Comment Of The Day: “In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law”

Last week, Ethics Alarms confidently presented the ethics verdict that it was high time—more than high time, in fact—for the British Museum to finally return the so-called “Elgin Marbles” to Greece. As the priceless art was literally ripped off the Parthenon, I didn’t think the question justified an ethics quiz. I still am unconvinced by the arguments that the Brits should hold on to their ill-gotten gains, but I am the grandson of a Spartan, after all. There were several excellent comments asserting ethical grounds for the British position; this one was outstanding.

Here is P.M.Lawrence’s epic tutorial, rebuttal, and Comment of the Day on the post, “In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law”:


“In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat, shipped to England treasures of Greek antiquity that he had strip-mined from Greece, including the carved frieze panels that had decorated the Parthenon. Supposedly this was done with the permission of Turkey, which was then ruling Greece, which is like your home invaders giving neighbors permission to take the art off your walls…”

There is a little more to it than that:-

– On the legal maxim of “nemo dat quod non habet”, of course the Turks couldn’t convey title. But they didn’t, they offered a quitclaim, as it were; they removed themselves from obstructing.

– As regards any original owners, there simply weren’t any left. The last remaining ones were ended by rounds of persecution of pagans, centuries earlier.

– As far as any generic claims of common heritage of western civilisation go, and those claims only go for want of better (there being no direct heirs), what better place to put the items than in a museum furthering that common heritage? Are the British somehow less heirs of that than are the Graeculi? Particularly considering how much safer the items were in that museum(those not taken have suffered horribly from war, corrosion, and what not). And, of course, the very word “museum” proclaims that furthering that common heritage.

Now, none of that conveys title to the British Museum, but adverse possession in the years since does – adverse, in that no better claimant came forward. Just as today’s Greeks feel an understandable connection to these items, as they do to the Lions of St. Mark’s, so too do today’s British – and as today’s Venetians do to the Lions of St. Mark’s. They are as intertwined with the histories of each place as of the other.

The Solomonic solution would be to sand blast the items to the condition of those not taken if any effort to transfer them were ever made. But I expect the Sir Humphreys will loudly assert ownership while underhandedly arranging a loan in name only with no means of foreclosing, just as they have with foundational documents that ought to have remained in British archives. That would satisfy none but the Sir Humphreys.

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In The Dispute Over The Fate Of The Elgin Marbles, It Is Time For The Brits To Choose Ethics Over Law

My mother stole a piece of the Parthenon. She was Greek, my father and she were visiting Athens, and when no one was looking (including my father) she scooped up a 1 x 8 inch chuck of white marble by the ruins and smuggled it home, where she displayed it on her fireplace mantle. My sister and I were horrified when we learned what the piece was, and plotted various ways to have it returned without getting our aged mother prosecuted. When they moved from Arlington, Mass. to Arlington, Va, the item just vanished, or so Mom said. (We didn’t believe her.) It was never seen again.

I think about this family scandal whenever I think of the seemingly endless dispute over the Elgin Marbles.

In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat, shipped to England treasures of Greek antiquity that he had strip-mined from Greece, including the carved frieze panels that had decorated the Parthenon. Supposedly this was done with the permission of Turkey, which was then ruling Greece, which is like your home invaders giving neighbors permission to take the art off your walls. The “Elgin Marbles” were sold to the British government and became among the most valued artifacts in the collection of the British Museum in London. As my mother’s son, I know they were among my top three favorite exhibits when I first visited, along with the Rosetta Stone and Paul McCartney’s handwritten draft of the lyrics for “Yesterday.”

Well, Greece has been asking for the Elgin Marbles back for over two centuries now, and if the museum has a leg to stand on in keeping them, it pretty much comes down to that hoary (and not exactly true) line, “possession is 9/10s of the law.” However, recent decades have seen a cultural shift as Western colonization and imperialism have acquired a bad reputation. Many museums are returning such looted treasures to where they were created and, I believe, belong. Why, then, haven’t the Elgin Marbles been sent back to Greece as its government demands, urges, and begs?

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In This Law Vs. Ethics Clash, Choosing Law Over Ethics Is The Ethical Course [Link Added]


Probably not. Let me explain.

On July 5, 2005 in Kirkwood, Missouri, police were executing a search warrant. While they were in his home, twelve-year old Joseph Long suffered a seizure and collapsed. Police, maybe thinking he was faking, maybe worrying about being distracted from their jobs, maybe because they were just cold-hearted bastards, did nothing to help him, and wouldn’t let his mother intervene either. The child died. Two hours later, the same officers responded to the same neighborhood after getting reports of illegal fireworks being set off. Kevin Johnson, the dead child’s older brother, spotted officer William McEntee, one of the police who had been at his home earlier that evening. “You killed my brother,” he said, and fired a gun at the officer multiple times, killing him.

Johnson was tried, sentenced to death, and now, 17 years later, has run out of appeals. He’s going to be executed. His daughter, Korry, just two when he murdered the police officer, is now 19 and wants to be among the limited number of attendees at her father’s death. Missouri has a statute, Revised Code Section 546.740 that determines who is eligible to watch an execution: Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: Prison Labor

Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont are voting next month on measures that will eliminate an exception to prohibitions against slavery or involuntary servitude when forced labor is part of the punishment for a crime. In Alabama, for example, the State Constitution would be amended to remove an exception that allows involuntary servitude “for the punishment of crime.” The U.S. Constitution also has an“exceptions clause” that allows convicted criminals to be forced into involuntary servitude.

The clause is found in the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in 1865: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

If such a measure passes, forced prison labor could be challenged a a violation of Constitutional rights. “We do not need to enslave people in order to punish them,” the New York Times quotes on former prisoner and an advocate of the proposed legal changes as saying, a typical example of lazy advocacy. No, we don’t need to make prisoners work as part of the prison experience. That’s not the issue. The question is whether society is acting unethically when it does so. Right now, absent an elimination of the prison exceptions to involuntary servitude, the practice is legal.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is….

Is it unethical to make prisoners work while incarcerated for little or no compensation?

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Did You Know That Auto Insurance Protects You From Anything Bad That Happens To You In Your Car? No? Neither Did Geico….

What would it take to make you feel that an insurance company has been treated unfairly? For me the bar is pretty high, but this crazy story may clear it.

The Kansas City Star reports that a woman contracted the sexually transmitted disease while makin’ whoopee in her lover/ infecter’s car. The cur knew he has the STD but didn’t tell her, so she filed a claim against Geico in February 2021, claiming that her  liability insurance had to pay her damages. Geico’s lawyers thought the theory was bats, so the case went to arbitration.

The creep was found liable—good—but the arbitrator approved an award of $5.2 million in damages to be paid by the insurance company. The insurance company appealed  on several grounds, and was denied on all points.

Now THAT’S a bad precedent. File this one under “law vs ethics.” And thanks to the now presumably kaput couple’s careless sexual proclivities and an anti-insurance company arbitrator, we can all expect our auto insurance premiums to go up, at least until an overly generous loophole is written out of the policies.

The Rest Of The Story: “The Baby On The Album Cover: Dumb Lawsuit, Valid Ethics Point”

Last August, I wrote about Spencer Eldon’s “Hail Mary” lawsuit against the surviving members of the band Nirvana over their use of his baby photo (which his parents received compensation for) in an iconic album cover above for “Nevermind.” The verdict here was that the lawsuit was doomed, he was greedy, and the law supported the band. However, I also wrote,

...Nonetheless, parents who use their children for public display are engaging in unethical conduct. Yes, they have the legal right to do it, and no, there is virtually no chance that any law will be passed banning what I consider to be child exploitation and low-level, but still unethical, child abuse. My wife and I have been watching the long-running British TV series “Call the Midwife,” and every episode requires one or more infants who are forced, without their consent, to endure the stressful experiences of playing newborns or sick baby’s under lights, in the arms of strangers, often covered with fake blood.

Elden might be insincere and the lawsuit is probably hopeless, but he’s not wrong in one respect. “[When] I go to a baseball game and think about it: ‘Man, everybody at this baseball game has probably seen my little baby penis,’” he said in one interview. “I feel like I got part of my human rights revoked.” Not rights, never rights: parents will always have the right to inflict indignities, publicity and stress on their minor offspring for fame and fortune. From the Coppertone girl to Linda Blair to “Mikey” and the kid in “The Shining,” they have all been unethically exploited by their parents, just like Spenser Eldon, without informed consent.

It’s legal, but it isn’t ethical.

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A Brain-Blowing Ethics Quiz To Enliven Sunday: Joseph Gordon’s Parole

Joseph Gordon

In the midst of a flurry of wrongfully convicted black men finally given their freedom comes the perplexing saga of 78-year old Joseph Gorden, locked up in New York’s Fishkill Correctional Facility since 1993 for a murder he says he didn’t commit. But that, as they say, isn’t the half of it.

Last March, Gordon was denied his fifth application since since 2017, when he had served the minimum term of his sentence of 25 years to life in prison. The reason he is still incarcerated is simple: he refuses to express remorse for the 1991 murder of a white Westchester County doctor, because Gordon insists that he is innocent. Usually a parole board will not waive the remorse requirement, which—and this is not the ethics quiz!– presents a classic ethical conflict for defense lawyers.

A lawyer cannot advise a client to lie. That is a bright-line professional ethics edict of long-standing. A lawyer is also required to defend a client’s rights and fight for his or her interests as zealously as possible. Would you, as a lawyer, convinced of your client Joseph Gordon’s innocence, advise him to express remorse to the parole board, which would require a false acceptance of the jury’s verdict? Many lawyers have done exactly this, and would argue that they did the right thing. Their bar associations and courts would almost certainly disagree.

I digress, however; sorry. That problem has always fascinated me. My favorite version is when the lawyer knows the convicted client is not guilty because another one of his clients has confessed to the murder, a confidence that the lawyer cannot ethically reveal.

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Tales Of The Slippery Slope: Paroling Sirhan Sirhan

RFK assass

Newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón issued a directive that his office’s “default policy” would be not to attend parole hearings and to submit letters supporting the release of some inmates who had served their mandatory minimums. Now Sirhan B. Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, will be a beneficiary of the policy as he faces a California parole board for the 16th time tomorrow. in a prison outside San Diego. Unlike the first 15 times, no prosecutor will oppose his release.

Sirhan is now 77. He escaped execution when California, being California, abolished the death penalty and his sentence was reduced to life with the possibility of parole. Instead of death, then, his punishment for murdering a possibly transformational U.S. political leader might be only 53 years behind bars. It could have been fewer: under the California law in effect when the assassin struck in 1968, a life sentence with parole would have made Sirhan eligible for release after only seven years. Now the parole board will evaluate him as an inmate who has had no disciplinary violations since 1972, and has expressed remorse, sort of: at one, “I have feelings of shame and inward guilt … I honestly feel the pain that [the Kennedys] may have gone through.” On the other hand, he has never expressly admitted his guilt and now claims not to remember shooting Bobby.

Funny, you’d think he would recall something like that.

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The Baby On The Album Cover: Dumb Lawsuit, Valid Ethics Point

Naked baby cover

Thirty years ago, Spencer Elden, age four months, was photographed by a family friend naked and floating in a pool at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center in Pasadena, California. The striking and cute photo was then sold by his parents to be the cover of “Nevermind,” the rock band Nirvana’s second album that shot the Seattle band to international fame. (Never could stand Nirvana myself.)

Through the years Elden pretty much exhausted the opportunities to exploit his accidental celebrity, recreating the wet, wild and adorable moment for the album’s 10th, 17th, 20th and 25th anniversaries (but not with his naughty bits exposed, of course) “It’s cool but weird to be part of something so important that I don’t even remember,” he said in an interview with The New York Post in 2016, in which he posed holding the album cover at 25. Eldon even reportedly has “Nevermind” tattooed on his chest.But this year he needs money, or has a change of heart, or met up with an unethical lawyer, or something. Now Elden is suing Nirvana for damages, claiming his parents never signed a release authorizing the use of his image on the album, and more provocatively, that his nude infant image constitutes child pornography.

“The images exposed Spencer’s intimate body part and lasciviously displayed Spencer’s genitals from the time he was an infant to the present day,” legal papers filed in California claim. Lasciviously? The album cover indeed showed Elden as a baby with his genitalia exposed. Maybe it also made tiny Spencer seem greedy, since the graphic artist added a digitally added dollar bill on a fishing line, leaving the impression that the tot was trying to grab the dollar.

Of course, he IS greedy now.

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Sounds Fun, But Is It Shakespeare?

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” in Central Park is a “Critic’s Pick” by the Times theater reviewer Jesse Green. We learn that William Shakespeare’s “comedy of clever women, frail men and harsh revenge” has been “shaped” into one of “love and forgiveness.” We are informed that a drummer from Zimbabwe leads the audience in a call and response chorus of vernacular African salutations: “Asé” (Nigeria), “Yebo” (South Africa) and “Wau-Wau” (Senegal) among them. We are informed that the adapter has cut the number of characters in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” nearly in half, and that the running time is more than a third shorter than the Bard’s 1597 comedy.

Yes, and the “adaptation” apparently eliminates much of Shakespeare’s wordplay, including politically incorrect words like “master” and “mistress,” which Green says have “buzzkill implications.” Gone too are “misogynist references.” Predictably the setting is no longer England, or Windsor, but Harlem: it is difficult to find a a production of any Shakespeare play today that has any connection to the original in time or space.

The director and adapter have also “made several adjustments to embrace queerness where the original used it merely for humor.” Of course.

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