One More Time: Leadership, Moral Luck, Accountability, And Scapegoating, Baseball-Style.

Here is part of the statement released by  Boston Red Sox owner John Henry yesterday after the team fired its head of Baseball Operations, essentially the team’s General Manager, Dave Dombrowksi:

“Four years ago, we were faced with a critical decision about the direction of the franchise. We were extraordinarily fortunate to be able to bring Dave in to lead baseball operations. With a World Series championship and three consecutive American League East titles, he has cemented what was already a Hall of Fame career.”

Wait…HUH? He was hired four years ago, the team won three consecutive American League East titles (for the first time in the franchise’s history), a World Series Championship (following an epic 2018 season that saw Boston win 108 games) and he’s fired? What did he do, sexually harass players? Flash the owner’s daughter? Continue reading

When Absolutism Must Prevail: “Choice Of Evils”

“Choice of Evils,” taken from the utilitarian philospher Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832)  famous quote above, is an ethically rich “Law and Order” episode from 2006 that I recent watched again. Assistant DA Jack McCoy decides to prosecute a mother for murder after she admits to shooting her homeless, psychopath son. Her defense: she did it to protect the community, or, in cruder terms, he needed killing. She had met his girlfriend who was pregnant,  and told her that her son would eventually kill her and the baby if she didn’t get away.

The mother explained that her first husband and the dead man’s father is in prison for murder, and like his son. lacked empathy or a conscience. She related how her son displayed all the traits of a psychopath growing up, such as torturing and killing animals. In sympathy for her plight, McCoy offered the mother a manslaughter plea and short prison time, but she turned the deal down, adamant that she hd done nothing wrong.  She was then charged with second-degree murder (that’s also generous, since the killing was premeditated), and the trial began.

The problem of how to deal with “bad seeds” is a  societal dilemma of long standing, and one without a satisfactory solution. It is easy to sympathize with the mother’s plight, but a society that approves of preemptive executions when an individual  seems likely to harm someone before he or she actually does is on a fast track to chaos; it’s not even a slippery slope. Once again, the seductive appeal of pre-crime measures has to be resisted decisively, or individual rights and justice mean nothing.

Does society have to wait until a loudly ticking time bomb goes off? If it’s a human time bomb, absolutely, and no exceptions. Sometimes, that metaphorical bomb turns out to be a dud, and every human being has the same right to be judged on the harm, if any, he or she actually does rather than the harm some feel they are certain to do.

In the episode, it is discovered mid-trial that the son had in fact murdered a man, which his mother did not know at the time she murdered him. McCoy argued to the judge that this was irrelevant to the case and likely to mislead the jury. He was correct. The mother’s act was exactly as illegal and intolerable whether her son was a likely killer or a proven one. The discovered homicide is an example of moral luck: it changes how the mother’s act is perceived, but doesn’t change the ethical analysis at all.

In the end, the jury votes guilty, and sends the mother to prison for 25 years. This is because she admits on the stand that her current husband had threatened to leave her if her son moved back into their home, which he announced he would soon do. Thus the preemptive murder began to look less like an altruistic act to spare society, and more like one for the mother’s personal benefit.

Again, it shouldn’t have mattered. Killing a human being based on probabilities and presumed future harm to society can never be deemed just or tolerable.

Never.

Ethics Quiz: The Firing Of Officer Daniel Pantaleo

The New York Police Department has finally fired Daniel Pantaleo, the officer shown on video with his arm bent around the neck of 43-year-old Eric Garner just before Garner died  after being tackled by five officers.  A departmental disciplinary judge recommended the action, and Pantaleo was suspended from duty pending further review.

“In this case the unintended consequence of Mr. Garner’s death must have a consequence of its own,” said O’Neill. “It is clear that Daniel Pantaleo can no longer effectively serve as a New York City police officer.” He also added, “If I was still a cop, I’d probably be mad at me.”

The Commissioner kept digging. Continue reading

Ethics Observations On A Massacre Averted

Another day, another psycho tries to mow down strangers! In Springfield, Missouri, a man appearing to be in his 20s  pulled up to a Walmart, and put on body armor. He walked into the store and began pushing a cart around the store, recording himself on his cell phone.  An alert store manager saw a threat and triggered a fire alarm; the Springfield police  responded within three minutes of the call. Police say that the man had tactical weapons  and more than 100 rounds of ammunition When the would-be shooter left through an emergency exit an off-duty firefighter carrying a legally concealed weapon held the man at gunpoint until police arrived. Observations:

  • It won’t be, but this should be regarded as another mass shooting. Only moral luck made it different from El Paso or Dayton. Sometimes the store managers won’t react quickly enough. Sometimes there won’t be a bystander with a gun and the guts and skill to use it.

The important fact is that a crazy individual entered a public place with the intent to commit murder and the means to so it. Whether a particular attempt was or was not successful is irrelevant from a policy perspective.

  • The lesson of this near-miss is not that everyone should have guns. Resorting to the culture of the Old West is not in anyone’s best interests.

Second Amendment advocates make themselves look foolish by constantly falling back on this”solution.”

  • The hysteria-driven blanket coverage of the latest shootings makes mass shootings more likely.

Censoring the facts and basic reporting, as they did in New Zealand, is not an option here, nor should it be, Some basic restraint from cable news, talking heads and politicians, however, is both reasonable and necessary.

  • This isn’t a video-game driven phenomenon, nor a political divide-driven phenomenon, nor even a “too many guns” problem. It is a problem driven by a culture that now elevates mere attention to the equivalent of self-worth, in a nation that holds—and correctly and importantly so— that each individual, in the end, is responsible for his or her own success or failure.

We have discussed this phenomenon in many contexts on Ethics Alarms, ranging from the movie “Fame’s” warped message that the goal of young lives should be to “live forever” through becoming famous, to the reality-show driven delusion that merely being famous signifies anything but luck, and certainly not societal worth. The Sondheim musical “Assassins” posited that Presidential assassins were desperate, shadowy failures in a success-obsessed culture, who not unreasonably determined that murdering a President was the perfect way to rescue their lives from powerlessness and obscurity. The problem with thesis, though it spawned some good songs and thought-provoking drama, is that history doesn’t back it up at all, and the number of assassins and attempted assassins is too small a sample to make any valid generalizations.

  • In today’s hyped  media and information-glutted society, however, the theory makes more sense, except that it is infinitely easier to shoot up a church than kill a President, and social media makes a killer’s manifesto easy to disseminate for maximum news fodder. The Unabomber had to bargain to get his declaration published in the press.

Today a single social media post will do the trick, with fame (infamy, fame, what’s the difference?) to follow,

High Noon Ethics Warm-Up, 7/23/2019: Tennis Players, Baseball Players, An Unethical Football Player, And Tarzan

Where did the morning go?

1. Men don’t matter, so apparently this isn’t worth worrying about or criticizing... The same kind of body dysmorphia that has had feminists and psychologists attacking the media and popular culture for warping women’s concepts of acceptable and desirable body types is affecting men just as negatively, it seems. It’s just that nobody cares.

From Barbie to “Baywatch,” the culture’s emphasis on absurdly proportioned and gorgeous, never-aging women has been blamed for poor self-image, anorexia, breast implants, botox, obsessive dieting and exercising, and weight loss scams. The culture’s relatively recent obsession with male physiques that once would have been regarded as freakish, however, is seldom criticized.

Where once he-men and heart throbs like Clark Gable, John Wayne and even Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, didn’t hesitate to appear in films looking fit but hardly muscle-bound, like this

and this…

and this…

..now even minor minor male characters on TV, in ads and movies have to show bulging pecs, swollen delts and a rock-like six pack, despite the fact that such bodies, unlike those of Gable, the Duke and Johnny, are impossible for most men to attain while maintaining a healthy and productive life-style.

A study published in June found that 22% of men aged 18-24 reported muscularity-oriented disordered eating. Lead researcher Dr Jason Nagata of the University of California says, “The drive for a bigger, more muscular body is becoming very prevalent. Their entire day is spent at the gym trying to bulk up. They may also be taking illicit supplements like steroids.”

Men, however, seldom seek treatment for the problem, and media and social critics continue to concentrate on the pop culture’s unhealthy effects on the body images of girls, not boys.

2. More reason to detest Tom Brady. Here’s father Tom Brady forcing his 6-year-old daughter to jump off a cliff:

Nice.

Hey! I get to use three favorite Ethics Alarms terms in one mini-post! This is res ipsa loquitur for irresponsible parenting. It is signature significance as well, because no good parent would do this to so young a child, even once. And it is moral luck: if Brady’s daughter had been injured in the jump, and she easily could have been, Brady would be widely and justifiably condemned, and possibly charged with child endangerment. That she was not hurt was just moral luck: it doesn’t change the ethics verdict on his conduct at all. Continue reading

Saturday Ethics Run-Down, 7/20/2019: Perry Mason, Kamala Harris, And Home Runs-On-Demand

I’m calling it a run-down because I’m run down….

1. More “phantom document” ethics. Last moth I wrote about the ethically dubious “phantom document” tactic, in which a lawyer alludes to a document he or she either does not have, or suggests a document has content it does not in order to trick a witness into recanting testimony.

I just saw the Eighties made-for-TV movie “Perry Mason Returns” that rebooted the classic series (and not so well) for an aging Raymond Burr. The great defense lawyer comes out of retirement to defend old legal assistant Della Street (Barbara Hale), who has been accused of murder. In the trial’s climax, Perry’s investigator Paul Drake, Jr. (played by Hale’s real-life son, actor William Katt of “The Greatest American Hero” fame) bursts into the courtroom and hands Perry a document, which he then holds as he asks the witness (Richard Anderson, playing a different role than he played in the original series) he was in the midst of cross-examining, “Would you like to reconsider your testimony? Would you like me to read a sworn statement from Bobby Lynch, in which he says you hired him to kill Arthur Gordon?”

The witness confesses that he planned the murder that Della was being tried for, and framed her. Della goes free! Perry then tells Della that there was no sworn statement. “I didn’t say I had a sworn statement,” he chuckles, “I just asked if he wanted me to read one.” Continue reading

More On The Acosta-Epstein Scandal: Leadership, Moral Luck, Accountability, And Scapegoating

Veteran commenter Glenn Logan expressed  doubts about the fairness of current criticism of the Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta (above right) for his approval of a ridiculously lenient plea deal for jet-setting sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein (above left). Glenn’s objections  prompted me to search for prior posts here on the ethics issue of high level accountability for disasters and fiascos. In this morning’s warm-up, #3, I discussed the reasons I feel the criticism of Acosta is justified (re Glenn’s complaint that journalists are determined to destroy Acosta because of his connection to their primary target, the President, my response is that  critics being biased and having unethical motives doesn’t mean their criticism is necessarily wrong), and concluded,

“Finally, there is the basic ethical issue of accountability. Prosecutors allowed Epstein’s lawyers to talk them into a ridiculously lenient plea deal with minimal prison time for a privileged criminal and sexual predator with endless resources and a high likelihood of recidivism. It was completely predictable that he would continue to harm women after his release, and the new charges against Epstein show that he did exactly as expected.It is appropriate that someone’s head roll for this, and Acosta’s is the logical choice.”

Glenn responded that this sounded more “like scapegoating than accountability.” “’Somebody must pay,’ he said, “is not convincing to me.” Hence my search of the Ethics Alarms archive. This is a topic of long-standing interest for me, in great part due to my military-minded father.

I also recently watched the Netflix series “Bad Blood,” about Montreal’s Mafia. The accountability of leadership is a recurring theme in that series:  we see the father of the future head of the powerful Rizzuto family telling his son as a boy that he is now responsible for caring for and cultivating several tomato plants. “If a plant produces good tomatoes,” the father explains, ” you will be rewarded. If a plant produces poor tomatoes, you will be punished.” Even if the reasons a plant fails to produce good tomatoes has nothing to do with the son’s efforts and were beyond his control, the father goes on to say, “I will still punish you. For that is the burden of leadership. When that for which a leader is responsible goes wrong, he must be accountable and pay the price whether it is his fault or not. Only then is he worthy of his followers trust.” Continue reading