The Surprise Return Of The Ethics Scoreboard, And “The Bank of America Teller and the Thumbless Customer”

Ethics Scoreboard

The Ethics Scoreboard was my first ethics website. It began operation in February of 2004, and became an archive on November 1, 2009, when Ethics Alarms took its place. For many years now—frankly, I’ve lost count—it has been unavailable on the Web because of an incompetent hosting service that took my money, took it down, and doesn’t permit any direct customer service contact. Last time I checked, the domain was unclaimed. I stopped looking for the Scoreboard because it depressed me, and I had hit a dead end in my efforts to get it back up.

Well, it’s back up, and I have no idea why or how. What a happy 2021 surprise! I suspect the original webmaster, my old friend Lauren Larson, is responsible, but if so, she never told me: I don’t even know how long the site has been live again. I learned about the resurrection from a wonderful man whom I met through the Scoreboard, Alek O. Komarnitsky, who sends out a holiday letter. This year, he wrote, “I am still on the Ethics Scoreboard!” and sure enough, there at the link was the last article I wrote about Alek.

There is a lot of material on the Scoreboard, some of which I am very proud of, and I thought it was all lost in cyberspace. For me, this is like finding a treasure trove of old family photographs in the attic. Thank you Lauren, thank you Alek, thank you incompetent hosting service, thank you whoever it was that did this! I will eventually get to the bottom of the mystery, but for now, I’m afraid to pinch myself to see if it’s a dream.

In celebration of the Return of the Prodigal Website, I now present one of the Scoreboard’s last posts, “The Bank of America Teller and the Thumbless Customer.”

Welcome back, Ethics Scoreboard! I really missed you.

Continue reading

The Unappreciated Home Depot Hero

It’s more exciting than you think!

Ethics Alarms has dealt with this issue multiple times: an employee violates policy by intervening to prevent a crime or serious injury, and is fired for it.  In 2009, a bank teller named Jim Nicholson turned Batman and foiled a bank robbery, then was fired.. A would-be robber had pushed a black backpack across the bank counter to Nicholson and demanded money. The teller threw the bag to the floor, lunged toward the man and demanded to see a weapon. The robber sprinted for the door with Nicholson in pursuit. Eventually Bat-Teller  knocked the man  to the ground and held him until the police arrived.

The bank had to fire him. The episode could have gone wrong many ways, some resulting in bank customers and employees being injured or killed. Law enforcement repeatedly cautions against such conduct, and the bank’s policies were clear.

In other cases, no-tolerance makes no sense, as no-tolerance often does. In 2012, Ryan Young, then working in the meat department of a Safeway grocery store in Del Rey Oaks, California, witnessed a man beating a pregnant woman, apparently his girlfriend. Young told the man to stop, but when he continued with his assault, shoving and kicking her, Young jumped over his counter, pushed the thug away, and ended the attack.

Safeway fired him. So what would it have had Young do, stand there and wag his finger? This crossed into duty to rescue territory. Young did the right thing, and rather than blindly following a policy that didn’t fit the facts, Safeway should have realized that an exception was called for.. (Eventually public opinion and bad publicity forced Safeway to re-hire the hero). A similar scenario involved a lifeguard who violated his employer’s policy by saving a drowning man off a beach adjacent to the property where he was stationed. Jeff Ellis Management, an Orlando, Florida-based company, fired  21-year-old Tomas Lopez for daring to save a life pro bono, and was similarly pilloried by public opinion. Two lifeguards quit in support of Lopez, and he was also eventually offered his job back. Lopez told Jeff Ellis Management to get bent, or words to that effect. Continue reading

From The “Rules Are Rules” Files: China’s “No Arms, No Loans” Policy

Don't be afraid of Wu, you banks! He's completely armless!.

Don’t be afraid of Wu, you banks! He’s completely armless!.

Just when you are tempted to think the United States leads humanity in outrageous bureaucratic rigidity and the refusal to make sensible exceptions when common sense and decency demand it, a story like this one comes across the wires to restore one’s faith that cruelty and stupidity are universal.* That’s something to be thankful for…isn’t it?

Maybe not.

Wu Jianping, a 25-year-old teacher from Zhengzhou in the Henan province of China, told the news media there that banks have denied his application for a mortgage loan because he had inadequate identification.  Banks in China require fingerprints for loans, and Wu has no fingers. In fact, he has no arms, having lost both of them when he was electrocuted in an accident at the age of five.

Jianping says he typically writes his signature by holding a pen in his mouth, but banks rejected his loan applications on the grounds that his written signature can be easily imitated, presumably by anyone holding a pen in his mouth, and they don’t accept toeprints.

“Fingerprinting is a common practice because signatures can be imitated, but there is no way to copy a fingerprint,” one bank employee was quoted as saying. Ah. And just how does someone impersonate a loan applicant with no arms? How many 25 year-old teachers without arms are there in China, anyway? Are people always coming up to Wu Jianping in the streets of Beijing, where he works, and telling him, “I’m sorry! I mistook you for someone else” ?

The banks are receiving widespread criticism online and in social media, with many writing that demanding fingerprints from an armless man is unreasonable. Gee, ya think? Let’s have a panel discussion about it. Now some of the banks are apparently relenting. That’s generous of them.

I bet George Bailey would have given Wu a loan…

[Ethics Alarms will now open up the thread to all the terrible jokes anyone wants to submit, as my Thanksgiving gift to the readership. I might as well, since I know you will make them anyway. I reserve the one in the caption, one of my all-time favorites, and also “Well, they can’t accuse him of asking for a hand-out!”, because I wanted to write it first, and it’s my blog, so there. But there are a lot more. A lot.]

*One of the very first posts on Ethics Alarms highlighted a similar episode in an American bank. [Thanks to Tex for reminding me!]

_______________________

Pointer: Fark

 

Ethics Quote Of The Week: The Washington Post

“The court’s legal analysis in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was something of a reach. But the ruling’s practical implications are unequivocally positive.”

—–The Washington Post in an editorial praising the Supreme Court’s approval of Arizon’s unconstitutional solution to the persistent problem of gerrymandering abuse.

"IGNORE WHEN INCONVENIENT" Really?

“IGNORE WHEN INCONVENIENT” Really?

The Post’s quote means nothing more nor less than “the ends justify the means.” “Something of a reach” is a shameless equivocation: John Roberts’ dissent to the 5-4 majority’s “legal analysis” —there really is none—resembles Mike Tyson slapping around Honey Boo-Boo. The decision’s argument approving the Arizona end-around the Constitution’s Elections Clause that reads, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof” can be fairly summarized as “this will work, so the Constitution be damned.” It’s not a “reach.” It’s  obvious defiance of what the document says.

It that so bad? It depends on what you think is more important, integrity or solving a problem. All of the big Supreme Court decisions in the past week have essentially raised this ethics conflict, and it is clear that the liberals on the Court is on the side of solving problems—at least as they see them— even when it means compromising what the Constitution says and what the Founders intended who drafted it, with the libertarian Justice Kennedy, who tends to lean away from laws constraining citizens anyway, often joining the  colleagues to his left. This issue is as stark an example as there can be,

Gerrymandering is unethical and anti-democratic. It was not foreseen by the authors of the Constitution, who can’t be expected to have predicted every devious political maneuver their successors would come up with to pollute their ideals. Unfortunately, the Constitution doesn’t provide a way for the public to stop the practice, other than electing less corrupt legislators, and legislators use gerrymandering to make that exceedingly difficult. A tweak of the wording in the Constitution could carve out an exception, but the Founders also made amending the Constitution in any way at all an almost impossible chore, including amending it to allow easier amending.

What’s a country to do? Well, sometimes the ends really do justify the means: that’s what utilitarianism means. If the Court can kill or limit gerrymandering by, as John Roberts felicitously put it in his dissent, gerrymandering the Constitution, it might be a good choice on balance. It benefits democracy. The conservatives argue, however, and legitimately so, that such a decision also creates a dangerous, even sinister precedent despite its good intentions (none of the Justices seem to think that gerrymandering is anything but unhealthy for democracy). What other laws that violate the plain words of the Constitution will the Court approve because its “practical implications are unequivocally positive,” to the cheers of partisans?  How many times can the Court do this before the Constitution is a dead letter, and any executive–or despot— can claim that government action, regardless of what Constitutional guarantees oppose it, is to be rubber stamped because it solves a real problem? Continue reading

Southwest Airlines And The Suicide Threat

Not exactly "friendly skies"

Not exactly “friendly skies”

We tend to assume someone was at fault when a terrible event results from the execution of a standard policy that was not appropriate to the crisis at hand. Who’s to blame in this nightmarish scenario?

Karen Momsen-Evers was on a Southwest Airlines plane about to take off from New Orleans to Milwaukee, where she lived. Then her husband Andy sent her a text asking her for forgiveness for his imminent suicide. “I go to sleep at night thinking what could I have done, what should I have done,” Evers said. She texted back “No,” but the text arrived as flight attendants were doing their final cabin checks. She wanted to call him. The flight attendant ordered her to turn her phone off, and when she insisted, was told that the FAA regulations prohibited any further use of her cellphone. “The steward slapped the phone down and said you need to go on airplane mode now,” Momsen-Evers told reporters.

Once the flight reached cruising altitude, the desperate woman explained the situation to another attendant. She begged her to have someone make an emergency phone call, but the attendant insisted there was nothing she could do.

So Karen Momsen-Evers sat in her seat, looking at the text and sobbing, all the way to Milwaukee. When she arrived home she was met by police officers, who told her Andy had killed himself. Continue reading

Ethical Quote Of The Month: Sgt. Shane Ortega

Trans Military Service Member

“You have to exercise patience with people, but people are not going to understand the subject overnight.”

—-Sgt. Shane Ortega, helicopter crew chief in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, speaking to the Washington Post about his legal battle with the U.S. military, which continues to classify him as a woman despite his transition to a man.

The reason we say that “hard cases make bad law” is that the toughest cases fall between the cracks in rules and regulations, and they all have cracks. The law seeks consistent precedents, so anomalous fact patterns threaten the integrity and efficiency of otherwise effective laws and rules that work well in the vast majority of situations. Yet those hard cases usually indicate flaws in policies, rules and laws, and sometimes point to the need for change.

Often, an organization, especially a bureaucratic one like the military, will deal with such disruptive cases by simply looking past the actual facts, and treating them “by the book.” Ortega represents a particularly glaring instance of this phenomenon, which in his case not only harms his career, but also makes the military appear rigid to the point of absurdity.

Yet, as his Ethical Quote of the Month indicates, he understands. Change is painful, and it takes time. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “The Eternal Ethics Conflict: Drawing Lines, Enforcing Them”

speed traps

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.

 Tex expands the discussion into such areas as test scores, speed limits, and rule-making itself.  Here is his masterful Comment of the Day on the post, The Eternal Ethics Conflict: Drawing Lines, Enforcing Them:
Continue reading

The Eternal Ethics Conflict: Drawing Lines, Enforcing Them

cross-the-line

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

The Sixth Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Worst of Ethics 2014 (Part 1)

Cosby3

2014 was the year of the Ethics Train Wreck. They were coming so fast that they were getting tangled up with each other, and old wrecks from past years started rolling again, or the damage that was triggered a year ago or more started kicking in. I don’t know if every year really is more ethics free than the year before, or that it just feels that way because I’m getting better at sniffing it out. By any standards, it was a wretched year, with epic ethical misconduct across the culture. But I can’t stall any more: let’s wade into it. There will be more installments this year, so the misery is coming in smaller bites. You’re welcome.

Ethics Train Wreck of the Year

trainwreck

It’s a tie!

The Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck and The Obama Administration Ethics Train Wreck

The obvious winner is the Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck, which has managed to hook up with the 2012 winner, The Trayvon Martin- George Zimmerman Ethics Train Wreck, as well as a the sub-EthicsTrain Wreck attached to the death of Eric Garner, to further degrade U.S. race relations, undermine the stability of numerous cities, get several people, including the recently assassinated NYC police officers killed, revive race riots, give vile demagogue Al Sharpton unprecedented power and influence, and pick up such distinguished riders as President Obama,  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, New York Mayor de Blasio. It is also still barreling along at top speed after many months, and is a good bet to continue its carnage well into 2015. 

Yet, it became clear to me this summer with this post that the entire Obama Administration has become an Ethics Train Wreck, and one that is neck-and-neck with the one spawned in Ferguson in threatening short and long-term damage. Incompetence, dishonestly, lack of transparency and arrogance have hardened cynicism in the public, corrupted the ethical values of defenders, let journalists to disgrace themselves, and fertilized festering potential disasters internationally and domestically. This is also, I now see, a wreck of long duration that started in 2009, and had gathered momentum with every year. It also has sparked other wrecks, including the one that now keeps it from being the sole 2014 winner. How much damage will The Obama Administration Ethics Train Wreck do in 2015? Which agency or department will prove itself to be corrupt, incompetent and mismanaged, which official will continue in a post after proving himself unfit to serve, which inept pronouncement or abuse of power will further degrade American trust and freedom?

I’m not looking forward to learning the answers.

Fraud of the Year

The U.S. Justice Department, which allegedly participated in a plot to force  Sierra Pacific Industries and other defendants  to pay $55 million to the United States over a period of five years and transfer 22,500 acres of land as settlement of charges brought against the company by DOJ for causing a 2007 wildfire that destroyed 65,000 acres of land in California. Naturally, the national news media has barely covered this scandal, which is still in litigation. Runner Up: The Victoria Wilcher scam, which made KFC pay for plastic surgery for a little girl when there was no evidence that the company was in any way involved with her injuries. After the fraud was discovered, it didn’t dare ask for its money back. Well played, fraudsters! Continue reading

Abortion, “The Fly” and the Ethics Incompleteness Theorem

"AWWW! He looks just like his father!"

“AWWW! He looks just like his father!”

The most interesting aspect of ethics is at the margins, those situations where absolutists are challenged to hold to their principles because of unforseen variations that no general analysis could anticipate. The absolute ban on torture as unethical becomes shaky under the “hidden nuclear bomb” scenario.  Capital punishment opponents find that their compassion evaporates when asked whether Hitler or bin Laden deserved execution.

This is the Ethics Incompleteness problem, which I last wrote about at length in March of 2014:

“The human language is not sufficiently precise to define a rule that will achieve its desired effects, that is work, in every instance. There are always anomalies around 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 temporarily abandon the system or rule and return to basic principles to find the solution. No system or rule is going to work equally well with every possible scenario, which is why committing to a single 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.”

I was watching the Jeff Goldblum remake of “The Fly” (written and directed by David Cronenberg) last night, and rather than being properly horrified by Geena Davis’s nightmare of giving birth to a yard long fly larva, I found myself wondering how anti-abortion absolutists would handle her unusual dilemma. The film follows the tragedy of scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum ) who has developed a means of teleportation. The process involves a computer breaking down a body, then transmitting the atoms electronically to a receiving “pod,” and reassembling them there. Unfortunately, when Seth tests the device on himself, an unnoticed fly gets into the sending pod, and the result is a version of Brundle that has fly DNA mixed in. (In the memorably campy Vincent Price original, what arrived in the receiving pod was a man with a giant fly head and a fly with a tiny human head.) Gradually Brundle mutates in form and mind into a monstrous hybrid, but before he knows what has happened to him, he impregnates girl friend Davis. Soon she realizes that something with insect DNA is gestating inside of her, though all tests show a healthy human embryo. Not surprisingly, she wants an abortion.

Would those who argue that abortion is murder maintain that she shouldn’t be able to have one, or that aborting the fetus is wrong? Let’s make the problem harder: let’s say she only learns that she has a fly-baby in the third trimester, when our laws wil not permit abortions unless the mother’s life is in peril. Some questions: Continue reading