Tuesday Ethics, 6/2/2020: Stunts, Looting, Bad Great Movies, And “Understanding.”

Happy?

What the hell’s the matter with you?

1. On the President’s stunt visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church. I refuse to second-guess the President’s decision to walk across the street to  St. John’s Episcopal Church in D.C. to make an anti-riot statement, Bible in hand, since I do not believe it matters what he does right now. He will be criticized for it, and I refuse to participate in the gratuitous and destructive effort to make it impossible for him to lead and govern.

The immediate focus was on the fact that his way though Lafayette Park was cleared by police using rubber bullets and tear gas. The President was defying the protesters, and whether it was wise to do so, it was also his right to do so. If the President believes posing outside a riot damaged church is to the nation’s benefit, and that he should walk through protesters to do it, then he gets to make that call. If protesters are in the way or threatening his safety, they have to move. If they won’t move voluntarily, then some degree of force has to be used.

The news media has avoided mentioning it, but the protest was illegal: demonstrations in Lafayette Park require permits, and this mob had none. Moreover, the description of the group as “peaceful protesters” by the news media has to be viewed with skepticism. The past week has shown that “peaceful protesters” suddenly become violent rioters without warning, and even when they do, the news media is still likely to call them “peaceful.”

Other complaints about the episode involved the President’s use of the Bible. Yup, he used it as a prop! That doesn’t offend me particularly, since the Bible is used as a prop so often that I regard that as one of its major cultural functions. Presidents, in particular, have used it as a prop; I would argue that when they are sworn into office using the Bible, it’s a prop. I particularly remember Bill Clinton holding a Bible in photo ops when he was supposedly undergoing “spiritual instruction” during Monica Madness. Trump’s Bible was standard Presidential PR. but this President isn’t allowed to use the same tools available to his predecessors.

2. If you wonder why police appear to have no idea what to do about looters, wonder no more. Read this incomprehensible print version of humming from the Police website, circa 2005. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/20/18: Cheaters And Useful Idiots

Good Morning!

1. A Whistle-blowing dilemma.The Ethicist in the New York Times Magazine is no fun anymore, now that a competent, real ethicist is answering queries rather than the previous motley assortment of Hollywood screenwriters and others of dubious qualifications. Even when I disagree with

  • “Given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay.” Ugh! A Barry Bonds excuse! So because all guilty parties aren’t apprehended, everyone should get away with wrongdoing?
  • “Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.” That’s their problem. The attitude the Ethicist identifies is 39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?” He’s correct that this will be the likely attitude of the busted cheaters, but since when did how wrongdoers rationalize their wrongdoing become mitigation?
  • “The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you.” Yes, doing the right thing often is.
  • “The burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you.” Boy, I really hate this one. It’s #18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”

This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Carried to it worst extreme, Hamm’s Excuse would eliminate all charity and much heroism, since it stands for the proposition that human beings are only responsible for alleviating problems that they were personally responsible for. In fact, the opposite is the case: human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. When those who have caused injustice or calamity either cannot, will not or do not step up to address the wrongs their actions have caused (as is too often the case), the responsibility passes to whichever of us has the opportunity and the means to make things right, or at least better.

This rationalization is named after American gymnast Paul Hamm, who adamantly refused to voluntarily surrender the Olympic gold metal he admittedly had been awarded because of an official scoring error. His justification for this consisted of repeating that it was the erring officials, not him, who were responsible for the fact that the real winner of the competition was relegated to a bronze medal when he really deserved the gold. The ethical rule to counter Hamm’s Excuse is a simple one: if there is a wrong and you are in a position to fix it, fix it.

Appiah doesn’t feel the full force of my fury because the case involves middle-school, and the questioner is a child. This is what makes it a toss-up. If this were college or grad school, I think reporting cheaters is mandatory. Appiah also says that he doesn’t care for honor codes because they are usually not followed.

Maybe I was wrong about him… Continue reading

Another Harvey Ethics Quiz On Looting….

The comments on the Ethics Quiz on shooting looters was edifying. Now let’s examine the question of “legal looting,” according to a Yale Law School professor.

In a post for Bloomberg, Stephen L. Carter argues that “Peacefully taking what you need from a supermarket isn’t the same as looting.” he writes in part,

Should we conclude that people taking food from an empty store during an emergency are not committing a crime? That’s exactly what we should conclude — they are not lawbreakers — but it’s important that we understand exactly why.

Let’s start by considering our own instincts. If I were trapped and my family was starving, I would grab the food; I suspect most readers would too. Already our instincts tell us, then, that the moral situation in which we find ourselves is different when a disaster has struck. I believe, very deeply, in the importance of strong property rules. In an emergency, however, we should interpret the rules differently…. A well-known example in the Model Penal Code posits a hiker who, trapped by a blizzard, breaks into a cabin and eats the food to survive. The hiker has taken both food and shelter without the permission of the owner. By choosing to violate a property rule rather than starve to death or die of exposure, the hiker has selected the lesser of two evils. This is one form of the defense known as “necessity,” and is generally considered to mean that there is no crime.

(You need to read the whole post to fairly consider Carter’s argument.)

Your Ethics Alarms Hurricane Harvey Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is looting an abandoned supermarket for food still a crime?

Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: Looters

Looting has been reported in Houston. There are not too many species of human detritus lower than those who take advantage of natural disasters to prey on their neighbors, so the question arises, is it ethical for a city government to order police to shoot them?

This question usually arises in the context of martial law. A curfew has in fact been declared in Houston to minimize the looting; presumably an announcement that looters will be shot on sight will be even more effective deterrence. There are good reasons to discourage looting with strong measures. The conduct threatens civilized society itself, because it is not civilized conduct. If looting becomes widespread, the rule of law is suspended, and worse crimes may follow. In a situation like Houston’s, looting also forces law enforcement to choose between rescuing property and rescuing people. If police openly make the choice to let looters loot while they devote their attention elsewhere, then Looting Season has been declared officially open.

Over the years we have occasionally heard that orders were given to shoot looters on sight, but few looters have been shot. Usually the order is enough, which suggests that the order to shoot is a bluff, but usually an effective one.

Police shoot unarmed citizens alarmingly frequently already, however: that’s one order that shouldn’t be given in jest. Presumably most looters are unarmed; I’m not going to concern myself with the question of whether armed looters can be ethically shot. The answer to that is yes, especially when they shoot at rescuers, as apparently some have in Houston. No, your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:

In a natural disaster, is the order to shoot looters on sight ethical?

Continue reading

Ethics Dunces, Ferguson Ethics Train Wreck Files, “Seriously Confused” Division: The Looters of Ferguson Market and Liquor

Ferguson Market

Ferguson Market and Liquor was looted last night, targeted by protesters demanding “justice” for Michael Brown.

I’d like someone to explain the logic of that act to me, please.  Please. That was the store where Michael Brown was captured on video shoplifting and assaulting a clerk prior to his fatal encounter with Officer Wilson.

How dare that store be robbed by an unarmed teen! No, that doesn’t work. How dare an employee be assaulted by a shooting victim! Hmmm…no, no, that’s stupid. How dare the business allow the media to mention its name in connection with the examination of whether Mike Brown was just a gentle giant who wouldn’t hurt a fly or intimidate a clerk!  That can’t be it, can it? Or is it, “Let’s honor Mike by really hurting that small business where he stole some blunts  and shoved that  little clerk!” Really?

What exactly is the theory of justice here? My mind is open, it really is. I so want to understand.

Absent a persuasive explanation, however, I must conclude that anyone who sees “justice” in punishing Michael Brown’s innocent victims, however the teen met his demise, no more understands the concept of justice than I understand string theory, and I have no interest at all in listening to such an individual’s theories, protests, or rants about a subject about which that they are not only embarrassingly ignorant, but deluded as well.

What they did is injustice. They don’t know the difference between injustice and justice, which tells me that neither they nor anyone allied with them, supporting them or sympathetic with them should be taken seriously or heeded.

And when we are told, “The police are biased against people who think looting a store is justice!,” I am compelled to answer,

“As well they should be.”

 

The Protest Ethics Check List And The Ferguson Demonstrations

APTOPIX Police Shooting Missouri

Protests are an American tradition, with protective rights enshrined in the Constitution, and a distinguished legacy that includes the Boston Tea Party and Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches and rallies. They are also perhaps the most misused and abused device in national politics. Most of them are useless, many of them are stupid, and too many of them do tangible harm.

The Obama Administration’s crisis of the hour is the Ethics Trainwreck in Ferguson, Missouri, where a perfect storm arose when an an inept, distrusted and untrustworthy police force and a poor and frustrated African-American population clashed over the Rashomon shooting of an unarmed black teen. Now there are demonstrations every day in Ferguson; several people have been killed, and the demonstrations have spawned rioting and looting.

What is the purpose of all of this? It better be a good one, given its cost, and the protesters better be right. The problem is that the protesters can’t possibly be right at this point, because the facts aren’t known. We are told that the reason for the demonstrations is larger than mere anger over the shooting of Michael Brown; that it’s about police harassment, abuse and violence against African-Americans and their lack of accountability for it. That would only be a sustainable justification if in fact the death of Brown was an unequivocal, clear-cut example of the phenomenon being protested. It is not, not yet, and it may never be. So again the question has to be asked: is it ethical to be protesting in Ferguson at all? Continue reading

Comment of The Day…And An Ethics Quiz, Too! : “Ethics Quiz: The United Airlines Give-Away”

"Oh, this piece of junk? Yeah, who knows who its supposed to be---some guy named Veal or Beale or something painted it, I think. It's been in the attic. Make me an offer!"

“Oh, this piece of junk? Yeah, who knows who it’s supposed to be—some guy named Veal or Beale or something painted it, I think. It’s been in the attic. Make me an offer!”

The Ethics Quiz regarding whether or not it was unethical to take full advantage of United Airlines’  accidental fire sale on tickets spawned several good hypotheticals, including this one, from Tyrone T., an occasional Ethics Alarms commenter who, I happen to know, thinks about these matters as his occupation. I know the answer to this one (I’ve seen it before), so I’ll hold off until you’ve thought about it a while.

Here is Tyrone T.’s Comment of the Day on the post “Ethics Quiz: The United Airlines Give-Away”:

“So, if you are hired by your client to find the cheapest fare, can you act ethically and refuse to take advantage of the error? Consider the following:

“Alexander Mundy is a lawyer and an acknowledged expert in American painting. He has several clients who regularly retain him to negotiate the purchase of museum quality art. Recently, a client hired Mundy to negotiate the purchase of a portrait of George Washington as a young man.

“The client explained, ‘I saw it on a house tour five years ago and tried to buy it then, but the woman who owned it said it was a family heirloom and wasn’t interested in selling. I heard that she died recently and her husband is having an Estate Sale. You have authority to purchase the painting for up to $500,000.’

“Mundy goes to visit the old widower and asks whether he would be willing to sell ‘that picture of the young man there.’ Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The United Airlines Give-Away

"Hey everybody! Free fights!!!"

“Hey everybody! Free fights!!!”

Via Forbes:

“For fifteen tense minutes on Thursday afternoon, United Airlines’ fare booking engine was operating at full steam. Someone, likely a Flyertalk user, noticed that fares between Washington DC and Minneapolis were pricing at $10 and posted his finding onto the forum. Attention grew rapidly, with over 100 replies in just an hour, and the news spread to Twitter. The glitch in the system appeared to offer $0 fares plus $5 in tax for many domestic flights, and was apparently caused by human error. Some forum readers reported finding $10 flights between Washington DC and Hawaii, while others scooped up over a dozen tickets to destinations all over the country.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Week,

(as if you couldn’t guess), is:

Was it ethical for people to take advantage of this computer glitch and purchase tickets at an impossible discount?

I bet you also know what my answer is. Continue reading

Media Ethics and Haiti

  • Rebecca Solnit has written a powerful piece questioning the news media’s accounts of “looting” in Haiti. She argues that people in the midst of a disaster with a breakdown of infrastructure and government assistance are acting reasonably and justifiably when they take food and other necessities from abandoned stores. She believes that media accounts emphasizing looting warp the public perception of what is happening, vilifies the victims of the disaster, and prompts excessive measures against the “looters,” who are only trying to survive. She has a point. You can read her whole piece here.
  • There is something oppressive and coercive when so many networks and cable channels interrupt regular programming to carry a telethon, as they did last night. It turns an appeal for help into a demand for help. Continue reading