Ethics Quiz: “12 Years A Slave” Plays The Racial Guilt Card On Oscar Voters


“It’s time.”

This is the  tag line in the post-Oscar nomination ads being prominently run in New York and California for  “12 Years A Slave,” a strong Academy Award contender (nine nominations, including best film).

Although there is room for disagreement, and the ad has the virtue of all clever advertising that it conveys different messages to different markets—Haven’t seen the film yet? “It’s time!”  Desperate to see the best movie you saw in 2013 finally get its due? “It’s time!”  When will the question of whether the most honored film of the last 12 months will win the biggest honor of them all be answered? “It’s time!”…or almost time, as the Oscar ceremonies are coming up on March 2—the consensus is that “It’s time” is mainly aimed at Oscar voters, and the message it conveys is, as Slate puts it, “it’s time for a movie about slavery, and with a significantly black cast and crew, to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” Film critic Phil Hammond puts it slightly differently:

“The ad not only can be interpreted as shining a light on a very dark period in American history, it also shines a light on the Academy’s fairly dismal record of awarding its top honor to any movie about the black experience. In fact there has been only one Best Picture winner in the 85 years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars that even remotely qualifies in this regard. In 1968, In The Heat Of The Night, a murder mystery set against the racial divide in a small Southern town, won Best Picture and four other Oscars just a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King (the ceremony was even postponed two days out of respect). The votes were in before the King assassination, but it seemed then that “It’s Time” would have been an appropriate way to describe that victory. However, outside of lead actor Sidney Poitier — who also co-starred in another racially themed Best Pic nominee that year, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner —  this movie  featured a largely white cast, white producer, screenwriter and director (Norman Jewison).”

If so many in the industry are interpreting the ad this way, it is fair to assume that this was at least one of the ad’s objectives, and on the assumption that it was an objective, your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz today is this:

“Is appealing to Oscar voters on this basis fair and ethical?”

I can see strong arguments for each position. Continue reading

Well, Crap. Again.


I am now in shock, having just learned that a dear friend of four decades is now in a hospice with complications of congestive heart failure, and not long to live. We had been exchanging cheery emails, and while I knew of his health issues, I was under the impression that they were manageable, and certainly not this dire. Naturally, we had kept planning on getting together for dinner or a ball game, but one thing or another always intervened, usually on my end, and I had not seen him since the Spring.

This has happened to me before, more than once. What will it take to make me take the time to show love and appreciation to the many people in my life who have earned it, and to try to enrich their days, however many they have left, in some small way, rather than allowing everything else to get in the way?


Graphic: Ronnie Tabor

“Hot Mom” Maria Kang Is A Self-Obsessed Narcissist, and Yes, There’s A Reason Humility Is An Ethical Virtue


Lots of Americans are obsessed with outward appearances, unreasonably devoted to being attractive at all costs and for as long as possible,convinced that their own priorities are what everyone should embrace, and feel superior as a result. Most don’t go out of their way to broadcast these obnoxious attitudes and to accuse others of being inferior, rationalizing slugs while thrusting their cosmetic successes in the faces of those who no longer can squeeze int their fashion jeans.

Maria Kang, pictured above in all her buff glory, did, reaped the predictable result, and now is being called the aggrieved victim while she remains resolutely self-righteous.

Yechhh. Continue reading

The Ethics Of Demanding Charity

Joanna Leigh

Joanna Leigh

I can not imagine much more heartbreaking plights than that of Boston Marathon bombing victim Joanna Leigh.

By April 14, 2013, Leigh, 39, had a newly minted doctorate in international development, and a promising career as a consultant. On April 15, she was at the finish line of the marathon, waiting for a friend to cross it, when the second of two bombs exploded ten feet from her. She was shielded from the deadly flying metal by other spectators, but still knocked unconscious. When she awoke, there was chaos around her, people screaming, maimed, covered with blood. She helped some injured find help, and then, dazed, walked home. For various reasons, she did not get herself checked out at a hospital until more than a week had passed.

Gradually, however, the symptoms of her injuries began appearing. Soon, it became obvious that the closed head injuries she suffered in the explosion have caused devastating long-term damage to her brain, and it is doubtful that her life will ever be normal again. Today, she says, she has to sleep most of the day. She cannot work or drive, and is easily disoriented, even getting lost on her own block. She has blurred vision, her hearing is impaired and she cannot avoid the constant ringing in her ears. Concentration has become difficult, and the simplest everyday tasks are overwhelming.   Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Henri Salmide, 1919-2010”

Henri Salmide

Henri Salmide, Hero: Unknown in the US, and only barely recognized in Germany or France. Greatly appreciated on Ethics Alarms, however.

German visitor Reinhard Gross sent me a useful clarification on the 2010 Ethics Alarms tribute to Henri Salmide, who as a German soldier in World War II saved the French port of Bordeaux by defying orders to blow it up and blowing up his German superiors instead. You can read the post on Salmide, an Ethics Hero Emeritus, here, and his New York Times obituary here. It’s an inspiring story, and if you are not familiar with Salmide, you should be.

Salmide lived the rest of his life as a French citizen in Bordeaux, and until late in life was seldom noted for his heroic act in France, so strong was the bias against him as a former German soldier. I asked Reinhard what the attitude in Germany was toward Salmide, and his Comment of the Day was the response. It also provides some insight on the the long and painful process the German culture must work through, as the German people come to terms with the dark Nazi period, when their society and its values were so horribly warped, with such tragic consequences for Germany and the world.

Here is Reinhold Gross’s Comment of the Day on the post Ethics Hero Emeritus: Henri Salmide, 1919-2010…and I thank him for reminding me of Henri Salmide’s courageous and ethical act: Continue reading

Tales From The “Ick!” Files: If Luke Married Leia…

Luke and Leia

Emily Yoffe, who is not Ethics Alarms’ favorite advice columnist, gets one right at Slate—a weird one, but then, that’s the only kind of question she usually chooses to answer. If I had to bet, I’d place my money on this question being a fake. Emily acknowledges that possibility, but couldn’t pass this one up, and neither can I.

A loving husband who already knew that both he and his wife (it was virtually love at first sight when they met in college) were raised by lesbian parent couples who conceived via sperm donors found out that they both have the same donor to thank for their conception. Now he thinks “sister” every time he sees his spouse, and ask 1) what should he do? and 2) should he tell his wife that he has learned that they are half-siblings? Yoffe tells this poor guy to stop feeling guilty, and that he hasn’t done anything wrong. She also advises him to get some counseling, and to suck it up and tell sis about their dilemma….but not to reveal the secret to their kids, Anteater Boy and Tilly the Boneless. Continue reading

Tricking Yourself Into Being More Ethical

Cracked 5 waysOver at Cracked, the website that excels at developing clever factoid lists and debunking conventional wisdom, they have posted a list of “5 Scientific Ways To Trick Yourself Into Being A Good Person.”

Uh-huh. As usual for this site, the headline is just a bit overstated. “Trick” is a misleading word here: most of the devices involve the phenomenon of priming, which basically means that we are more ethical the more something focuses our attention on the ethical implications of what we are doing. By Cracked’s definition of “trick,” Ben Franklin’s morning and evening questions are tricks.

Skepticism is also warranted because we are just getting summaries of studies, and brief, non-technical, non-critical ones at that. It is impossible to know what extraneous factors might have polluted the results, or what biases the researchers brought to their research. Social science research is notoriously fallible and subject to design flaws, particularly regarding sample size. Such research is also prone to confuse cause and effect. I am especially dubious of #2 on the list, “Washing Your Hands Makes You Less Prejudiced.” Yes, researchers found that those who chose to use sanitary wipes on their hands when given the option during a flu epidemic scored better after doing so than those who declined to sanitize when they were asked to answer a survey designed to measure prejudice. I think it is a logical stretch to conclude that the act of ridding their hands of germs washed away the subjects’ biases; it is more likely that those who were more considerate of people around them, as indicated by their interest in sanitizing their hands during a flu outbreak, were also the most empathetic, tolerant and unbiased to begin with. That result isn’t nearly as startling as the claim that handwashing magically heals one’s prejudices, but Cracked apparently needed something to fill out a list of four.

It’s still an interesting article, even though ethical conduct takes a lot more cognitive effort than “tricks.”. You can read the whole thing here.

Football Fashion, Ethics, and Our Wasteful Consumption

The many fashion choices of the Oregon Ducks...and children are starving in Appalachia.

The many fashion choices of the Oregon Ducks…and children are starving in Appalachia.

On his excellent ethics blog, the Ethics Sage, a.k.a. Dr. Steven Mintz, recently expressed dismay at the increasing trend in college and high school football teams that has them changing uniform designs for no discernible reason, but at significant expense. Focusing on the multiple uniforms used over a season by the Oregon Ducks, he wrote:

“The poverty line threshold in the U.S. ($23,050 for a family of four) is, on a daily basis, about $16 per person per day. If my estimates are close, the cost to outfit the Duck football players for a year is about $48,000, double the poverty level for a family of four and enough to sustain 3,000 people for one day or about 8 people for one year. When you think about the extravagant spending on uniforms by the Ducks, you begin to understand that it reflects a society where glitz and glamor are valued over feeding the hungry — not a pretty picture”

I am not sure what to make of this argument. Is Mintz arguing that the Ducks are ethically obligated to send the money they spend on extravagant uniform diversity to the poor? Isn’t this really just the old “How dare you waste those perfectly good peas when children are starving in Ethiopia?” argument? Realistically , there is no way the university’s football uniform budget is going to be able to help feed the poor. Why pick on the Ducks? He goes on to write, Continue reading

One For The “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” Crowd

Stop scaring my dog!

A commenter recently pulled out the hoary and almost always misused “innocent until proven guilty” line, which reliably makes me scream, frightening the dog and the neighbors. Thus I was happy to see this September 28 ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which found that Philip Pilie, a 2007 University of Georgia School of Law  who passed the bar examination in 2009, lacked the character and fitness to be admitted to practice in the state, despite the fact that he was not convicted of the crime that resulted in his disqualification.

Why? Because he did it, that’s why. Pilie contacted what he thought was a 15-year-old girl online and arranged to have sex. She was, unfortunately for Pilie, really a big, hairy, middle-aged man looking for predators who like to have sex with under-age girls. Pilie  was arrested at the planned rendezvous and charged with two  felonies,  computer-aided solicitation of a minor and attempted indecent behavior with a minor.

Pilie negotiated a deal with the district attorney to avoid prosecution. He completed a pre-trial diversion program including counseling, and all charges  were dropped. Pilie took and passed the bar exam, but was informed  in March 2009 that he lacked the character and fitness for admission to practice, because he trolled on computers for young girls to have sex with, by his own admission. His appeal to Louisiana’s highest court failed, twice.

In the latest decision, the court said that Pilie’s lack of a criminal conviction made no difference in its reasoning. “Had petitioner been a practicing attorney at the time of his misconduct, it is very likely he would have been permanently disbarred,” it wrote. “Given this fact, we can conceive of no circumstance under which we would ever admit petitioner to the practice of law.” Pilie was permanently barred from ever again seeking admission, without ever being “convicted in a court of law.” Continue reading

“Is It Wrong To Go On Vacation When You’re Unemployed?”

Job hunting…

This is the question asked by unemployed author Fran Hopkins, who, her bio says, ” has been searching for full-time work since losing her job in a January 2010 layoff. While “between jobs,” she’s earned an MS degree in Health Communication, does freelance writing and public relations.” In her article on AOL, Hopkins argues that it isn’t wrong, because “I need to get away, just for a few days, close to the soothing sound and motion of the sea, inhaling salt air and unwinding. I have to restore my mental, emotional and spiritual inner resources. I’m running low.” But she feels guilty, and to read the comments, a lot of people thinks she should. On Fark, where I found the post, the wags there simply answered her query “Yes” and filed it under “Dumbass.”

Nonsense. To begin with, the question is unanswerable, since it depends on so many variables. Is it unethical to spend your kids’ college funds or the mortgage money on a vacation? Yes. Is it wrong to spend public assistance on a vacation? Yes. But these are all irresponsible acts, and taking a vacation to recharge your batteries, relieve stress and clear your mind when there are no negative consequences to anyone else from doing so is not irresponsible, and might be the smartest thing you can do.

Poor Fran has been looking for a job for more than two and a half years, and that is, or should be, hard work. Anyone who says, as some commenters do, that there is nothing for her to take a vacation from either has never looked for a work or has no idea how to do it right. Job hunting is a hard job, and a soul-killing one. After a while you tend to become negative and cynical, or pathetic and desperate, and these attitudes can be fatal to your employment prospects. If a week on Cape Cod or the Jersey Shore can restore your vigor and perspective, it is well worth the time and money.

The most annoying  criticism of Fran are the people who write that it is inconsiderate of her to take a break from job-hunting when so many of her desperate fellow-citizens can’t afford to do likewise. If there is a mutated sub-category of liberals that make me want to get a package deal on an NRA/ Ayn Rand/ Donald Trump/ Rush Limbaugh fan club, this is it: the “you have no right to be happy as long as other people are miserable” crowd. Really, however, all the criticism of Fran is annoying, because it isn’t based on concepts of right and wrong at all. There’s nothing wrong with Fran taking a vacation while unemployed; there’s nothing wrong with her giving up on employment entirely and becoming a retiree, a beach bum, a street corner philosopher, a mime or an ethics blogger, either, as long as she isn’t defaulting on her obligations to others, or sponging off people who are working.

Have a great time on your vacation, Fran. You’ve earned it.


Pointer: Fark

Source: AOL

Graphic: Sidney Morning Herald

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at