Tag Archives: mass murderers

From The “It’s No Fun Being An Ethicist” Files: I Offend Some Seminar Attendees…

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I facilitated a professional ethics seminar a while ago for a scholarly institution, (The locale, names and client have been changed to protect the guilty.) The discussion came around to rationalizations and my favorite on the list, #22:

22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.

Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.

In this case I did a sarcastic riff that is usually well received, about the common example of #22, “It’s not like he killed somebody”:

“Well, you can’t argue with that logic, can you? And if he did kill somebody, it’s not like he killed two people. And even then, that’s not as bad as being, say, a serial killer, like Son of Sam, who, when you think about it, isn’t nearly as bad as a mass murderer like Osama bin Laden. But he’s not as bad as Hitler, and even Adolf isn’t as bad as Mao, who killed about ten times more people than Hitler did. And Mao’s no so bad when you compare him to Darth Vader, who blew up Princess Leia’s whole planet…”

It made the point, and the audience laughed. Then, quite a bit later, I received an e-mail from a participant, complaing about this section. Can you guess what the complaint was?

Think about it a bit…

Time’s up!

Do you have an answer? Continue reading

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Filed under Around the World, Daily Life, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Etiquette and manners, Government & Politics, History, Professions, The Internet

ALL ABOARD! The Elliot Rodger Ethics Train Wreck Is Leaving Rationality Station!

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Wait…I think I’ve seen this wreck before!

Richard Hernandez’s enraged rant at the National Rifle Association for getting three people stabbed to death by Elliot Rodger signaled that this mass killing would  be exploited to the max by a succession of unscrupulous and/or irrational activists, social critics, and pundits, and, as my son used to say before he stopped respecting the French, “Voilà!

The burgeoning ethics train wreck looks like it might be even more infuriating than most, though nothing, ever, will be able to top the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman Ethics Express for pure, widespread, unethical lunacy. Early indications are that the usual suspects will try to wring lessons from the crazed acts of a very unusual, spectacularly deranged, unsympathetic creep as if the fair and obvious answer isn’t there for all to see who are objective and smart enough to perceive it: this one mad act proves nothing. Not about the U.S., men, not about whites, not about guns, not about law, not about Hollywood. Nothing.

It’s a big country, and there’s lots of time before climate change destroys us all or something else does first. The attack of Elliot Roger is the opposite of signature significance, an utterly meaningless convergence of factors with fewer lessons to teach than other odd but deadly events, like the Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, or the St. Pierre Snake Invasion of 1905. He means nothing, and should be shunted aside to obscurity as quietly and quickly as possible, so his undeserved notoriety doesn’t set off differently motivated but similarly unhinged sociopaths who are teetering on the brink. Unfortunately, that would require journalists, politicians and single-issue fanatics to be fair, logical and responsible. Continue reading

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Filed under Citizenship, Ethics Train Wrecks, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Health and Medicine, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, Race, Research and Scholarship, U.S. Society