The Forgiveness Of Victoria Ruvolo

I’m not great on forgiveness; it’s not one of my virtues. I especially don’t forgive betrayal, but there are other kinds of behavior that I don’t forgive. There are three local theater companies in the D.C. area that I will go out of my way to undermine and if possible, destroy, for the disgusting culture they revealed to me when I had the misfortune to work with them. When my son was four, a local T.G.I.F. that we often frequented treated our family like bugs, then using the excuse that they were short-staffed (their problem, not mine) and offering me a coupon to entice me to come to their crappy restaurant again when it had just given us a humiliating experience. I told the manager to keep his sop, and that we would never set foot in his restaurant again, and we never have. My son is now 24. My problem with  unearned forgiveness is that it diminishes the appreciation of accountability. The fact that when you behave unethically people resent it and no longer trust you is a powerful motivation to be better.

Victoria Ruvolo, who died last week at the age of 59, disagreed. Here is her own description of what happened to her. Her journey began when on November 12, 2004, when six teenagers in Ronkonkoma, New York bought a 20 pound turkey with a stolen credit card. 18 year-old Ryan Cushing threw the frozen-solid bird out of a back seat window, and it crashed through the windshield of the car driven by  Victoria Ruvolo’s and crushed her face.  Her passenger managed to steer the car to the side of the road. Ruvolo awoke in a hospital several weeks later with no knowledge of what had happened. The missile  had broken the bones in her cheeks and jaw, fractured her left eye socket, collapsed her esophagus and left her with a closed-head brain injury.

Later, she wrote, Continue reading

Afternoon Ethics Warm-Up, 3/26/19: The “What’s Going On Here?” Edition

Hello, Spring!

1. On the down side, “The Smollett Report” Explain this one: Attorneys for “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett announced today that all charges against him have been dropped.Smollett was indicted on 16 felony counts related to making a false report that he was attacked by two men. The two men were found and implicated Smollett, and the evidence that it was hoax appeared overwhelming.  A minimum condition of dropping cases requires some acceptance of responsibility, but the actor still professes that he’s innocent. “I’ve been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one,” he said.

What’s going on here? I have no idea, but the word “Chicago” keeps popping up in my head.”

2. Talk about a parallel universe! I had never seen this [Pointer: Althouse]: President Obama’s statement after the 2016 election:

“You take the baton, you run your best race, and hopefully, by the time you hand it off, you’re a little further ahead. You made a little progress. I want to make sure that hand-off is well executed because, ultimately, we’re all on the same team….

Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage. We’re not Democrats first. We’re not Republicans first. We are Americans first.

This was a long and hard-fought campaign. A lot of our fellow Americans are exultant today. A lot of Americans are less so, but that’s the nature of campaigns. That’s the nature of democracy. It is hard and sometimes contentious and noisy. It’s not always inspiring.”

“Sometimes you lose an argument. Sometimes you lose an election. We try really hard to persuade people that we’re right, and then people vote, and then we lose. We learn from our mistakes. We do some reflection. We lick our wounds. We brush ourselves off. We get back in the arena. We go at it. We try even harder the next time.”

Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms Moral Luck And Butterfly Effect Files: Geoffrey Tandy And The False But Fun Story Of How An Ignorant Typo Won World War II

Some pretty cryptogams…

Bear with me: This is a fascinating story, but not exactly the story I thought it was.

Yesterday my wife and I watched an episode of the Travel Channel’s Mysteries of the Museum, a historical oddities and trivia show that explores the stories behind museum exhibits around the world. Grace is a student of World War II history and is especially interested in the work at Bletchley Park, where the top secret work on breaking German codes went on, including the exploits of Alan Turing, the eccentric genius who broke the Enigma Code and managed to invent the computer in the process. The episode was advertised as the amazing and little-known tale of how a typographical error won World War II.

The story: Geoffrey Tandy was the British Museum’s “seaweed man,” and a certifiable eccentric. For one thing, he was a bigamist, heading two families that were not aware of each other.  Tandy was also pals with poet T.S. Elliot, and more fond of writing esoterica than scholarly papers. Some typist somewhere along the line in his personnel paper work had misconstrued Tandy’s area of expertise, which was cryptogams,  primitive seedless plants such as algae and lichens, as cryptograms, which are ciphers and codes. Thus papers circulated the wartime bureaucracy stating the marine biologist was really an ace code breaker. This got the puzzled algae specialist mistakenly assigned to Bletchley, where he was a fish out of water, or a lichen out of his element, or something. The real code-breakers quickly figured out that Tandy was useless, but since nobody was supposed to know what was going on in the old building, he was stuck. Tandy spent two years filing papers and making tea.

Then, just like Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, unforeseen events conspired to make his special abilities crucial. Several sodden notebooks holding vital clues, including Bigram Tables, to the mysteries of the German Enigma code were recovered from a sunken U-boat.  Unfortunately but understandably, they were soaked through with sea water, and apparently damaged beyond repairing. Tandy, however, knew an old cryptogam trick he had used to preserve tiny marine algae! Obtaining special absorbent papers from the museum, Tandy was able to carefully blot and dry the sodden pages, making them readable. As hoped, they yielded the crucial missing information Turing needed to break Enigma, acknowledged by all as a turning point in the war, as well as a Turing point. Continue reading

The Complete “It’s A Wonderful Life” Ethics Guide, Updated And With A New Introduction For 2018

Once again I am posting the Ethics Alarms Ethics Guide to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece “It’s A Wonderful Life,” perhaps the greatest ethics movies of all time, as this blog’s official welcome to the holiday season. The film is commonly thought of as a Christmas movie, but it really is a Thanksgiving story. Unfortunately, the movie is so well known, so much imitated, so familiar in its tropes and cliches that we really don’t think about it very hard. We should.

The movie is exactly the kind of important shared cultural touch-point that I am advocating when I emphasize the importance of cultural literacy to our nation’s connective tissue. The film teaches about values, family, sacrifice and human failings unlike any other: its power and uniqueness disproves the assertion, made in one online debate here this year, that new cultural creations inevitably and effectively supersede older ones. No, they really don’t, and like copies of copies, eventually the cultural values conveyed get fainter and less influential. “It’s A Wonderful Life” would be an excellent basis for a middle school ethics course. I haven’t seen a better, richer film for that purpose come along since, and I’ve been looking.

I am also constantly amazed at how many people haven’t seen the movie. My son’s girlfriend admitted that she hadn’t at dinner today. A few months ago I gave a DVD to a pharmacist at our local CVS after I made a reference to the film and he had no idea what I was talking about. He said he would wait until the holidays to watch it with his family. I hope he does: he left the job soon after. There are some classic movies that parents have an obligation to make sure their children see. This is one. Despite the many ethics complexities and nuances that the film glosses over or distorts, its basic, core message is crucial to all human beings, and needs to be hammered into our skulls at regular intervals, far more often than once a year.

What I wrote about this message in an earlier posting of this opus still seems right to me:

Everyone’s life does touch many others, and everyone has played a part in the chaotic ordering of random occurrences for good. Think about the children who have been born because you somehow were involved in the chain of events that linked their parents. And if you can’t think of something in your life that has a positive impact on someone–although there has to have been one, and probably many—then do something now. It doesn’t take much; sometimes a smile and a kind word is enough. Remembering the lessons of “It’s a Wonderful Life” really can make life more wonderful, and not just for you.

I wondered about posting the guide again this year, as this feels like a year in which Ethics Alarms lost old readers rather than gained new ones. Then I read it again, and it reminded me of some important things I had forgotten, and I wrote it. I also, as is my yearly habit, edited and added to the commentary a bit. I’m smarter this year than I was last year, and I bet you are too…especially if you’ve been reading Ethics Alarms, just from figuring out how I’m wrong.

I hope you all had a terrific Thanksgiving, and that the holiday season is joyous for all.

And here we go:

1. “If It’s About Ethics, God Must Be Involved”

The movie begins in heaven, represented by twinkling stars. There is no way around this, as divine intervention is at the core of the fantasy. Heaven and angels were big in Hollywood in the Forties. The framing of the tale seems to advance the anti-ethical idea, central to many religions, that good behavior on earth will be rewarded in the hereafter, bolstering the theory that without God and eternal rewards, doing good is pointless.

Yet in the end, it is an ethics movie, not a religious one. George lives a (mostly) ethical life, not out of any religious conviction, but because step by step, crisis after crisis, he chooses to place the welfare of others, especially his community and family, above his own needs and desires. No reward is promised to him, and he momentarily forgets why we act ethically, until he is reminded. Living ethically is its own reward.

We are introduced to George Bailey, who, we are told, is in trouble and has prayed for help. One has to wonder about people like George, who resort to prayer as a last resort, but they don’t seem to hold it against him in Heaven. The heavenly authorities assign an Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Oddbody, to handle the case..He is, we learn later, something of a second rate angel as well as a 2nd Class one, so it is interesting that whether or not George is in fact saved will be entrusted to less than Heaven’s best. Some lack of commitment, there— perhaps because George has not been “a praying man.” This will teach him—sub-par service! Good luck, George!

2. Extra Credit for Moral Luck

George’s first ethical act is saving his brother, Harry, from drowning, an early exhibition of courage, caring and sacrifice. The sacrifice part is that the childhood episode costs George the hearing in one ear. He doesn’t really deserve extra credit for this, as it was not a conscious trade of his hearing for Harry’s young life, but he gets it anyway, just as soldiers who are wounded in battle receive more admiration and accolades than those who are not. Yet this is only moral luck. A wounded hero is no more heroic than a unwounded one, and may be less competent as well as less lucky. (This is not an observation that one should make in public, as President Trump learned when he made a lifetime enemy of John McCain.)

3.  The Confusing Drug Store Incident.

George Bailey’s next ethical act is when he saves the life of another child by not delivering a bottle of pills that had been inadvertently poisoned by his boss, the druggist, Mr. Gower, who is addled by grief and drink after learning about the death of his own son. George’s act is nothing to get too excited over, really—if George had knowingly delivered poisoned pills, he would have been more guilty than the druggist, who was only careless. What do we call someone who intentionally delivers poison that he knows will be mistaken for medication? A murderer, that’s what.  We’re supposed to admire George for not committing murder.

Mr. Gower, at worst, would be guilty of negligent homicide. George saves him from that fate when he saves the child, but if he really wanted to show exemplary ethics, he should have reported the incident to authorities. Mr. Gower is not a trustworthy pharmacist—he was also the beneficiary of moral luck. He poisoned a child’s pills through inattentiveness. If his customers knew that, would they keep getting their drugs from him? Should they? A professional whose errors are potentially deadly must not dare the fates by working when his or her faculties are impaired by illness, sleeplessness or, in Gower’s case, grief and alcohol.

One could take the position that Mr. Gower “just made one mistake.” But trustworthy professionals don’t get to make such mistakes, not and still be trusted the next time. Trust is easily destroyed, and should be.

Mr. Gower also slaps George on the head several times. Today hitting a child like that is regarded as child abuse by a parent; when another adult hits a child, it’s grounds for arrest. This is one of many examples of evolving societal ethics in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” When the film was made, Mr. Gower’s conduct in beating a child employee was considered forgivable. If the local pharmacist slapped my son, I’d swear out a criminal complaint, and he still might end up shambling bum like Mr. Gower in the film’s alternate reality section.

4. The Uncle Billy Problem.

As George grows up, we see that he is loyal and respectful to his father. That’s admirable. What is not admirable is that George’s father, who has fiduciary duties as the head of a Building and Loan, has placed his brother Billy in a position of responsibility. As we soon learn, Billy is a souse, a fool and an incompetent. This is a breach of fiscal and business ethics by the elder Bailey as well a classic conflict of interest, both of which George engages in as well, to his eventual sorrow.

5. George’s Speech.

Continue reading

Presenting Two (Terrific) Baseball Ethics Comments Of The Day By Slickwilly

I apologize for combining these two deserving comments into a single post, but the baseball season is over, and as much as I try to make the case that readers who are tragically immune to baseball’s charms should still read and ponder the ethics posts this most ethically complex of sports inspires, most don’t, and I also have a backlog of Comments of the Day that feels like a 400 lb monkey on my back.

First is Slickwilly’s Comment of the Day on the Halloween post, Unfinished World Series Ethics Business. He is discussing this iconic moment, when a crippled Kirk Gibson limped to the plate as a pinch-hitter against the best closer in the game at teh time, Dennis Eckersley:

Used a clip from one of your posts to teach my kids last night: Game 1 of 1988 World Series last at bat.

The mental aspect of Baseball was NEVER more apparent than in that at bat. The names and teams are irrelevant. Dangerous runner at first as the tying run, two outs, bottom of the ninth inning. Crippled power hitter is substituted to bat for the bottom of the lineout, in hopes of a base hit.

Pitcher, a professional at the top of his game, has not allowed a home run since late August: a powerful matchup indeed!

First two pitches are fouled away. Pitcher starts messing with the batter by throwing to first (where there was no chance of an out.) Two more foul balls and the count is still 0-2. Pitcher continues to throw to first, where the runner is taking progressively larger leads.

Batter hits almost a bunt down the first base line: foul. However, we see how badly the batter is hurt: he is almost limping and could never reach first base on an infield hit. Indeed, he is so banged up he did not take the field during the warm ups: a sign that the manager never expected to play him. (One suspects that a pinch runner would be used, should a base hit occur.)

The mental game continues with the pitcher, way ahead in the count, throwing hard-to-hit pitches in an attempt to make the batter strike out. The batter gets a hold of a pitch: foul ball. Pitcher throws outside again. Now the count is 2-2. More throws to first, and the runner is a legitimate threat to steal second as the count evens up.

The pitcher throws way outside, and the runner steals second, getting into scoring position. Now the count is 3-2, and the advantage goes to the batter: a base hit can tie the game!

The batter hands some of the crap back to the pitcher: calls time out just as the pitcher has his mental focus for the deciding pitch. The batter takes his stance, and HIS focus is unshaken: you can see it in his stance, how he holds his head, how he holds his bat, everything. This man suddenly exudes confidence, and the pitcher can see it. Everyone in the ballpark can see it!

Sometimes, in Baseball, a thing is meant to be. I cannot explain it, but there are moments where you know you are about to see greatness, where all of the little factors are lining up to produce a great play. There is a feeling in the air at such times, and it is palatable even on video and across decades of time. For those who worship at the altar of Baseball, these are the moments that make the game great.

Pitcher throws a low slider (betting on a junk pitch!) and as a result, hangs out what Baseball fans affectionately call ‘red meat’ for the batter, who gets EVERY BIT OF THAT PITCH AND SENDS IT ON A TOUR OF THE RIGHT FIELD BLEACHERS!

The second of Slickwilly’s CsOTD came in response to Question: You Are Offered 300 Million Dollars To Do What You Want To Do Where You Say You Want To Do It For The Next Ten Years. Why Would You Say, “No”? Continue reading

Unfinished World Series Ethics Business

Today the victorious Boston Red Sox took their now traditional duck boat parade through Boston and down the Charles River, so even for the Sox, the 2018 season is officially done.  My job isn’t however, because there were two striking examples of moral luck and consequentialism during the World Series, and apparently I was the only one who noticed.

I. The “Bad News Bears” moment.

When Red Sox Game 4 starter Eduardo Rodriguez surrendered what seemed at the time to be a decisive three-run homer to Yasiel Puig, putting the Sox behind in the 6th inning 4-0, he angrily hurled his glove to the mound. Commentators joked about how he resembled the Bad New Bears’ combative, potty-mouthed shortstop Tanner in the Little League classic, but other than the ribbing, nobody criticized “E-Rod.” Indeed, his manager, Alex Cora, exonerated him for the home run, saying that he, the manager, screwed up by letting his tiring pitcher face the dangerous Puig.

Yet earlier this season, Boston reliever Carson Smith, regarded as an important member of the Red Sox relief squad, threw his glove in the dugout after giving up a home run, and partially dislocated his shoulder. He was lost for the season, and both team officials and Boston sportswriters blamed Smith for his injury. He injured himself you see. It was stupid and selfish, and showed him to be unprofessional and untrustworthy. Many thought Smith should be fined, or even released. Yet it was a completely freak injury. It wasn’t as if Smith had punched a wall or a water cooler. Baseball players throw their gloves all the time, and I’ve never seen it injure anyone. So why was Carson Smith treated as a pariah for throwing his glove, but Eddie Rodriguez doing the same thing shrugged off? The only reason is that Smith’s angry gesture happened to injure him , which nobody, including Smith, could have predicted. In fact, Rodriquez was more, much more, irresponsible than Smith, because he knew throwing a glove could cause an injury. He knew, because it happened to Smith. Continue reading

My Confession, Just In Case The FBI Investigates…

The scene of the crime…

In an earlier post about the Kavanaugh debacle, I introduced a poll with this:

Memory I: As a junior, I engineered an elaborate prank to steal a sofa from two classmates and friends who had swiped a sofa from two other students in their dorm. It almost worked, too: the pay-off was going to be when they visited our suite and saw their sofa there. The plan fell apart, and the original owners even got their sofa back.

Question: Should this episode, which technically involved attempted theft, disqualify me for some positions as an adult and professional?

The polls results:

Several commenters have admitted that their votes were tongue in cheek, so I don’t believe for a minute that there were really 13% of voters who believe that the episode when I was 20 should bar me from being an ethicist, a lawyer, or a SCOTUS judge, and needed to be investigated by the FBI. Just in case, however, I feel I should tell the whole, sordid story about what came to be called “The Great Sofa Caper,” and which is a tale told and retold at every reunion of my room mates.

It was the end of winter, and spring cleaning of sorts at the Harvard dorms. I lived in a suite at Lowell House with five other juniors, and was visiting friends and fellow classmates “Oscar” and “Felix” across the campus in the high rise dorms, Leverett Towers. “Oscar” was a theater friend who looked like a dissipated cross between Omar Shariff and Teddy Roosevelt; “Felix” looked like a pint-size Rodney Dangerfield. Shortly after I entered their abode, Felix said, “Hey, what do you think about the new sofa we swiped?” Indeed, prominently displayed in the main room was what appeared to be a very new, very nice, fully upholstered  sofa.

“You swiped it?” I said, and Felix laughed. “No, I was just kidding. Some upperclassmen were changing rooms, and this was left out in the hall for anyone to take. Nice, eh?”

“You swiped it! That’s brand new! Nobody would throw that out. Come on!” I said. Indeed, furniture and other junk was often being left out for communal expropriating in such moves, but this seemed like wilful, contrived ignorance by my friends to me. Nonetheless, Felix and Oscar swore that they would never steal anything, and that the brand new sofa was abandoned property.

Right.

I went back to Lowell House deep in thought and ethics conflict, wondering what the right thing to do was. I couldn’t report my friends for what was, even if it was theft in the real world, pretty standard college silliness. Still, I felt this was excessive. Then I hit on my plan. It would be both a good practical joke and a lesson for Felix and Oscar. Continue reading