Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/3/2019: “Thing’s Are Seldom What They Seem…”

Good afternoon!

1. Today’s source of maximum irritation. Remember those California wildfires at the end of last year that the news media kept reporting as proof of climate change and that prompted Democrats and talking heads to sneer in disdain at anyone, especially President Trump, who suggested that electrical equipment just might have been the cause? From NPR:

Pacific Gas and Electric says it’s “probable” that its equipment caused the Camp Fire in Northern California, the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history.

California has not finished its investigation into PG&E’s culpability in last November’s fire that killed at least 85 people, destroyed about 14,000 structures, displacing tens of thousands of people and destroying the town of Paradise. However, the state’s largest utility, which filed for bankruptcy last month, said Thursday it expects the investigation will find that its damaged infrastructure sparked the fire.

Please let Ethics Alarms know how many of the news shows this morning mention this development.

2. Spring Training ethics note: Good news! Ethics Alarms has been campaigning for robo-umps at home plate to call balls and strikes for several years. Now MLB announces that it has finalized a three-year deal with the independent Atlantic League to have the league test rules innovations and equipment for the Show. This will include computer calling of pitches. Not so good news: it will also reportedly include moving the mound back, which is heresy.

3. Concern for Popehat’s Ken White.  There is not a smarter, more passionate, better blogger on the planet than lawyer Ken White, and while we have had our disagreements, his commentary on law and justice especially is a blessing for all Americans, even though most don’t have the sense to benefit from it. One of many reasons I admire Ken is that he has been candid about his battle with depression, a killer illness that too many people don’t understand. That malady runs in my family (or as Mortimer Brewster says in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Runs? It practically gallups!”), and has been responsible for more than one suicide. Popehat once was a collective, but now it’s almost entirely Ken, with occasional drop-ins from the acerbic Mark Randazza. The blog’s last entry was January 4, almost two months. I’m worried, as are most of Ken’s fans I’m sure, and I am officially sending Ethics Alarms best wishes and love to one of the really good people in multiple roles: lawyer, blogger, public educator. Get back as soon as you can, Ken. We need you. Continue reading

Baby-Switching Ethics

The song from H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story amazingly well.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, a horrendous situation resembling the plot-resolving song from “H.M.S. Pinafore” may be reaching an unusual resolution for such cases—a sensible and ethical one. The families never suspected until one of the mothers underwent tests when her ex-husband refused to pay child support. One of the mothers wanted her biological child back, while the other wants to keep the child she had raised. A judge now has to decide.

The court asked the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law to investigate and make a report n what would be in the children’s best interests. The experts’ answer: “The recommendation is that the children should stay with the parents who have raised them and should also be permitted to have contact with their biological parents.”

Exactly. Let’s hope that the court follows the recommendation, the only ethical one. Four years old is too old for this wrong to be set right without making it worse. What about three years old, though? Where do we draw that line? Furthermore, I am assuming that the two families are more or less equally fit, able and qualified to raise children. What if the investigation showed that one family was clearly more advantageous for a child: better educated parents with more resources and experience with children, living in a safer community? Then what would be the calculation of “the right thing”? The benefit of one child would be the detriment of the other, a zero sum game. In such a case, would fairness govern, rather than the best interests of the children? Why should one child be cheated out of the better life awaiting him, because of a nurse’s mistake? Fortunately, we don’t have those details, so we can make a confident abstract ethics judgement without confounding factors and issues. Continue reading

“Finishing the Hat”: Sondheim, W.S. Gilbert, and Expert Malpractice

Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat” is a fascinating reflection on a remarkable career and the craft of making musicals by the greatest living master of the form. In the course of recounting his formative years, triumphs, failures, and duels with producers, authors and composers, Sondheim also critiques the lyrics of his predecessors, contemporaries and role models—as long as they are dead. In a nod to gentility or cowardice, the only living lyricist he subjects to his expert critiques is himself.

Sondheim is a tough judge, as one might expect from a composer/lyricist who meticulously measures each vowel sound and stressed syllable for maximum effect. He is also, by virtue of both his reputation and technical expertise, an influential one. The lyricists he grades highly in the book, such as Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and Dorothy Fields, are likely to have their reputations burnished by his praise, and those he slams, like Lorenz Hart and Noel Coward, will suffer by comparison. Because of this, Sondheim had an obligation, as a respected expert in his field, to make each case carefully and fairly. To his credit, Sondheim seems to recognize this, and all of his critical discussions of an individual lyricist’s style and quirks include specific examples and careful analysis. We may disagree with Sondheim as a matter of personal taste, but it is difficult to argue with his specific points, because they are backed up by examples, technical theory, and the weight of his authority.

It is therefore surprising and disappointing to see Stephen Sondheim slide into expert malpractice when he undertakes, clearly half-heartedly, a critique of the lyrics of W.S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. Continue reading