitates to label a manifestly unethical practice unethical, The New York Times Magazine’s ethicist, Randy Cohen, clarified a couple of questions that have been bothering me for quite a while. Why do so many people react so violently to my conclusion that they have done something unethical? And why does Randy Cohen, a.k.a. “The Ethicist” so frequently endorse unethical conduct, especially dishonesty, when he believes it is motivated by virtuous motives? Continue reading