Tag Archives: “mistakes were made”

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

mao

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

76 Comments

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

Unethical Quote Of The Week: Josh Barro

“‘If you like your health plan, you can keep it’ was never a reasonable promise; health reform that addressed America’s combination of high cost, middling outcomes and spotty coverage was necessarily going to have to change a lot of people’s health plans. So yes, that statement is proving false — and it’s a good thing.”

—–Josh Barro in Business Insider, joining the ranks of the untrustworthy while discussing the unfolding realities of the Affordable Care Act.

Or as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius would say: "Whatever."

Or as HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius would say: “Whatever.”

James Taranto has catalogued several more disgraceful efforts to deny the undeniable—that President Obama’s assertion that nothing in the Affordable Care Act would cause any American to lose a plan that he liked was a calculated and intentional lie—thus adding those individuals to the growing list of people Americans should never pay heed to again on any topic, because they have proven themselves to lack integrity and are thus untrustworthy.

Among them: New York Times pundit David Firestone, James Carville (I’m shocked!), Time’s Kate Pickert, and my friend Jason Linkins over at the Huffington Post, a funny, smart man who ought to be ashamed of himself.  The comments that most alarmed me, however, were those of another addition to the list, commentator Josh Barro. “The statement is proving false” is a particularly loathsome version of “mistakes were made,” which attempts to remove the human being responsible from identification and accountability. Obama’s statement isn’t changing or doing anything. Barro’s dishonest phrasing denies the fact of human agency. Obama made a promise regarding matters that he had complete control over in every way, and that promise was false when it was made. By him. The President could have guaranteed that his promise would be kept by refusing to sign a bill that didn’t make certain, through its provisions, that it would be kept. In fact, he has known all along (or has no excuse for not knowing)that millions of Americans wouldn’t be able to keep the plans they wanted to. The promise isn’t “proving false;” it was always false.

As for Barro’s airy declaration that the fact that it is “proving false” is a good thing, this is essentially an endorsement of lying as tool of public manipulation. Lying to the public is never a good thing, and a President lying to the public is a terrible thing. That so many of President Obama’s allies and supporters, like Barro, endorse lying and shamelessly so if it achieves ends that they happen to believe are beneficial should set off not merely ethics alarms, but democracy and republic alarms. Self-government cannot flourish or even survive when this kind of conduct by elected leaders becomes commonplace and accepted.

Although I have seen scant evidence of it so far, I hope that the progressives, Democrats, journalists and others who are now discarding all semblance of honesty and objective reasoning to rationalize away the President’s words in this episode recognize that their obligations to their illusions and ideologies must be secondary to their duties to the culture, fellow citizens, American values and the nation. Many of these desperate deniers are my friends, some are my family. I call on them to stop amplifying a lie and excusing betrayal. You’re disillusioned—I accept that. I’ve been in your position. It is devastating when those you have admired, believed, and tied your own credibility to show themselves to be unworthy of that trust, and abuse it. But denial makes the consequences of that conduct worse, and indeed ratifies it and guarantees that it will continue. This is cowardly and irresponsible. You are better than that; the country is better than that. This is not a culture that has embraced the concept of “the King can do no wrong,” indeed, the Constitution and the Declaration are predicated on the truth than leaders are fallible.

The President lied to everyone, and that is not “a good thing.” It is something that should never be trivialized nor allowed to pass without serious, meaningful consequences, and there can be no consequences when good and intelligent people abdicate their duty of self-government, which includes the duty of oversight, to protect the wrongdoers. All the polls say that we want our government to be trustworthy. Well, it can’t be trustworthy if we excuse its lies. For the government to be trustworthy, we have to be trustworthy too. We have to be able to trust each other not to aid the lies we are told, and to confront the liars.

It’s not too late.

______________

Pointer and Source:Forbes, Business InsiderWall Street Journal

32 Comments

Filed under Character, Citizenship, Ethics Train Wrecks, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Leadership, U.S. Society