Tag Archives: moral luck

Comment Of The Day: “More Ethics Observations On The United Flight 3411 Ethics Train Wreck”

Public discussion and media reports is finally waning regarding United’s cascading botch of a full and fully seated flight in which the airline wanted to get four seats back and had neither the law, nor policy, nor sufficient justification to acquire them. Thus its agents lied, exceeded their authority, mistreated a passenger, called in police, and they further escalated the fiasco, badly injuring the victim in the process. (Their conduct was similar in some ways to that of the police officers who killed Eric Garner.)

Even now, however, many people still believe this arose from an overbooked flight. Some misguided pundits are still blaming Dr. Dao. The news media has not taken responsibility for its terrible reporting on this incident, and still hasn’t done a good job explaining what really happened. Meanwhile, Delta has taken advantage of United’s pain by announcing that it will pay up to $10,000 to bumped passengers in the future. And Southwestern won itself an all time record for audacious cheekiness with the above ad, which United deserves. [UPDATE: Apparently this is a hoax, not a real ad. Too bad.]

Here is brian’s Comment of the Day on this ethics train wreck in the sky:

The I don’t think you’re being overly cynical here. I have seen multiple responses from media, politicians, and the CEO all following the basic pattern, propose solutions that do not address what went wrong. A handful of employees acted incompetently, and United (and probably most airlines) didn’t think through their carriage contract, police were ill trained, and the culture of United is horrible in general. But instead of addressing any of those issues, they all have motivated reasons to misconstrue the issues and offer ‘solutions’ to problems that don’t exist.

Things that could be done:

1) CEO comes out and says we are going to train and empower our staff to deal with more and varied types of situations as they arise. We also recognize that our current customer facing staff do not have the appropriate level of customer service training, which is entirely the fault of management. We are going to fix this starting now. We have pulled together XYZ resources and will be meeting weekly for the next 12 weeks to generate a comprehensive plan to begin changing our culture. You can expect an interim report in 4 weeks.

2) CEO says, we are going to set up a true reverse auction, paying cash, for all situations when we have to either remove or deny a paying customer due to reasons beyond their control. We will train all gate staff and front line managers on how to conduct this easy and straight forward auction. We should have been doing it already, because the value of the additional seats we can sell by overbooking far outweigh the costs we incur from the small portion of riders who we must justly compensate for any inconvenience.

Continue reading

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More Ethics Observations On The United Flight 3411 Ethics Train Wreck

Yes, Ethics Alarms was able to find a photo of an actual plane-train wreck.

Observation 1.

This was all due to moral luck

If  four passengers had taken the United offer to surrender their seats, or if the passenger selected by the agent had complied, grumbling quietly, we would neither know about this horrific episode nor would anyone be talking about it. Yet the United employees would still have lied, and would still have abused United customers. They just didn’t get away with it, that’s all. They were unlucky.

Good.

Observation II

NOW passengers are informed.

Fine print is technical disclosure, but especially in the era of electronic ticketing, not actual or ethical disclosure. Before this episode, most flyers didn’t know what they had agreed to regarding overbooking, nor were they even aware that there was such a thing as “involuntary bumping” A lot more are aware now. From travel site One Mile At A Time:

When an airline knows that a flight is likely to be oversold, they’re required to solicit volunteers. Sometimes airlines will ask at check-in, and other times they’ll ask at the gate. When it comes to a voluntary denied boarding there are no regulations as to what you get….

When airlines can’t find volunteers and still have more passengers than seats, they need to involuntarily deny people boarding. Every airline has a clause in their contract of carriage allowing them to do this. Furthermore, airlines all have procedures they use for determining who gets bumped. Some airlines bump the people who don’t have seat assignments. Other airlines decide based on who checked in last. Others decide based on status and the booking class you have.

Do note that the number of passengers being involuntarily denied boarding was at a 20 year low in 2016. Out of roughly 660 million passengers last year, only 40,000 were involuntarily denied boarding, which is roughly 0.6 involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 seats.

If you’re involuntarily denied boarding, the Department of Transportation regulates what you’re entitled to. Here are the rules, as published by the DOT:

  • If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
  • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).
  • If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
  • You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an “involuntary refund” for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience.
  • If you paid for optional services on your original flight (e.g., seat selection, checked baggage) and you did not receive those services on your substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that bumped you must refund those payments to you.

As you can see, in many cases you’re entitled to a sizable cash payment, up to $1,350. However, here’s the dirty secret of the airlines. In a vast majority of cases they’ll only offer cash compensation if you specifically ask for it. Otherwise they’ll offer you the same voucher they gave anyone who was voluntarily denied boarding.

Note, however, that none of this involves taking people who have already been seated off of the plane. That’s because bumping doesn’t work that way, and also because the United flight in question wasn’t overbooked, as discussed below. Continue reading

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A Facebook Case Study In How People Cripple Their Ability, And Ours, To Make Ethical Distinctions

I inadvertently stumbled over a provocative Facebook post by a friend of a friend of a friend. My friend is a principled and intelligent liberal: apparently I stumbled on to a chain where each link was a little more detached from reality and reason.

The stranger’s post involved the story from two weeks ago, in the aftermath of the collapse of a crucial  highway bridge in Atlanta. Investigators found the the collapse was caused by a fire.There were no deaths or injuries caused by the fire and the explosion it sparked , but i  severed the vital roadway that runs north-south through downtown Atlanta and carries 250,000 vehicles daily, City Fire Department investigators arrested three homeless people on suspicion of involvement in the fire. Eventually only one was charged:  Basil Eleby, a homeless man, was arraigned on charges of first-degree arson and criminal damage to property. He had many previous drug and assault arrests, according to Fulton County jail records.

To this my friend’s friend’s friend—his name doesn’t matter—responded,

Three people are now under arrest for the fire that led to the freeway collapse in Atlanta – 3 homeless people. I predicted this. But rather than seek out revenge on these 3 for the tremendous inconvenience they’ve caused, can we take a moment to realize that no person reading this has ever known the reality of sleeping under a bridge. None of us have been compelled to light a fire under that same bridge in order to keep our bodies warm.

And can we please have a conversation about funding mental health for the homeless? And can we please have a conversation, not based in shame, not based in revenge, about getting homeless people off the street?

Yes, these 3 folks have done something that has inconvenienced many people. Lighting that fire is something they have probably done countless times before. Can we take this as an opportunity to deal with the real problem? It gives me no satisfaction that the person charged with the worst of this situation will have his homelessness solved by a jail sentence.

Now, I’m sure this individual is a really kind, compassionate individual. I’m also sure he’s the kind of person who is always saying things like “Why is anyone going hungry in the richest country in the world?” to the vigorous head-nodding of his friends, and his friends’ friends. (I am willing to bet money that he was a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter; probably Occupy Wall Street too.) This kind of statement, however, is policy and ethics static. It literally makes people stupid, and leads them away from useful, objective, dispassionate analysis, not towards it.  It is an irresponsible Facebook post.

Of course, it is also flagrant virtue-signalling and grandstanding. Now everyone knows that this guy is oh so compassionate and such a good Christian, who rejects revenge, and wants us to apply the Golden Rule to the poor and the weak. Applause, please. Yes, you’re a wonderful human being. Unfortunately, thinking like this impedes policy solutions to problems, by simplifying them and dumbing them down into their most emotionally distracting components, while pretending that hard truths don’t exist. Continue reading

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Ethics Quote Of The Month: Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein

“That is ridiculous. The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It’s baseball–a pastime involving a lot of chance. If [Ben] Zobrist’s ball is three inches farther off the line, I’m on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan.”

—-Theo Epstein, president of the Major League Baseball’s 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs, upon learning that Fortune Magazine had chosen him #1 among “The World’s Greatest Leaders” in a click-bait list released last week.

Thank-you, Theo, for explaining moral luck and the perils of consequentialism to the public. When it came down to the final innings of Game 7 in last year’s World Series, it looked for a while like Cubs manager Joe Maddon was about to blow the chance to win an elusive title after over a century of frustration by keeping his clearly gassed closer on the game. That his risky decision didn’t make Maddon a goat for the ages and Epstein one more name in the long list of Cubs saviors was pure moral luck—the element of chance that often distinguished heroes from villains. winners from losers and geniuses from fools in the public’s mind—and gross consequentialism, judging decisions by their uncontrollable results rather than their objectively judged wisdom and ethics at the time they were made.

If the Cleveland Indians had won that crucial game in extra-inning, no matter how, Epstein might have made Fortune’s list (I doubt it), but he would have been nowhere near the top. Continue reading

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Ethics Hero Emeritus Desmond Doss, And “Hacksaw Ridge,”

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Desmond Doss, who died on March 23, 2006 at the age of 87,  was the very first hero to be enshrined in the Ethics Alarms Hall of Heroes. I wrote about him before there was an Ethics Alarms, shortly after he died.  I had never heard of Doss before, and I remember being angry that I had never heard of him. Everyone should know about him. There literally are no Americans who were any more heroic, and whose ethical conduct was any more astounding, than Desmond Doss.

If the values of this nation, and especially Hollywood, were healthy and correctly aligned, he would be a household name, and the film about his World War II heroism would have been made long ago. Finally “Hacksaw Ridge” was produced in 2016, and has been nominated for an Academy Award, although it will never win.

When I first read about Doss, I couldn’t get my mind around what he had done to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only conscientious objector ever to achieve that honor during combat. During the battle of Okinawa, we were told that he survived heavy enemy fire as he struggled to carry seventy-five wounded soldiers to the sheer cliff at Hacksaw Ridge, personally picking up each one and lowering them over the edge the cliff 400 feet to safety.   How is that possible? Now that I’ve seen the film, it still seems impossible.

Desmond Doss proved that principled opposition to violence against his fellow human beings need  not be based on fear, self-interest or self-preservation. It is often impossible to tell whether those who oppose armed combat really object to the spilling of all human blood in battle, or only their own. With Desmond Doss, there was never any doubt. He didn’t like the term “conscientious objector,” preferring the term “conscientious cooperator.” He enlisted in the army following Pearl Harbor, believing that the war against the Axis had to be fought and wanted to be part of the war effort despite believing, as a devout a Seventh Day Adventist, that it was a sin to kill, with no exceptions. Thus he refused to carry a rifle (or shoot one, even in training) but yet insisted that he be involved in combat as a battlefield medic. He achieved conscientious objector status  but would hot accept a deferment. Assigned to the 307th Infantry Division as a company medic, Doss was hazed, abused and  ridiculed  for his dedication to non-violence, and as the Mel Gibson-directed film shows, many of his tormentors eventually owed their lives to his astonishing heroism. All of his compatriots were amazed by his evident fearlessness under fire and remarkable dedication to duty, never hesitating to go after a wounded soldier no matter what the personal risk. As a combat medic on Guam and at Leyte in the Philippines, Doss had already been awarded the Bronze Star  before the three-day battle at Hacksaw Ridge.

Many of the soldiers in Doss’s 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division were driven off the ridge by a furious Japanese counter-attack, and  wounded G.I.s were stranded atop it. Doss remained with the wounded, and, according to his Medal of Honor citation refused to seek cover, carrying them, one by one, to the edge of the ridge in the face of enemy fire, some of them from behind enemy lines. He lowered each man on a rope-supported litter he improvised on the spot, using double bowline knots he had learned as a youngster and tying the makeshift litter to a tree stump to serve as an anchor. Every wounded man was lowered to a safe spot 35 feet below the ridge top by the 145 pound medic. Finally, Doss came down the ridge himself, incredibly, unharmed. Continue reading

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Ethics Observations On The 2017 Hall Of Fame Vote

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Baseball’s Hall of Fame votes were announced yesterday, and is often the case, the ethical issues raised were as interesting as the choices. The Baseball Writers Association Of America chooses who is to be enshrined; successful candidates must be on 75% of all ballots submitted, and have ten years of edibility after the initial 5 year waiting period expires.

Here were the vote totals of the players receiving significant support; the years each player has been on the ballot is the last number.

Jeff Bagwell 381 (86.2%)  (7)

Tim Raines 380 (86.0%) (10)

Ivan Rodriguez 336 (76.0%) (1)

Trevor Hoffman 327 (74.0%) (2)

Vladimir Guerrero 317 (71.7%) (1)

Edgar Martinez 259 (58.6%) (8)

Roger Clemens 239 (54.1%) (5)

Barry Bonds 238 (53.8%) (5)

Mike Mussina 229 (51.8%) (4)

Curt Schilling 199 (45.0%) (5)

Manny Ramirez 105 (23.8%) (1)

Bagwell, Raines and Rodriguez were elected. Hoffman, the all-time leader in relief pitcher saves, just missed, and will almost certainly get into the Hall next year.

Ethics Observations:

1. More than anything, it is discouraging to see Barry Bonds crossing the 50% threshold. Bonds cheated, took the integrity out of some of baseball’s most important records, has lied about it to this day, and corrupted the game. Of course he is disqualified by the character requirements for entrance to the Hall. Bond’s vote total rise is attributed to several factors, including the old, unethical rationalizations we have been reading in defense of Bonds since he was playing. The latest excuses include the influx of younger voters who never saw Bonds nor witnessed the grotesquely inflated mutant he turned himself into, more voters throwing up their hands in frustration over the problem of sifting through so many players whose PED use is rumored, likely, or insufficiently proven, and voters who find the Hall’s recent election of former commissioner Bud Selig hypocritical, since he contrived ignorance to allow Bonds and others break the rules as long as possible. None of those excuses and rationalizations justify a single vote for Bonds.

2. Ivan Rodriquez‘s election also probably helped Bonds. He was one of the greatest catchers of all time, quite possibly the greatest defensive catcher, but in Jose Canseco’s first baseball and steroid tell-all book, “Juiced,” the steroidal slugger wrote of personally injecting I-Rod with the stuff while they were Texas Rangers. The catcher never tested positive in a drug test, but Canseco’s accusation was credible, especially after Rodriquez magically gained about 25 pound of muscle and started hitting home runs. Unlike Bonds, however, the evidence against him was slim.  Jose, for example, is one of the great slime-balls in sports history. He may not be a liar, but since he admittedly wrote hisbook out of spite, he might be.

3. Ivan, in turn, was helped by the election of Jeff Bagwell. No player ever pinned steroid use on him, but Bagwell was judged a steroid-user by many because he became so muscular after starting out as a normally-built third baseman. Bagwell lifted weighs like a fiend, and clearly had a Hall of Fame level career, so keeping him out purely on suspicion seemed unfair, and was. His election slipped down the slope to boost Rodriquez, though, which in turn allowed some writers to rationalize voting for Bonds (and Roger Clemens, not as clearly guilty as Bonds, more seriously implicated than Rodriguez). Continue reading

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Ethics Quote Of The Month: Secretary Of State John Kerry

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“…I’m proud of all the efforts we made to try to lead people to a peaceful resolution.”

John Kerry, in an interview on MSNBC, when asked if he had any regrets about the Administration’s handling of Syria;

The Sec. of State’s full answer:

Well again, Andrea, I’m going to have a lot of opportunities to be able to look back and digest what choices might have been made. I’m not going to do it now… Except to say to you, very clearly, that I’m proud of all the efforts we made to try to lead people to a peaceful resolution. And in fact, the only solution to Syria will be a peaceful agreement along the lines of what we laid out… and the several communiques that we issued, and the United Nations resolution that we passed. 2254. Those will be the basis for whatever happens, if they get there.

No, I’m not going to call Kerry’s statement an unethical quote, even as close as it came to making my head explode. Fortunately my expectations of John Kerry are basement-level low, from long experience. However, the latest fatuous sentiment from this veteran doofus is provocative and instructive.

In many pursuits, as we discuss here often, whether someone has done the right thing, made the ethical choice, should be evaluated on the basis of whether the conduct was competently considered and arrived at according to facts and ethical considerations before the conduct commenced. Judging its ethical nature  afterwards, when factors the decision-maker could not have foreseen or controlled have affected the result, is a fallacy: “It all worked out for the best” and thus the decision must have been ethical. This is consequentialism, and “the ends justifies the means” in its most seductive form.

A very recent example was the Republican leadership’s decision not to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. No, the tactic wasn’t unconstitutional or illegal. It was unethical, however: obstructive, partisan politics defying tradition and fairness. It was also, as I pointed out at the time, stupid. When Obama, knowing of the GOP’s intent, appointed not a flame-breathing left-wing zealot but a moderate-liberal judge of impressive credentials, the GOP majority in the Senate should have rushed to confirm him, knowing well that a nomination by Obama’s presumed successor, Hillary Clinton, would unbalance the Court to a far greater degree.

The GOP lucked out, as we now know. Now President Trump will fill that vacancy on the Court, with major impact on important legal disputes for decades to come. That’s all moral luck, however. The ethics verdict on the conduct still stands. It worked, but it was wrong.

Success is not irrelevant to ethics, of course. Many jobs are ethically complex because getting a desired result is part of the mission. The result and the manner of achieving it are important. If your job is to win the war, you can’t say you did an excellent job if the war was lost. Competence is still an ethical value. A successful CEO’s company does not go belly-up by definition. Government is often analogized to sailing a ship to a destination, or flying a plane, with good reason. Part of the responsibility a government leader has is to make choices that work to the benefit of  those governed, and others as well. A captain whose ship sinks cannot say afterwards, “I did one hell of a job.” Continue reading

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