Revelations From The John Oliver Video Post: What I Have Learned

light-bulb PREFACE: I have just returned from a crazy three day odyssey that had me lecturing on Massachusetts legal ethics in Boston, Washington, D.C. legal ethics in the nation’s capital, and, professional ethics, legal ethics and accounting ethics in Tucson, Arizona. Keeping pace with ethics developments was even more difficult than it usually is when I’m on the road, because I had almost no time in between flights, meetings and various hassles to get to a newspaper, surf the web, or watch TV. And my browser kept crashing.

I wrote the John Oliver post, frankly, as low-hanging fruit. His performance was vile and hateful, barely funny, self-indulgent, and disrespectful in a damaging way, and I didn’t think, and still don’t, that there should be much disagreement on that assessment. I expected the usual “lighten up,” “he was only joking “[he was NOT only joking], and “he has right to free speech” comments, because I always get those any time I point out that a comedian has been unfair and irresponsible. I did not expect,for the post to get more single day traffic than all but one previous Ethics Alarms entry, and so many comments, many of which with troubling social and political significance. I returned to my office to find more comments waiting for moderation than have ever been there at one time, and I apologize for that: I try to get them cleared withing hours if not minutes. Of course, a disproportionate number of them were garbled nonsense, or just invective with no point whatsoever. They didn’t make it.

I also had some tough calls, with repetitious comments that misrepresented the post, made irrelevant or factually mistaken assertions, and also were abusive. I fear that I may have been inconsistent, and perhaps less tolerant than usual, and I’m not referring to the occasional comment I allowed to be published just to show the kind of comments that weren’t being posted. The problem is that this site is a intended to be a colloquy, and poor quality comments just make the threads hard to read, and also undermine the site.

I may have to be more ruthless in moderating comments in the future. I’m thinking about it.

Ethics is all about processing new information. Here are some useful things I learned, or re-learned, from the reaction to the post, “Ethics Dunce: HBO’s John Oliver”….

1. Otherwise reasonable, fair, smart people really do think that Donald Trump justifies unethical conduct and that makes it okay. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: HBO’s John Oliver [UPDATED]

I’m being kind and restrained here. John Oliver is a lot worse than an Ethics Dunce. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

The video above was Oliver’s final show this season on HBO. It is a full half hour of insults and hate directed at the President-Elect of the United States of America. Some of his insults and ridicule are based on substance, some appear to be  pure bias and stupidity. I almost bailed when Oliver, to the bleating of his all blue, all juvenile audience, implied that being endorsed by the head of the KKK obviously disqualifies someone to be President. Unpack the logic in that contention.

Mostly, however, it is a vicious ad hominem assault on the newly elected President of a level of unfairness and disrespect that has never been directed at any previous President Elect in public. Never, because Americans have always realized that the slate is cleared when someone becomes President, and that the individual inherits the office and the legitimacy of that office as it has been built and maintained by it previous occupants. He (no “he or she” yet, sorry: not my fault) becomes the symbol of the nation, the government and its people, a unique amalgam of prime minister, king and flag in human and civilian form.

That immediate good will, respect for the Presidency, and forgiveness of all that went before has made the transfer of power in the US the marvel of the world, and has kept the nation from violence and division. It is part of our strength as a society. It is part of the election process, and a vital one. John Oliver is intentionally tearing at that process. Continue reading

The Bill Maher Ethical Conundrum


“One of these things is not like the other…”


The Bill Maher Ethics Conundrum is not what you probably think it is.

Maher, the alleged comic and anti-conservative scold who hosts an HBO program, was chosen by a student committee to be the  commencement speaker for the University of California-Berkeley’s December graduation. This was a lazy, embarrassingly juvenile and politically-loaded selection, but Maher had also just recently used his show to join fellow atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris in a condemnation of Islam, calling it  “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture or write the wrong book.” Later on Maher nodded approvingly  as Harris also called Islam”the mother lode of bad ideas.”

This caused Muslim students at Berkeley to prove Maher correct about their religion’s entrenched intolerance of opposition, and they have been joined by other political correctness censors in the student body—there are a lot of them—to demand that the university rescind Maher’s invitation because of his “hate speech.”A petition—-now THAT site is the real mother lode of bad ideas—now urges students to boycott the decision and asks the campus to stop him from speaking. It has gathered more than 1,400 signatures. The committee that chose Maher, naturally, backed down, but the University, so far at least, is sticking to its decision to invite him.

Yes, yes, universities ought to be marketplaces of ideas where all views are welcome, and yes, it is hypocritical and offends the traditions of liberal education to stop Maher from stating his views on Islam, or re-telling “The Aristocrats,” or making a fool of himself, or whatever he’s going to do because some students or all students disagree with him, just as it was for Rutgers students to force Condolezza Rice into withdrawing after she was invited to speak at Rutgers. The dilemma illustrated by this flap is a classic ethics problem, which I will henceforth call the Bill Maher Conundrum, which has been long debated and never decisively settled:

Is the ethical nature of an act defined by its intent, or by an objective assessment of the act alone without reference to motive? Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Month: The Producers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”

“We use a lot of prosthetic body parts on the show: heads, arms, etc. We can’t afford to have these all made from scratch, especially in scenes where we need a lot of them, so we rent them in bulk. After the scene was already shot, someone pointed out that one of the heads looked like George W. Bush. In the DVD commentary, we mentioned this, though we should not have. We meant no disrespect to the former President and apologize if anything we said or did suggested otherwise.”

—– David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the producers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” explaining how a replica of former President George W. Bush’s head came to be placed on a pike in one episode. HBO had previously apologized for the display as “in very bad taste.”

Stay classy, Hollywood.

I detest public lies that the liars know nobody in their right mind will believe, as they are insulting, dishonest (obviously) and degrade the culture by sending the message that lying is just a game., and being a liar is nothing to be ashamed of. I also detest fake forced apologies, in which  individuals have been ordered by some authority to issue mea culpas or else, and the result is  apologies so insincere that they border on parody.

This statement by the producers of “Game of Thrones,” then, is especially objectionable, because it meets both criteria. Continue reading

“Luck,” Causation, and the Complex Computation of Mixed Motivations

Was it good luck, or bad luck?

HBO has announced that it is cancelling “Luck,” its well-reviewed series about corruption in the sport of professional horse-racing. Why? Well, that’s an interesting question.

The immediate impetus for the decision was the death of a one of the horses used in the series. It was the third horse to die, so the announcement took the form of a sensitive and humane decision based on concerns for the animals. “While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won’t in the future,” HBO’s statement said. “Accordingly, we have reached this difficult decision.”

I was initially impressed, but a couple of things about the move, which seemed uncharacteristically ethical by show business standards, bothered me. “Luck” was much-praised but low-rated, despite a cast headed by Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte and a production team headed by respected film director Michael Mann. Though it had been renewed for a second season, some felt that the renewal was dictated by a corporate decision not to embarrass its Hollywood royalty. Continue reading

A Faint Cheer For MSNBC, and A Search for Civility Standards

MSNBC class act Ed Schultz

When I learned that MSNBC’s human hate-machine Ed Schultz had called conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham a “right wing slut” on his syndicated radio show, I wondered if the cable network would take any action. It did, suspending Schultz for one week while issuing a statement that “Remarks of this nature are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”  It’s good that MSNBC has some standards of discourse, however low, though having some one like Schultz on the air dispensing his crude, angry, frequently mistaken and dishonest rants is pretty intolerable as it is. But what does it mean by “of this nature”?

MSNBC’s action does distinguish it from HBO, which took no action at all against Bill Maher when he called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat.” What are we to take from this disparate treatment? That at HBO “dumb twat” is acceptable and will be tolerated?  Apparently so. Is the difference because HBO is a premium channel, and MSNBC is not? That’s a strange definition of “premium”: “HBO, where political commentators can call women twats!” Would “slut” have gotten Maher in trouble? Should Ed have called Ingraham a “twat” instead? Continue reading

Ethics Hero: George Clooney

An ethical challenge that all of us face now and then involves being present in a gathering when a host, a friend, a colleague or someone else makes an objectively bigoted or outrageously unfair and disrespectful  statement about a group that is not represented and thus unable to defend itself. At such times we all have a duty to confront and correct the speaker and condemn the sentiment, but the execution is difficult, and requires tact, knowledge, clarity and courage. Doing and saying nothing, however, gives the speaker and his slander support and tacit endorsement.

Fortunately, thanks to the magic of on-line video and George Clooney, we now have a lovely “How To” clip that demonstrates the right way to discharge one’s ethical duty in these awkward situations. Continue reading