Afternoon Ethics Warm-Up, 3/26/19: The “What’s Going On Here?” Edition

Hello, Spring!

1. On the down side, “The Smollett Report” Explain this one: Attorneys for “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett announced today that all charges against him have been dropped.Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was attacked by two men. The two men were found and implicated Smollett, and the evidence that it was hoax appeared overwhelming.  A minimum condition of dropping cases requires some acceptance of responsibility, but the actor still professes that he’s innocent. “I’ve been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one,” he said.

What’s going on here? I have no idea, but the word “Chicago” keeps popping up in my head.”

2. Talk about a parallel universe! I had never seen this [Pointer: Althouse]: President Obama’s statement after the 2016 election:

“You take the baton, you run your best race, and hopefully, by the time you hand it off, you’re a little further ahead. You made a little progress. I want to make sure that hand-off is well executed because, ultimately, we’re all on the same team….

Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first.

This was a long and hard-fought campaign. A lot of our fellow Americans are exultant today. A lot of Americans are less so, but that’s the nature of campaigns. That’s the nature of democracy. It is hard and sometimes contentious and noisy. It’s not always inspiring.”

“Sometimes you lose an argument. Sometimes you lose an election. We try really hard to persuade people that we’re right, and then people vote, and then we lose. We learn from our mistakes. We do some reflection. We lick our wounds. We brush ourselves off. We get back in the arena. We go at it. We try even harder the next time.”

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Ethics Dunce AGAIN By A Man In A Position That Should Never Include An Ethics Dunce: Pope Francis

Let’s see now. You are the titular head of a religious organization that talks a good game about virtue, morality and the dangers of sin, and it has been shaken to its core by an ongoing scandal involving thousands of officials sexually molesting hundreds of thousands of children while your organization not only covered up the crimes, but facilitated them. After the latest outbreak of this decades—centuries?—long scandal, you declared that your organization would regain the trust of its members by reversing its previous corrupt practices, and send clear messages that the conduct that endangered and damaged children would not be tolerated.

Then, when one of the highest officials in your organization offers his resignation after being convicted in a court of law for failing to stop one of the ongoing molesters despite knowledge of his vile  activities, you refuse to accept that resignation.

What sense does this make? This is a fair summary of Pope Francis’s recent decision to reject the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin despite his conviction this month for covering up decades-old allegations of sexual abuse by a priest in his diocese. The only way it makes sense is if the Pope doesn’t comprehend the seriousness of the sex abuse scandal, and still places loyalty to the church and his colleagues above the welfare of victims past, present and future. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/1/2019: Mania In Pennsylvania

Hello from Cannonsburg, PA.

Mr. Adams, but Mr. Adams
The things I write are only light extemporania
I won’t put politics on paper, it’s a mania
So I refuse to use the pen in Pennsylvania

—-Ben Franklin, in “Mr. Adams,” 1776

(But Ben didn’t have a computer…)

1. Like watching a zombie outbreak. Predictable, embarrassing, scary, disgusting, and hilarious. The comments on my Facebook feed by Trump Deranged friends and friends of friends really does begin to make me wonder if protected Trump Hate is mental illness. Multiple people were willing to go on record as saying that they believed Michael Cohen, and—get this—that they found him to be a sympathetic character! Now it’s true that these same people believed Jussie Smollett, Nathan Phillips, Bill Clinton and Christine Blasey-Ford based on nothing more than ideological bias and anti-Trump animus, but even these four are paragons of honesty and trustworthiness compared to Cohen. It is also amazing that these Coehn fans are so confident of the Facebook echo chamber that they don’t hesitate to write something so mind-numbingly stupid.

2. Petty perjury. The Republicans who are trying to prompt an investigation of Cohen for alleged perjury before Congress are abusing process, and worse, they are  imitating the bitter Democrats who argued that Bret Kavanaugh committed perjury by giving his recollection of an innocent definition of “boofing.” Among Cohen’s alleged “lies” is that he said he never wanted to work at the White House in the hearing, but said elsewhere that he did want to work there. The man is inately unbelievable (but sympathetic!) He’s a criminal. He has violated too many legal ethics rules to count. He betrayed his client’s confidences. He has lied under oath. He’s been disbarred. It is literally impossible to have less credibility than Michael Cohen. There is no point in proving petty perjury, except to be vindictive.

3. Testing the tolerance, determination and gag reflex of those who believe in innocence until proven guilty. Michael Jackson’s family is out in force to condemn “Finding Neverland,”is out in force to condemn “Finding Neverland,” a documentary debuting on HBO this weekend.  It purports to chronicle the King of Pop’s alleged serial child abusing, featuring two former kiddy pals who slept in Michael’s bed, all in good fun, according to the Jacksons. No jury ever found Michael guilty, though one has to wonder if the result would have been the same if he looked and sounded like Vin Rhames. On the other hand, Jackson was so, so strange that virtually anything is believable, including the theory that he really was just a big, famous, harmless, case of arrested childhood whose motives were pure as the driven snow. The Jacksons say his now grown playmates are just seeking money and book deals. That’s certainly plausible. What isn’t plausible is that the Jacksons say they never thought Michael’s obsession with young children was suspicious or troubling, and that they see no reason why anyone would have expected them to advise their brother not to act like a pedophile, whether he was one or not.

4. Selma Blair. Selma Blair never became a big star; I remember her best in “Hellboy.” She was talented, though, and now we know she’s gutsy, appearing on the Oscars red carpet using a cane. Blair has multiple sclerosis, which has disabled a career already shot by another crippling malady for movie ingenues–getting older. Blair announced her illness on Instagram, saying, “I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken gps. But we are doing it. And I laugh and I don’t know exactly what I will do precisely but I will do my best.” Now she is defying typical Hollywood vanity to appear in public, giving invaluable support to the million-plus Americans who suffer from MS. Wrote Ed Tobias on the MS support website, MS News TodayMS News Today:

“If a photo is worth a thousand words, then the video of Blair and her cane, as she slowly made her way along the red carpet at the Oscars, is worth a million. It shows pain and persistence. Caution and class. It shows what many of us have to handle each day. And Selma Blair showed an audience of millions how to do it. Bravo!”

Agreed.

5.  Now let’s see how many acting jobs David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel get after this. An arbitrator awarded $179 million,awarded $179 million, much of it in punitive damages, to the two and one of their partners in the long-running hit TV show “Bones,” holding that Fox executives lied, cheated and committed fraud at the expense of the show’s stars and executive producer Barry Josephson. That creative Hollywood accounting robs stars is the third worst-kept and longest running secret in show business, #1 being that directors and producers use their power and star-makimg ability to force actresses to have sex with them, and #2 being that an awful lot of actresses take advantage of that illicit entree. James Garner was one of the few big stars to challenge the swindle in court, and he did so more than once. He won, too, but he also paid a price in lost roles. Most stars just put up with the cheating and take their paychecks, which are pretty big anyway.

Maybe Boreanaz, a latter day Garner who may have sensed that he has maxed  out his career as he enters his fifties (surely you remember him as Angel, Buffy the Vampire Killer’s tragic true, un-dead love?) and Deschanel, who has always been oveer-shadowed her younger, cuter, funnier sister Zooey, may have decided that there was no downside in fighting for their fair share. Or maybe—just maybe—they are making a courageous stand for their profession. Either way, it is good ethics news any time the Hollywood moguls get foiled in this game.

One More Time, The Second Accuser Scenario, And Fairness For Justin Fairfax

From the Washington Post today:

“A Maryland woman said Friday she was raped by Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) in a “premeditated and aggressive” assault in 2000, while they both were undergraduate students at Duke University. She is the second woman this week to make an accusation of sexual assault.

The woman, Meredith Watson, said Friday in a written statement through her attorney that she shared her account immediately after it happened with several classmates and friends. Watson did not speak publicly Friday and her lawyer did not make her available for an interview.

Watson was friends with Fairfax at Duke but they never dated or had any romantic relationship, the lawyer, Nancy Erika Smith, said.

“At this time, Ms. Watson is reluctantly coming forward out of a strong sense of civic duty and her belief that those seeking or serving in public office should be of the highest character,” Smith said in the statement . “She has no interest in becoming a media personality or reliving the trauma that has greatly affected her life. Similarly, she is not seeking any financial damages.”

Now what?

An unrelated accusation of conduct X does not mean that a previous unsubstantiated accusation of the same conduct is true. However…

  • In the case of habitual or characteristic misconduct—like being a sexual predator or a sexual harasser—the likelihood that there have been more, undisclosed episodes involving the individual accused is high.
  • Thus the absence of a credible second (or third, fourth, and onward) accuser in a matter like this is legitimate evidence arguing for the innocence of the accused. An example would be Clarence Thomas.
  • When subsequent allegations are substantially similar to the original accusation, they are especially damning. Bill Cosby is the poster case for this variation. Another exampole: Kevin Spacey.
  • When the second and additional allegations are suspiciously timed, as during an election or a political controversy, when they involve general misconduct only, lack named accusers or when they are sketchy in their facts and proof, they should be regarded with extreme skepticism. The add-on Kavanaugh accusations fit this description.
  • The fact that a court decision or an official investigation has not definitively determined that misconduct has taken place does not require individuals, groups and the public to discard commons sense, if they can eliminate bias from their decision-making. O.J. Simpson, it is fair to say,  is guilty of murder, and it is completely fair to regard him in that light. Barry Bonds used banned and illegal drugs to enhance his major league baseball career. Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator who traded professional advancement for sex. We don’t need admissions here to come to informed decisions.

Now what does all of this mean for Justin Fairfax, next in line to be Governor of Virginia if Governor Northam decides, as an honorable public servant should, that he has made such an irredeemable ass of himself by his obfuscations, double-back flips, and tap-dancing around the question of whether he had a photo of himself in blackface in his yearbook that no Virginian in his or her right mind could possibly feel secure trusting such a boob to handle the affairs of the Commonwealth? What is fair? Continue reading

Ethics Quiz Of The Day: What’s None Of Harvard’s Business?

Now we own you.

Boy, Harvard is getting like the Candyman (no, not Willy Wonka, the horror movie version): mention its name enough times, and it appears behind you, with mayhem on its mind.

A case filed in federal court by a Harvard University student, “John Doe,” argues that the school overstepped  its authority by investigating him for a rape allegation lodged by a non-student in a city where police declined to prosecute. He contends that Harvard did not have the authority to open an investigation into sexual assault allegations levied by a non-Harvard student regarding an incident that did not take place on University property. “Doe” demands that Harvard end the investigation and pay him $75,000 in damages, as well as compensate him for any costs incurred during litigation.

Doe’s suit states that, during summer 2017, Doe and “Jane Roe” ( the unnamed woman he allegedly raped) were both working internships in Washington, D.C. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department investigated the alleged assault but ultimately decided not to prosecute the case. “Roe” has filed a civil suit against the Harvard student.

The University’s Office for Dispute Resolution opened an investigation into Doe in October 2018

Harvard University’s policies related to sexual and gender-based misconduct, readable here, apply only to misconduct perpetrated by students while on campus or in connection with University-recognized activities. The  guidelines followed by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences are more expansive, as it states that the school  may hold all students to the expectation that they behave in a “in a mature and responsible manner” no matter where they are.

“It is the expectation of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that all students, whether or not they are on campus or are currently enrolled in a degree program, will behave in a mature and responsible manner. Consistent with this principle, sexual and gender-based misconduct are not tolerated by the FAS even when, because they do not have the effect of creating a hostile environment for a member of the University community, they fall outside the jurisdiction of the University Policy.”

Whatever that means.

Meanwhile, new Title IX guidelines proposed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and released by the department last month stipulate that schools are not required to open investigations into alleged acts of sexual misconduct that took place outside the bounds of a school “program or activity.”

Doe’s suit charges Harvard with breach of contract and breach of covenant of faith and fair dealing. In allowing him to attend classes in exchange for “substantial amounts of money,” Harvard created a reasonable expectation that Doe would earn a degree from the school. One possible result of an ODR investigation would be expulsion.

“Harvard has breached, and is breaching, its contractual obligations by subjecting Mr. Doe to a disciplinary process that—in the ways, and for the reasons, set out above—is arbitrary, capricious, malicious, and being conducted in bad faith,” the complaint states. ODR informed Doe that the investigation is based on Roe’s allegations. In an email submitted as an exhibit in the lawsuit,  ODR’s senior investigator wrote that the College Title IX coordinator filed the case, then reached out to Roe to ask her to participate as a complainant in the investigation. Doe asked Harvard to temporarily suspend the investigation pending the results of Roe’s civil suit. Doe stated a simultaneous ODR investigation would have a “serious impact” on his ability to defend himself in the ongoing civil case, according to the complaint.

Harvard, noting that the D.C. police was not going to investigate the allegations, rejected the request.

Let’s put aside the law and Harvard’s policies for now, and stick to ethics.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

“Is it fair for a college to investigate alleged misconduct, including crimes, on the part of student, when the conduct occurs in a different city and local police have declined to take action?”

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Analysis: Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s #MeToo Accusations And His Response

Oh, great…the Harvey Weinstein Ethics Train Wreck is still making stops and picking up passengers. This time the target is Neil deGrasse Tyson who someone, actually several somones, decided was a powerful man too full of himself who needed to be taken down a peg or sixty, and thus he has been accused–Democratic Senators would say “credibly” accused—of two episodes of sexual harassment and one rape. This is no trivial matter for Tyson, whose carefully constructed image as the new Carl Sagan is now in real danger. So is his job, his celebrity, his reputation and perhaps his marriage.

The three accusations belong in two boxes. The two sexual harassment claims may bolster each other, for harassing is an attitude, a habit, and a form of ethics blindness. Real harassers never do it just once. Rape is something else entirely, and, obviously, far more serious, since it is a crime.

Let’s examine each of the accusations, and Tyson’s defense, which he issued in a long Facebook post over the weekend.

Accusation #1:

Workplace Harassment: Hostile work environment and Unwanted sexual advances (2018)

Ashley Watson, who began a job as Dr. Tyson’s assistant on “Cosmos” in the spring, told an interviewer that on one occasion he asked if she would like to come to his home to share a bottle of wine and “unwind for a couple of hours.” She agreed to come in for one glass, she said, believing that they were going to talk about work and her future assignments.

Once in the astronomer’s apartment, she said, he told her that “as human beings, we all need release,” and asked if there were any “releases” she needed.  (Oh-oh!) As she began to leave a while later,  and he asked if she would let her show her  a Native American handshake.” This required clasping their hands together , finding the pulse on the other person’s wrist, and looking into each other’s eyes. (Super Oh-oh, and also “You’ve got to be kidding me.”) She says that it made her uncomfortable, and she broke it off after about 10 seconds.

As she was again trying to leave, she says Dyson commented, “I want you to know that I want to hug you so bad right now, but I know that if I do I’ll just want more.”

Then, the next day, he told her, “You say you want to be a producer, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle for you because you’re too distracting.”

She says told a supervisor ,a line producer,about what had happened, and that she was quitting.. The supervisor, asked Watson if she wanted to file a complaint. She said no. The supervisor suggested she tell her co-workers that she was leaving because of a family emergency, which she did.

Comment: If accurately described, this is slam dunk sexual harassment. The apartment visit is an extension of the workplace. If it is a veiled “date,” Tyson has crossed a line because he is the woman’s supervisor with hiring and firing power. She cannot consent meaningfully. The release comment, depending on the delivery and context, is creepy and plausibly sexual in intent, unless he also said, “Me? I like to watch baseball. How about you?” The “Native American handshake” sounds like a nifty version of the old “shoulder rub.” Now there has been touching, and forced eye-gazing. Ew. The last comment at the apartment  is also a sexual advance, especially in context with the rest.

Tyson’s Explanation: Not good. In his Facebook post,  Tyson described the handshake as one he uses “in appreciation of people with whom I’ve developed new friendships.” He said that at work, Ms. Watson freely offered hugs, which he typically rejected, but that on a few occasions, he “clumsily declared, ‘If I hug you I might just want more.’”

“My intent was to express restrained but genuine affection,” he wrote.

He also wrote that . Watson had come into his office after the incident in his apartment and told him she had been “creeped out.” He said he had “apologized profusely” and that she had accepted the apology.

Comment: Tyson’s defense is essentially “I didn’t mean anything by it, she construed it the wrong way, and anyway, she accepted my apology.” Those are three excuses, none of which carried any weight in sexual harassment cases. It’s what the harasser did, and how the harassed felt about it. His apology and her acceptance of it, even if true, doesn’t undo the event. The encounter and his words  made her uncomfortable working with him, and objectively, anyone can see why. It is also interesting that Tyson doesn’t deny the “release” conversation, or his later comment about her being a distraction.

Since Watson had to leave her job, this episode could justify a lawsuit for sexual harassment.

Accusation #2: Sexual assault (2009)

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Sick-Bed Ethics Warm-Up, 11/14/18: Ethics Among the Sneezes [UPDATED]

Good whatever it is….

1. Bottom line” Don’t trust Facebook. From the Times: “Facebook failed to closely monitor device makers after granting them access to the personal data of hundreds of millions of people, according to a previously unreported disclosure to Congress last month.” Surprised? As with Google promising moths ago that it was no longer reading our mail, then admitting months later that it had resumed the practice, the big tech companies have proven repeatedly that that we cannot believe what they say, or their motives, or their pledges of good will and public service. More from the Times story:

Facebook’s loose oversight of the partnerships was detected by the company’s government-approved privacy monitor in 2013. But it was never revealed to Facebook users, most of whom had not explicitly given the company permission to share their information. Details of those oversight practices were revealed in a letter Facebook sent last month to Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, a privacy advocate and frequent critic of the social media giant.

In the letter, a copy of which Mr. Wyden provided to The New York Times, Facebook wrote that by early 2013 it had entered into data-sharing agreements with seven device makers to provide what it called the “Facebook experience” — custom-built software, typically, that gave those manufacturers’ customers access to Facebook on their phones. Those partnerships, some of which date to at least 2010, fall under a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission drafted in 2011 and intended to oversee the company’s privacy practices.

Read the whole thing. I just assume that anything I put on Facebook, regardless of the alleged settings,will be sold to or otherwise obtained by potentially malign entities.

2. Just what we need now, a rogue First Lady. First Lady Melania Trump publicly called for the President’s deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel, to be fired.  In a word, well, two: Shut up. The felicitous circumstance of marrying someone who is later elected President of the United States confers no expertise or authority. The position of First Lady has no Constitutionally recognized duties, nor does it carry any real power. There is nothing anyone can do to diminish the influence and spouse may have with the President behind closed doors—and that is a problem—but she or the inevitable he must not confuse, confound or otherwise seek to influence affairs of state with public comments and opinions. Why Melania wants Ricardel fired is irrelevant. It’s none of her business.

I just want to point out that I sneezed six times while typing those last four words. Applause, please. Continue reading