Bad Crime, Unethical Punishment, Ominous Sign

Here’s a pop quiz for you.

The topic: crime and punishment

“Off with his head!” Uh, Queen? Isn’t that just a tiny bit severe?

An attractive woman falls asleep on an airplane, and the stranger sitting next to her, a card-carrying, pig-man creepazoid, takes that opportunity to “feel her up.” He is caught in the act, and arrested when the plane lands. What should be the maximum penalty imposed for such a violation of the poor woman’s privacy, dignity, and person?

If you said “life in prison,” go to the head of the class. The federal government has exclusive jurisdiction over  sexual abuse cases that occur on American airplane flights, and sets the penalties. A New Jersey man is currently awaiting trial after allegedly engaging in such in-flight molestation. How can such an extreme sentence be justified or even contemplated? What is this, “Midnight Express”? Rumania under the wise rule of Vlad the Impaler? Continue reading

Ethics Article of the Week: George Will On His Son’s Birthday

Happy birthday, Jon.

Conservative columnist George Will has only occasionally mentioned his Down Syndrome-inflicted son Jon in his columns, but when he has, it has provided an extra dimension to Jon’s father, who usually comes across in print and on TV as cynical, dour, and archly intellectual. Today is Jon’s birthday, so Will devotes the full column to him, his challenges, and, when all is said and done, ethics.

It’s a beautifully written piece, as Will’s columns often are, and a tender one. More importantly, however, it is an essay that should provoke thought, beginning with the fact that the only reason Will wrote this column is that he and his wife chose, 40 years ago, to do what 90% of all parents informed that their gestating child has Down Syndrome refuse to do: allow the child to be born.

The column is here

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Graphics: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Distracted Driving, Pot, and “The Great Debate”

As balm for Christiane Amanpour’s bruises from being kicked off her ABC Sunday show back to CNN, the network honchos let her try a different format this weekend (since nobody was watching anyway.) Styled “the Great Debate,” it pitted conservatives Paul Ryan, the GOP House intellectual, and columnist George Will against soon-to-be-retired Democratic Congressman Barney Frank and Clinton’s former Labor Secretary and perpetual Munchkin Robert Reich for the full hour, exchanging familiar talking points on the usual suspect national issues. The debate wasn’t so great, for several reasons, prime among them being the natural motor-mouth tendencies of Reich and Frank, who, I would guess, took up approximately twice the air time as the conservative pair. The teams were similarly unbalanced in cheer, with Reich as perky as his Lollipop Guild training would suggest, and Frank full of his trademark wisecracks, while Will was dour as ever (when faced with liberal cant, the columnist always looks like my high school Latin teacher did when I was botching the day’s translation) and Ryan radiated the charisma of a certified public accountant.

The most interesting exchange was when George Will derided proposed federal regulations against “distracted driving” as the latest installment of the nanny state encroachment on personal rights, saying that individual freedom should trump the government’s concern for public safety except in the most extreme circumstances. One of the good uses of absolutist reasoning is that it raises a very high bar before breaching a valid principle can even be considered, since it has to be considered as an exception if it is to be contemplated at all. Barring unsafe conduct that increases the likelihood of automobile accidents, however, is not the place for absolutism, but for utilitarianism—rational balancing. Continue reading

George Will Is Conflicted, and Telling Us That He Is Doesn’t Cure It

Is George Will's wife making him pull his punches?

Conservative columnist George Will has a conflict of interest problem not of his making. A regular, and superior, commentator on politics and current affairs in op-ed pages and on television, Will’s objectivity and independent judgment is apparently compromised by the fact that his wife is an advisor to the presidential campaign of Texas governor Rick Perry

Initially, Will took the position that his wife’s business and his were independent, and that his integrity should be presumed based on his long and distinguished record as a columnist. But the Washington Post ombudsman, among others, declared that Will’s readers needed to be able to make their own judgment about his objectivity, and lately Will has been issuing formal disclaimers whenever he wades into Republican presidential politics. Most recently he did this while slamming New Gingrich—accurately and with precision—for taking a cheap shot at Mitt Romney regarding Romney’s work at Bain Capital.  Will wrote: Continue reading

Perspicacious Ethics: The Media Has A Duty Not To Make Us Dumber

Gore Vidal once said, “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too.” Certainly the media is accelerating the decadence of society; does it have to intentionally do in the language as well?

On ABC’s This Week, host Christiane Amanpour casually used the word “perspicacious.” Discussing the Constitution,  one of Amanpour’s guests mentioned that Benjamin Franklin wrote that he wouldn’t mind being preserved in a vat of Madeira wine in order to see if the Constitution held up 200 years later. Amanpour responded that Ben was amazingly perspicacious when the Constitution was signed.

Apparently  the word perspicacious stumped the 7th grade drop-outs in the booth, because suddenly a box appeared with the definition and pronunciation of the word under Amanpour. Then, commenting on the incident, the web site Mediaite wrote that Amanpour “might avoid using such fancy language so that viewers in the future don’t mistake her show for a Rosetta Stone class teaching the English language.” Continue reading

“Scroogenomics”: Clueless About Holiday Ethics

I had decided to write about the new book “Scroogenomics: Why you shouldn’t buy presents for the holidays”early yesterday. I should have assumed that our current Scrooge-in-Chief, George Will, would have the same idea. He did, and greeted his readers with typically sour tidings as he heartily endorsed this commercially clever and ethically fatuous book. The brain-child of economist Joel Waldfogel, “Scroogenomics” argues that holiday gift-giving makes no economic or social sense, and is a net drag on everyone. Will’s quote from it is as revealing as any:

Gifts that people buy for other people are usually poorly matched to the recipients’ preferences. What the recipients would willingly pay for the gifts is usually less than the givers paid. The measure of the inefficiency of allocating value by gift-giving is the difference between the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent on gifts and the yield per dollar spent on the recipients’ own purchases.

All of which means that Waldfogel (and Will) are hopelessly confused about the social and ethical value of gift-giving, which has little to do with the ratio of “the yield of satisfaction per dollar spent.”  Continue reading