Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/6/2020: Another KABOOM!, Two Deranged Op-Eds, And Kansas City Police Adopt The Nuremberg Defense

Feeling blue, beleaguered and dispirited: time for my favorite “Good morning” video again:

1. Yes, it’s another KABOOM! to begin the day. The same critics who attack the President every day for his response to the virus, whatever he does or says, have been alternately praising China for its handling of the pandemic or defending it. Now look at these photos  from two days ago, April 4, showing Chinese citizens heading for the Huangshan mountain park to enjoy the great outdoors, as CNN put it.

2. Today in leadership ethics…on this date in 1841, President William Henry Harrison, then the oldest man by far to take the Presidential oath of office (America take note),  died after just 31 days from a cold he caught by grandstanding to show he wasn’t so old (he refused to wear a top coat in freezing weather, and delivered what is still the longest inaugural address in our history). He was the first President to die in office. He also died after being elected in a year ending with a zero,  launching a creepy 120 year tradition of every POTUS elected in such a year also dying in office (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, JFK)  until Ronald Reagan beat it, though just barely.

Vice President John Tyler was sworn into office amidst mass confusion: the Constitution was unclear about what happens when a President dies. It directed that in case of the President’s death “the Powers and Duties of the said office” “shall devolve upon the Vice President” until a new President is elected. Here the most unlikely of leaders, an obscure figure from the opposition party (Tyler was a Southern slave-holding Democrat  put on the Whig ticket, maybe because “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” scanned) who had no constituency, looked like Ichabod Crane…

…and who later joined the Confederate cabinet, made a bold decision that changed American history in too many ways to imagine.

While many experts and legal scholars argued that he was only a temporary, acting-POTUS until a special election could be held, Tyler decreed that he was, in fact, the President, and would serve out Harrison’s full term. Congress couldn’t figure out how to stop him, and thus the United States, by accident and the unilateral decree of an otherwise minor political figure, adopted the smooth manner of transition that has served it so well. It wasn’t until the 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967,  that there was anything in the Constitution saying directly that the Vice President permanently assumes the job and finishes out the term upon the death, resignation or removal of the President.

Fun fact:  President Tyler, who was born in 1790, has a grandson living in Virginia. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr., born in 1924, is 96 years old. I once saw him from afar when he was still living at the Tyler plantation, dubbed Sherwood Forest. Continue reading

Ethical and Unethical Adultery Advice: There is Carolyn Hax, and Then There Is Emily Yoffe

Sometimes, you just have to tell your slimy boss “No.”

Emily Yoffe is Slate’s advice columnist, in its “Dear Prudence” feature. She specializes in extreme situations: a recent column involved a teenager who realized that his mother had breast-fed him far too long because she was sexually aroused by it, and then had him fondle her breasts for years after he stopped be willing to suck on them. He asked what he should do now that his mother was subjecting his younger sister to the same treatment. (Emily did get that one right: she told him to call child services on his mother, and to seek professional help for himself.)

Last week I congratulated Carolyn Hax for her advice to a woman torn between the adulterous relationship of one friend with another friend’s husband. Notwithstanding the persistent argument of one crusading commenter who felt that I should have stood for universal adultery whistleblowing on friends and strangers alike, Hax gave, as usual, practical, ethical and measured advice.  She suggested that the inquirer tell the cheating husband that his secret was out, and that she would not lie to protect his illicit affair.  I believe that’s the right ethical balance. Hax’s advice to the woman was to be proactive in both extracting herself from the split loyalties and to be a catalyst for either disclosure or ending the affair. I also noted that the ethical duty on the questioner may be different when the betrayed spouse is an especially close friend, or a family member. Then loyalty and trust could require disclosure.

That same week, Yoffe got an inquiry from a “well-paid assistant of a successful business mogul.” Among her duties, she told “Prudence,” is to facilitate her boss’s extra-marital affair: lying about his whereabouts to business associates, deceiving his wife when she calls, and even buying gifts for the illicit lover. “Next month he’s going on a weeklong business trip,” she wrote. “He only needs to be gone for two days, but he’s taking his girlfriend with him and staying longer. I know I’m doing wrong by his wife. But I love my job, and I’m not sure what I could or should do to behave honorably in this situation.” Continue reading

Leonard Sedden, Dying for an Ethics Hero—Or a Caring Human Being

In Philadelphia, a Metro Bus driver called her supervisors…

Driver: I have a passenger that’s not responding to me…It looks as though he had peed on himself and he had drooled a lot. I can’t get any actual response.

Control: Just come on down the street, the supervisor will pick you up on the line and give you some assistance.

Driver: OK, so just leave him on the bus and pickup passengers when I leave on 4:18?

Control: That’s correct. I don’t want to delay service. The supervisor will assist you on the line so we don’t delay service for the passengers.

A bit later, the Driver called in again… Continue reading

The Seattle Beating Tape: “Just Following Orders”

I know the Nuremberg defense when I hear it, and this is the Nuremberg defense.

The release of a January security video from a Seattle transit station has triggered a public uproar, and no wonder: it shows a group of girls brutally beating a young woman, including kicks to her head, as three security guards stand by, watching, doing nothing. Well, not exactly nothing: they did call for help.

Gee, thanks, guys. Would you tell them to bring some aspirin, an ice pack and a stretcher while you’re at it?

Seattle officials say that the guards appear to have done their job properly. The training manual the guards follow says “Never become involved in enforcement actions.” Continue reading