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It’s Thanksgiving, And Time For The Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide [Updated And With A New Introduction For 2017 ]

 

Last year (to the day) when I posted the Ethics Alarms ethics guide to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece “It’s A Wonderful Life,” one of the great ethics movies of all time, as this blog’s official welcome to the holiday season, I wrote, “I suspect we need it more in 2016 than usual.”  As it turned out, we need it even more in 2017.

Multiple forces have been hard at work for a full year now, roiling the nation, painting the future as dire and the present as unbearable, trying to divide us and even to encourage discord and conflict during this special time when we are supposed to remember what is most important in life. In case you have been infected, it’s not politics and not partisan agendas, but love, family, community, kindness, and friends. The simple message of Frank Capra’s masterpiece—it has aged far better than his other films, including, and maybe especially, “Mister Smith Goes To Washington”—that no one is a failure who has friends, is vital to recall when so many are rejecting friends because they don’t conform to some ideological talking point. This is madness, and watching and heeding “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a better remedy than Thorazine.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer actually told his Twitter followers this week to bring a chart prepared by a  think tank to attack the Republican tax plan during Thanksgiving dinner. This is part of the effort to politicize everything in our lives, by zealots who value power over humanity, country, and spirituality. They belong with Mr. Potter, not George and Clarence.

I need this movie more in 2017 than usual for other reasons. It has been a year in which I have lost many peers and cherished friends, and listened to too many of the living bemoan the passage of time and looming mortality.  I don’t think like that—a lifetime gift from my brave and fatalist father—but I can’t pretend that the game clock isn’t running out, or not face the fact that I have not sunk anywhere near the baskets I could have and should have. Fortunately, what I wrote in an earlier year introducing this post still resonates…

Everyone’s life does touch many others, and everyone has played a part in the chaotic ordering of random occurrences for good. Think about the children who have been born because you somehow were involved in the chain of events that linked their parents. And if you can’t think of something in your life that has a positive impact on someone–although there has to have been one, and probably many—then do something now. It doesn’t take much; sometimes a smile and a kind word is enough. Remembering the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” really can make life more wonderful, and not just for you.

Have a terrific Thanksgiving, everyone.

And here we go:

1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”

The movie begins in heaven, represented by twinkling stars. There is no way around this, as divine intervention is at the core of the fantasy. Heaven and angels were big in Hollywood in the Forties. The framing of the tale seems to advance the anti-ethical idea, central to many religions, that good behavior on earth will be rewarded in the hereafter, bolstering the theory that without God and eternal rewards, doing good is pointless.

Yet in the end, it is an ethics movie, not a religious one. George lives an ethical live, not out of any religious conviction, but because step by step, crisis after crisis, he chooses to place the welfare of others, especially his community and family, above his own needs and desires. No reward is promised to him, and he momentarily forgets why we act ethically, until he is reminded. Living ethically is its own reward.

We are introduced to George Bailey, who, we are told, is in trouble and has prayed for help. One has to wonder about people like George, who resort to prayer as a last resort, but they don’t seem to hold it against him in Heaven. The heavenly authorities assign an Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Oddbody, to handle the case..He is, we learn later, something of a second rate angel as well as a 2nd Class one, so it is interesting that whether or not George is in fact saved will be entrusted to less than Heaven’s best. Some lack of commitment, there— perhaps because George has not been “a praying man.” This will teach him—sub-par service!

2. Extra Credit for Moral Luck

George’s first ethical act is saving his brother, Harry, from drowning, an early exhibition of courage, caring and sacrifice. The sacrifice part is that the childhood episode costs George the hearing in one ear. He doesn’t really deserve extra credit for this, as it was not a conscious trade of his hearing for Harry’s young life, but he gets it anyway, just as soldiers who are wounded in battle receive more admiration and accolades than those who are not. Yet this is only moral luck. A wounded hero is no more heroic than a unwounded one, and may be less competent as well as less lucky.

3.  The Confusing Drug Store Incident

George Bailey’s next ethical act is when he saves the life of another child by not delivering a bottle of pills that had been inadvertently poisoned by his boss, the druggist, Mr. Gower. This is nothing to get too excited over, really—if George had knowingly delivered poisoned pills, he would have been more guilty than the druggist, who was only careless. What do we call someone who intentionally delivers poison that he knows will be mistaken for medication? A murderer, that’s what.  We’re supposed to admire George for not committing murder.

Mr. Gower, at worst, would be guilty of negligent homicide. George saves him from that fate when he saves the child, but if he really wanted to show exemplary ethics, he should have reported the incident to authorities. Mr. Gower is not a trustworthy pharmacist—he was also the beneficiary of moral luck. He poisoned a child’s pills through inattentiveness. If his customers knew that, would they keep getting their drugs from him? Should they? A professional whose errors are potentially deadly must not dare the fates by working when his or her faculties are impaired by illness, sleeplessness or, in Gower’s case, grief and alcohol.

4. The Uncle Billy Problem

As George grows up, we see that he is loyal and respectful to his father. That’s admirable. What is not admirable is that George’s father, who has fiduciary duties as the head of a Building and Loan, has placed his brother Billy in a position of responsibility. As we soon learn, Billy is a souse, a fool and an incompetent. This is a breach of fiscal and business ethics by the elder Bailey, and one that George engages in as well, to his eventual sorrow.

5. George’s Speech

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Comment Of The Day: “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/12/17: Hurricane Reports, And Poor Charles M. Blow Needs A Vacation”

G.K. Chesterton (above), perspective, and most of all, optimism: Ryan Harkins’ Comment of the Day, prompted by the post Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 9/12/17: Hurricane Reports, And Poor Charles M. Blow Needs A Vacation, (about NYT columnist Charles Blow—the idiot– declaring today’s USA “Hell on Earth”)  has all of these, and wisdom too.

Here it is:

Okay, I tried to read the article, and I made it no further than Blow describing Trump’s America as the ninth circle of hell. When one strikes that level of hyperbole, it eradicates any credibility one might have possessed.

One of the greatest counters to depression and despair is an attitude of gratitude, something I truly see lacking in anything coming from the left. We have a great nation. We have great opportunities, and we have a culture that truly seeks – if sometimes in very strange, even damaging ways — to right wrongs and make life as fair as possible. If you look around the world, and if you look at just about any culture that existed since the dawn of history, you won’t find any people who have been so richly blessed as those in our country today. This is especially true when you consider the stability our nation has, and its lack of credible enemies that pose any existential threat to our nation. We can go about life assured that tomorrow will indeed be much like today.

Even in the face of hurricanes, we have much for which to be grateful. We have incredible technology that gives us quite a bit of advanced warning that the storms were coming. We have minimized death tolls in the face of these natural disasters, and we have a government willing to pour billions of dollars into rebuilding communities destroyed by the hurricanes. We have seen an incredible outpouring of generosity from the nation at large to help the hurricane victims (the Knights of Columbus alone raised $1.3 million). Yes, the devastation is traumatic, and yes people have lost livelihoods, all their possessions, and even family members. But this strikes against one very important aspect of life. Continue reading

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Morning Ethics Warm-Up: 7/24/17

Good Morning…

…and gee, it’s good to be back home! You have no idea how good it is.

1. ARRRGH! I returned to Ethics Alarms with 6 pending comments, and I want to apologize profusely for the back-up, especially to poor Paul Schlecht, whose avatar inexplicably makes WordPress hold every single one of his comments  in moderation until I rescue it. Only one post got up yesterday, and that was a close call: I was in resort/airport/travel Hell yesterday in Daytona  Beach, then Charlotte, pretty much from the moment I got my wake-up call at 6 AM to when my plane finally arrived at D.C.’s Reagan National Airport at just short of 1 am. today.

At least my law firm retreat seminar on legal ethics and technology was lively, but now I am way behind on posts, and also not exactly at the top of my game. Again, my apologies to all. And I’ve got to get a new laptop without a jumping cursor and that doesn’t crash my browser every 20 minutes or so.

2. I mentioned last week that the New York Times Sunday Review section is a weekly exercise in anti-President Trump porn. I couldn’t find a Sunday Times yesterday, so as a test, I’m going to open the copy my wife saved for me and look at the section now.

Let’s see…well the above the fold story is a feature about “why women aren’t CEOs.” The anti-Trump shot doesn’t come until the last paragraph, where the author, Susan Chira, couldn’t help herself from quoting Hillary Clinton as she blamed misogyny for her defeat. The Deplorables, you know. The second story on the front page is a mocking piece by a British historian, about a new Trump Doctrine, but with the term in scare quotes. How dare the President stand up for Western Civilization, we are asked to consider? This author, Stephen Wertheim, claims that the Trump administration’s problems with Iran, North Korea and China are based in racism and religious bias.  (Obama’s problems with the same nations were, presumably, based on a sincere concern for peace.) The  essay is also fairly anti-American, but concludes with the insult that the problem with the President isn’t so much what he does as who he is.

This is essentially the argument of “the resistance.” You know. Bigotry.

Let’s see—that piece took up all of page two, so we move on to page three. Two op-eds are there, one again mocking the ex-press secretary Sean Spicer, which the Times editorial board had already done, and the other, by Frank Bruni, attacking Jared Kushner. It closes with this, in part:

His counsel to Trump has been flawed, to say the least. He reportedly lobbied for the firing of James Comey, which didn’t turn out so well….I hear that he feels persecuted. Wronged. In that regard, too, he’s like his father-in-law, though Trump wears his self-pity, fury and ruthlessness right out front, for the whole world to see.

This is the company line. Actually, firing Comey turned out spectacularly well: the President was able to get rid of a highly placed leaker who had proven himself incompetent and untrustworthy. Bruni and the Times feel it was a mistake because the completely legal, appropriate, indeed overdue dismissal brought down the ire of the news media determined to get rid of the President. Message: When will you learn that we call the shots, you fool?

In fact, the President and his entire family have been persecuted by the Times from the very beginning, in obvious contrast to the news media’s disgusting fawning over the Clintons and Obamas, and even their chilly respect for the Bushes.

On to page four! Oh! Here’s a cartoon of the President as Donald Duck, and an op-ed by a New York City mother about how embarrassing it is to have a toddler who–The Horror!—likes the President of the United States! Beneath that screed, with a picture of Don, Jr., is an op-ed attacking another member of the President’s family in a piece about “men who never grow up.” The Trump boys are lumped in with Billy Bush, Ryan Lochte (the moronic Olympic swimmer), the fortunate college rapist Brock Turner, and the police officers who shot Tamir Rice!  Funny, the nation’s most prominent perpetual adolescent, who embarrassed the whole nation by using the White House as his passion pit, is never mentioned.

The non-Trump stories then take over for a few pages, and we’re finally at the editorial page. Two of the three editorials attack the President’s policies as the embodiment of evil: one condemns the very concept of the Election Integrity Commission— did you know that trying to find out how much actual voter fraud there is constitutes voter suppression?—and the other uses the President’s border wall plan as a prop to level general insults.  The rest of that page is devoted to a special selection of Letters to the Editor critical of…Donald Trump! Every one, all ten. You’re right, NYT, the paper doesn’t reflect this opinion thoroughly enough. On the facing page, two of the three op-eds consist of more Trump bashing. Maureen Dowd is one, but to be fair, all she does is level snark at everyone. The other is a second attack on Jared Kushner, because one per section is not enough.

The total: Nine Trump-hate pieces, plus ten anti-Trump letters, and not a single supportive word, balanced analysis, or defense. And the Sunday Review section is like this every week.

3. I can’t believe I’m writing this. The Discovery Channel’s always idiotic and often misleading “Shark Week” told audiences that Olympic Gold  Medal swimmer Michael Phelps would be racing a Great White Shark in the ocean. Admittedly, most potential viewers should be smart enough to figure out that there had to be a catch (no pun intended) despite the misleading title “Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs Great White.”  They should be, but we know they aren’t, based on the other stupid shows they fall for on the network, and also because there have been three “Sharknado” movies with a fourth on the way. That Discovery Channel title is a lie: Phelps never was in the water with a shark; he never saw a shark; he never raced a shark. He “raced’ a computer-generated shark that was put into the film after Phelps was safe and dry. Some of Phelps’ gullible fans are annoyed.

They should be. On the other hand, they are morons. The entire exercise should have taken about 6 seconds, the amount of time it takes to say “White sharks swim faster than humans, even Olympic champions. Bye.” Continue reading

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Ethics Jump-Ball At The 7-11

Boy, you better be quick if you want to be “pay it forward” in Alexandria, Virginia.

Today I dropped by the local 7-11 for a quick purchase and was third in a line of four. Being served was a very tall—basketball player tall—, very striking young African American man, late 20s, early 30s,  in a three- piece suit and tie. He had his items on the counter for checkout, and excused himself briefly to go out to his car where he said he had left his wallet. A few seconds later he stepped back into the store and said, “Never mind. I’m sorry, I left my wallet at home,” and started to leave. I hesitated maybe two seconds and started to speak, as did the man ahead of me. I was about to say that I would pay for his items, but the guy behind me, short, stocky, white, about 50, and noticeably missing a few teeth in front, stepped out and said, “Hey, man, I’ve got it.”

The young man looked surprised and said, “Are you sure?” “Of course. Is that it?” replied the older man, pointing to the counter.

“Just pay it forward, friend,” said the man in front of me.

“Thank you,” said the Kareem Abdul Jabbar look-alike.  I really did think he looked like Kareem, early 70’s vintage, but handsomer. He also appeared a lot more affluent than his shorter benefactor. “Here’s my contact information…” and he reached into his pocket.

“No, no, come on, that’s not necessary,” said his new friend,, flashing his missing teeth in a big smile. “I’ve got it. We’re all in this together.” And he paid the clerk.

The tall black man shook his hand, and they both held the clasp for a few second. “Thanks so much,” he said.

After he left, both I and the man in front of me congratulated the winner of this ethics jump ball, saying that we both were about to do the same thing, but he had been quicker.

“Oh no!” he said suddenly, eyes twinkling. “I just spent my last dollar! Now I can’t pay for MY stuff!”

“See? I’d really have you both then, wouldn’t I?”

And we all laughed.

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Unethical Quote Of The Month: Michelle Obama; Runner-Up: Her Husband

michelle-and-oprah

“We feel the difference now. See, now, we are feeling what not having hope feels like. Hope is necessary. It’s a necessary concept and Barack didn’t just talk about hope because he thought it was just a nice slogan to get votes. He and I and so many believe that — what else do you have if you don’t have hope,What do you give your kids if you can’t give them hope?”

First Lady Michelle Obama, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey broadcast last week.

I was going to ignore this unforgivable  statement, as there have been so many notable melt-downs from progressives and Democrats that if I commented on all of them it would be all freak-out, all the time on Ethics Alarms. However, the video really bothered me, and the timing of the remarks were so inappropriate—Let’s ask Syrians, who your husband decided to abandon in their desperation when he allowed his promise of a “red line” to  evaporate  as Assad turned his chemical weapons on them, how much hope they have, Mrs. Obama!—that I tried to think of any previous First Lady who so blatantly abused her role as a non-partisan symbol of stability and optimism for all Americans. There hasn’t been one. No First Lady, even the outspoken Barbara Bush or the activist Eleanor Roosevelt, has come close to declaring that hope was dead in America. It is especially irresponsible for a First Lady to talk like this as her husband leaves office. His predecessor was gracious, and the First Family owes its successor the same courtesy and respect. Continue reading

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Holiday Ethics Assigment: Quick! Watch These 25 Great Old Ethics Movies Again Before You Go Bonkers Too!

movie-theater

I am compiling a new list of great ethics movies to help those troubled by the recently completed Presidential campaign, the election and its aftermath. I haven’t decided whether to reveal it piecemeal, or collectively as I have before, but I do need to begin by presenting the previous list of 25, actually the combination of several previous posts. Ethics films I have covered individually since those lists debuted, like Spotlight and Bridge of Spies, will eventually be added.

For now, here’s the top 25. Don’t pay attention to the order.

1Spartacus (196o)

The raw history is inspiring enough: an escaped gladiator led an army of slaves to multiple victories over the Roman legions in one of the greatest underdog triumphs ever recorded. Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandal classic has many inspiring sequences, none more so than the moment when Spartacus’s defeated army chooses death rather than to allow him to identify himself to their Roman captors (“I am Spartacus!”)

Ethical issues highlighted: Liberty, slavery, sacrifice, trust, politics, courage, determination, the duty to resist abusive power, revolution, love, loyalty.

Favorite quote: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” [Spartacus (Kirk Douglas)]

2.  Hoosiers (1986)

“Hoosiers” is loosely based on true story, but its strength is the way it combines classic sports movie clichés—the win-at-all-costs coach down on his luck, the remote superstar, over-achieving team—into a powerful lesson: it isn’t the final victory that matters most, but the journey to achieving it.

Ethical issues highlighted: Forgiveness, generosity, leadership, kindness, courage, loyalty, diligence, redemption.

Favorite quote: “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we’re gonna be winners.” [ Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman)]

3. Babe (1995)

A wonderful movie about the virtues of being nice, the greatest civility film of all time. Second place: “Harvey.”

Ethical issues highlighted: Civility, kindness, reciprocity, loyalty, courage, love, friendship, bigotry, bias.

Favorite quote: “Fly decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid, and there was nothing that could convince her otherwise…The sheep decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves were ignorant, and there was nothing that could convince them otherwise”  The Narrator (Roscoe Lee Browne) Continue reading

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My Ethics Hero: Some Guy In The Harris Teeter Meat Section

I was doing some quick shopping yesterday at a large Harris Teeter supermarket in Alexandria, Virginia. My list from my wife included an option—always a doorway to a shopping confidence crisis—between a whole chicken, a small marinated chicken, or two large chicken breasts. I had decided on the marinated bird, but couldn’t find them where they usually were, and was more or less frozen, like the “hosts” in “Westworld” get when Anthony Hopkins wants them quiet, staring where I expected them to be.

“I’m going to buy one of them, the question is, which one?” a jaunty, relaxed voice close behind me said. At that moment I realized I had been staring at turkeys (I wasn’t there to buy one), and I turned around, not startled but curious, to face a broadly smiling, handsome, bearded African-American man about my age, probably a little younger.

“Isn’t it a little early?” I asked, smiling back. Being habitually disorganized, I am typically shopping  for everything the day before Thanksgiving.

“Oh, no, not for me!” he said, laughing. And he told me that he was going to cook up one or more turkeys for his church on Sunday. We talked about the ways he cooked his turkeys; he preferred to smoke them. He was also a grilling specialist. He took out his phone and showed me pictures of his specialty, ribs. We talked about his favorite recipes, and his church, his family, and its Thanksgiving plans, as I told him about mine. I mentioned that my wife was our traditional Thanksgiving chef, and that got the discussion turned around to marriage. We both have been married a long time, and he took me by the shoulders and talked intensely about commitment in relationships.

I had a twenty-minute conversation with this delightful stranger, just standing by the meat section. Finally, I announced  that I had to finish my assignment, and wished him wonderful holidays. I offered him my hand and introduced myself; he shook it firmly, and gave his name in return. Then we spontaneously hugged each other, which I never do, being from Boston and trained to be reticent in such intimacies, he flashed that terrific smile, and we parted.

My encounter with this exuberant gentleman suddenly made me feel good about life, my community, the country and the human race as I had not for a very long time. I think we’ll be all right. All that had happened was that a stranger just reached out and began a conversation about something two people shared, showing openness, kindness, human interest and trust, and a connection was made. That’s all it takes.

I start conversations with strangers a lot; it was something my father did. He was better at it than I am, and my friend in the Harris Teeter meat section is obviously a grandmaster. But as the holidays approach, and I keep reading these essays about families boycotting each other because of Trump-Clinton divides, it is so obvious that my dad and my turkey buddy are the wise ones.  We’re all just human beings together on a short and unpredictable trip: we should  just focus on that, and reach out.  Why is it so hard? Continue reading

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