“Richard Jewell,” Clint Eastwood’s excellent but much maligned film about a historical episode with many ethics twists and turns, is extremely accurate and fair in all respects, except for the glaring exception of the screenwriter Billy Ray’s representation that reporter Kathy Scruggs obtained the information that Jewell was under suspicion by the FBI in exchange for one night stand with the agency’s lead investigator. This was the point where the Richard Jewell Ethics Train Wreck of 1996 acquired a car containing the 2019 movie “Richard Jewell.”
Let’s look at those other cars.
Jewell was a socially awkward, lonely, obese man who lived with his mother. He was in many ways a stereotypical misfit with low self-esteem, who developed ambitions about becoming a law enforcement officer, a job that would would provide him with the respect and power that he lacked and wanted. The film begins with Jewell’s stint as an office supply clerk in a small public law firm, where he becomes friends with attorney Watson Bryant. Jewell quits to pursue his dream of becoming a law enforcement officer, and Bryant, in saying good-bye, asks his friend to promise that if he ever acquires the authority he seeks, he won’t become a jerk, and abuse it.
This was a real life conversation. Bryant recognized that Jewell was a border-line Asperger’s sufferer, whether or not he knew the name or the clinical condition, and exactly the kind of personality who should never be given a shield and a gun.
Jewell took a job as a campus security officer at Piedmont College, and rapidly realized Watson Bryant’s worst fears by reacting to his authority by abusing it, being over-zealous and generating an unusual number of complaints from students. Jewell was fired, but the need for security personnel at the upcoming Atlanta Olympics gave Jewell another chance at some authority at least. He probably shouldn’t have had such a chance. Jewell was not a man who should have been in the security field or the law enforcement field; his judgment was poor, and his emotional problems made him a bad risk.
Thus the conditions for the ethics train wreck were put in place. It was up to moral luck whether hiring Richard Jewell would turn out to be a disaster, or a fortunate near miss. Instead, it turned out to be something else entirely, a classic example of a bad decision having a good result—at least for a while.
2. The Bomb
In the early morning of July 27, 1996, Jewell, now working in Atlanta’s Centennial Park as part of the Summer Olympics security force, noticed an abandoned backpack by a bench. Over-zealous, officious and a fanatic about following procedure, Jewell insisted on reporting the pack as a “suspicious package,” despite the chiding of his colleagues, who wanted to take it to Lost and Found. If, as was overwhelmingly likely, the backpack had been just a backpack, Jewell probably would have been mocked. But again moral luck took a hand. He was right. It was a bomb. Jewell and other officers began clearing the area, and the bomb went off, killing one victim, Alice Hawthorne, and wounding many, still far less serious damage than what might have occurred had Jewell not been so scrupulous in his discharge of his duties.
3. The Hero, the Scapegoats, and the Tip
That is, the advice columnist’s answer to an easy ethics question last week was dead wrong. Once again, the advice-giver in question is Philip Galanes, the Times proprietor of Social Q’s, essentially that paper’s version of “Miss Manners.” Galanes, I now see upon googling him, is a novelist and a lawyer. That explains, perhaps, his unfamiliarity with some of the more nuanced aspects of ethics. Here’s the question he received in its entirety:
My brother died last year and bequeathed his entire (small) estate to me. He had one child, a daughter, to whom he left nothing. Feeling sorry for her, I told my niece I would give her half of the estate. (None of this becomes official until April.) But my circumstances have changed dramatically. My husband was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He is undergoing treatment, but we face a very uncertain financial future. I would now like to keep the entire estate. My niece is doing well financially, with many earning years ahead of her, unlike me. Is there a way to tell her I’ve changed my mind so she won’t hate me forever?
The Social Q’s verdict: “…Say, ‘I’m sorry if your father’s will hurt you. I promised you half of my inheritance out of love for you and hoping to heal any pain the will caused. But my husband is seriously ill, and I can’t afford to give you the money now. If I can make it up to you later, or in my estate, I will do it.’….For readers worrying about a verbal contract here, let’s assume B’s promise falls into one of several exceptions that requires agreements to be in writing….”
Here’s the ethical answer: Continue reading
The Ethics Alarms Ethics Guide to Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece “It’s A Wonderful Life,” perhaps the greatest ethics movies of all time, has become this blog’s official welcome to the holiday season. Once again, I have reviewed the post after another viewing of the film. It is a mark of the movie’s vitality that I always find something else of interest from an ethics perspective.
The movie is an important shared cultural touch-point,and exemplifies the reasons why I harp on cultural literacy as so vital to maintaining our nation’s connective tissue. The film teaches about values, family, sacrifice and human failings unlike any other. I hope 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, which, like copies of copies, eventually the cultural values conveyed get fainter and less influential.
Last year I wrote with confidence, “No, they really don’t,” but now I am not so sure. In , I learned that my druggist, about 35, married and with children, had never seen the movie. I gave him a DVD over the summer, and suggested that he watch it with his whole family, which he said he would: he moved on to another CVS branch, so I have no idea if he did or will. I used to be amazed at how many people haven’t seen the movie; now I am not. Last year I wrote that my son’s girlfriend admitted that she hadn’t; this year he has a new girlfriend, and she hasn’t either.
The movie is in black and white, and many Gen Xers and Millennials disdain uncolored films the way I once avoided silent movies. Will anyone be watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” 20 years from now? I wonder. The movie begins in heaven, and has a strong religious undercurrent. Religion is increasingly mocked and marginalized today, and I see no signs that the trend is reversing. Aside from the nauseating Hallmark Christmas movies, most of this century’s holiday fair is openly cynical about Christmas and everything connected to it.
Here’s an example of how rapidly cultural touchpoints vanish: I’m going to poll how many readers remember this:
Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Don’t we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!
Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker ‘n’ too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, ‘lope with you!
Hunky Dory’s pop is lolly,
Gaggin’ on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie’s collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!
Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an’ polly voo!
Chilly Filly’s name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly’s jolly chilly view halloo!
Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!
Now just answer the poll, don’t go giving away the answer. Nobody knows all the lyrics that I just posted, nobody but the author ever did. The first verse, however, was once familiar.
Maybe there is hope: it was recently announced that a new musical adaptation of the movie may be coming to Broadway as early as next year. The songs will be written by Sir Paul McCartney, and interest in The Beatles is surging.
“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. 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 is this message? In an earlier posting of The Guide I described it like this:
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
Finally, I hope you all have a terrific Thanksgiving, and that the holiday season is joyous for all.
And now, heeeeeere’s GEORGE BAILEY!
[As promised, here is the Ethics Alarms Christmas package, lightly revised, last posted three years ago]
I don’t know what perverted instinct it is that has persuaded colleges and schools to make their campuses a Christmas-free experience. Nor can I get into the scrimy and misguided minds of people like Roselle Park New Jersey Councilwoman Charlene Storey, who resigned over the city council’s decision to call its Christmas tree lighting a Christmas Tree Lighting, pouting that this wasn’t “inclusive,” or the CNN goon who dictated the bizarre policy that the Christmas Party shot up by the husband-wife Muslim terrorists had to be called a “Holiday Party.” Christmas, as the cultural tradition it evolved to be, is about inclusion, and if someone feels excluded, they are excluding themselves. Is it the name that is so forbidding? Well, too bad. That’s its name, not “holiday.” Arbor Day is a holiday. Christmas is a state of mind. [The Ethics Alarms Christmas posts are here.]
Many years ago, I lost a friend over a workplace dispute on this topic, when a colleague and fellow executive at a large Washington association threw a fit of indignation over the designation of the headquarters party as a Christmas party, and the gift exchange (yes, it was stupid) as “Christmas Elves.” Marcia was Jewish, and a militant unionist, pro-abortion, feminist, all-liberal all-the-time activist of considerable power and passion. She cowed our pusillanimous, spineless executive to re-name the party a “holiday party” and the gift giving “Holiday Pixies,” whatever the hell they are.
I told Marcia straight out that she was wrong, and that people like her were harming the culture. Christmas practiced in the workplace, streets, schools and the rest is a cultural holiday of immense value to everyone open enough to experience it, and I told her to read “A Christmas Carol” again. Dickens got it, Scrooge got it, and there was no reason that the time of year culturally assigned by tradition to re-establish our best instincts of love, kindness, gratitude, empathy, charity and generosity should be attacked, shunned or avoided as any kind of religious indoctrination or “government endorsement of religion.” Jews, Muslims, atheists and Mayans who take part in a secular Christmas and all of its traditions—including the Christmas carols and the Christian traditions of the star, the manger and the rest, lose nothing, and gain a great deal.
Christmas is supposed to bring everyone in a society together after the conflicts of the past years have pulled them apart. What could possibly be objectionable to that? What could be more important than that, especially in these especially divisive times? How could it possibly be responsible, sensible or ethical to try to sabotage such a benign, healing, joyful tradition and weaken it in our culture, when we need it most?
I liked and respected Marcia, but I deplore the negative and corrosive effect people like her have had on Christmas, and as a result, the strength of American community. I told her so too, and that was the end of that friendship. Killing America’s strong embrace of Christmas is a terrible, damaging, self-destructive activity, but it is well underway. I wrote about how the process was advancing here, and re-reading what I wrote, I can only see the phenomenon deepening, and hardening like Scrooge’s pre-ghost heart. Then I said… Continue reading
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.
Recently updating the Ethics Alarms list of concepts and frequently used terms reminded me that I had been meaning to post them for review and assistance to those relatively new here. Of course, the link has always been right there at the top of the home page, but I have this sneaking suspicion that it isn’t visited very often. Here, then, is the up-to-date list.
Non-Ethical Considerations: Defined above, non-ethical considerations are important because they are often the powerful impediments to ethical conduct, and the cause of many conflicts of interest. Non-ethical considerations are many and diverse, and include:
- The need and desire for shelter, health, wealth, fame, security, self-esteem, reputation, power, professional advancement, comfort, love, sex, praise, credit, appreciation, affection, or satisfaction
- The desire for the health, comfort, safety, welfare and happiness for one’s family, loved ones, friends, colleagues, an co-workers
- The pursuit of vengeance or retribution
- Hunger, lust, pain, ambition, prejudice, bias, hatred, laziness, fatigue, disgust, anger, fear
- …and many more
Ethical Dilemma: This is an ethical problem in which the ethical choice involves ignoring a powerful non-ethical consideration. Do the right thing, but lose your job, a friend, a lover, or an opportunity for advancement. A non-ethical consideration can be powerful and important enough to justify choosing it over the strict ethical action.
Ethical Conflict: When two ethical principles demand opposite results in the same situation, this is an ethical conflict. Solving ethical conflicts may require establishing a hierarchy or priority of ethical principles, or examining the situation through another ethical system.
Ethical Gray Area: Gray areas are situations and problems that don’t fit neatly into any existing mode of ethical analysis. In some cases, there may even be a dispute regarding whether ethics is involved.
Reciprocity: The ethical system embodied by The Golden Rule, and given slightly different form in other religions and philosophies. It is a straight-forward way of judging conduct affecting others by putting oneself in the position of those affected. Reciprocity should always be available in any ethical analysis, but it is frequently too simple to be helpful in complex ethical situations with multiple competing interests.
Absolutism: Absolutist systems do not permit any exception to certain ethical principles. The champion of all absolutists, philosopher Immanuel Kant, declared that the ethical act was one that the actor was willing to have stand as a universal principle.
One principle of absolutism is that human beings can never be harmed for any objective, no matter how otherwise worthwhile. Absolutism has the advantage of making tough ethical calls seem easy, and the disadvantage of making debate impossible. One sees absolutism reflected today in the controversies over war, torture, abortion, cloning, and capital punishment.
Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism accepts the existence of ethical conflicts and the legitimacy of some ethical dilemmas, and proposes ethical analysis based on the question, “Which act will result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people?’ It entails the balancing of greater and lesser goods, and is useful for unraveling complex ethical problems. Its drawback, or trap, is that utilitarianism can slide into “The ends justify the means” without some application of absolutist and reciprocity principles.
Consequentialism: In formal ethics, utilitarian schools of philosophy are sometimes lumped together as “consequentialism,” in that the ethical decision-making is based on seeking the best result. Here we just uses the above term, utilitarianism. Consequentialsm, in contrast, is the flawed belief that the rightness or wrongness, or even wisdom, of chosen conduct is measures by its actual results rather than its intended results. If “if all worked out for the best,” in other words, the conduct that created the desirable result most have been ethical, whatever its intent or however the conduct was determined to be necessary or desirable. This is a fallacy.
Cognitive Dissonance: Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon first identified by Leon Festinger. It occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a person believes, knows and values, and persuasive information that calls these into question. The discrepancy causes psychological discomfort, and the mind adjusts to reduce the discrepancy. In ethics, cognitive dissonance is important in its ability to alter values, such as when an admired celebrity embraces behavior that his or her admirers deplore. Their dissonance will often result in changing their attitudes toward the behavior. Dissonance also leads to rationalizations of unethical conduct, as when the appeal and potential benefits of a large amount of money makes unethical actions to acquire it seem less objectionable than if they were applied to smaller amounts.
Moral Luck: The common situation where an unethical act is only discovered, noticed, or deemed worthy of condemnation due to unpredictable occurrences that come as a result of the act or that affect its consequences. Moral luck is the difference, for example, between two mildly intoxicated drivers, one of whom arrives home without incident, while the other has an unwary child dash in front of his automobile, leading to a fatal accident that he couldn’t have avoided if completely sober. Yet the unlucky driver will be a pariah in the community, while the more fortunate driver goes on with his life.