Ethics Quiz: The Milking Class Gaffe

The photo above was taken in a Plains state elementary school in the early 1950s, and depicts a cow-milking exercise. It is, obviously, one of those “Oops!” unfortunate—but funny!—shots that ended up in a local newspaper somewhere because nobody noticed the problem until it was too late.

A Facebook friend posted it on the social media platform for “a chuckle”, and it was clear that the reaction was…restrained.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is tougher than it may seem…

Is posting that photo unethical, as it will be legitimately offensive to some, or is it innocently funny, and only objectionable to the political correctness scolds?

I thought it was funny when I saw it. I also thought my friend would get a fair amount of flack. But the more I think about the factors involved, the more uncertain I am of the answer to the quiz question…

  • Is posting the photo in a public forum a Golden Rule breach? Obviously the photo embarrasses the teacher who, as my freind wrote, “probably wishes she had been standing for the photo.” My friend, however, was a professional performer, in a field where being able to laugh at moments that would humiliate normal people is essential.
  • Based on the period of the photo, it is certain that the teacher by now must be either dead or too old to care about an old newspaper clipping. Does that take the Golden Rule off the table.
  • It is more likely that the children shown might be embarrassed by the photo, or were when it was originally published. Does that matter? Was showing it more unethical then than now, when parents (unethically, even though “everybody does it”) post videos of their children in embarrassing (but funny!) situations constantly?
  • Some people thought  the photo was very funny, and appreciated seeing it. It brightened their day! Is that enough to make showing the picture ethical? What formula should we use to determine whether utilitarian analysis justifies an action where the benefits are tangible and the “harm” is ephemeral? If the photo brightened one viewer’s day, isn’t that enough?
  • One critic of the photo sniffed, “Photoshopped!” If so, and I note that there is always someone who will try to discredit any photo they object to as photoshopped whether it was or not, does it matter to the question at hand. If it’s funny, it’s funny. Or, since it is theoretically funnier if genuine, does being photoshopped change the utilitarian analysis? Should it?
  • Can showing the photo be justified as a social statement and attempt at a course correction, echoing the common lament that the culture is becoming humor adverse thanks to woke-poisoning, and it is a serious problem?

Revisiting The Celebrity Post-Retirement Photos Ethics Quiz…

Way back in January…at least it seems way back…Ethics Alarms used a shocking photograph of retired actress Bridget Fonda to raise the question of whether it was ethical “to take unflattering photos of former performers and celebrities and publicize them expressly to invite cruel comments and ridicule.” The fact that it was offered as a quiz indicates that I was torn on the matter.

On one hand, such photos could be legitimately called newsworthy, although their main attraction is prurient and mean. There is also a fair argument that if one profits by fame and celebrity on the way up, taking the hit during one’s decline in career, popularity and allure is part of the price.

Never mind all that, though. I’ve made up my mind. The practice is unethical, and a blatant Golden Rule breach. I shouldn’t have made the question a quiz.

Why the change of heart? Yesterday I saw photos circulating in social media, and in various memes, showing Sylvester Stallone in his back yard looking every inch of his nearly 76 years and carrying an enormous gut that made him resemble Don Corleone if he had just swallowed Luca Brasi. This caused much hilarity on the web (“Look! I can finally say I have a body like Rambo!”) but it is just cruelty.

Continue reading

You Know, Every Piece Of Sentimental Inspiration Doesn’t Have To Be Debunked: Of Dogs, Death, And “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”

There was a nice, heartwarming photo yesterday of George H.W. Bush’s service dog lying by his casket.  This was accorded the usual sniffling interpretation, which is fine: the image is moving. Nonetheless, Slate felt it necessary to publish “Don’t Spend Your Emotional Energy on Sully H.W. Bush/He’s a service dog who had been with the president for six months, not his lifelong companion.”

“It’s wonderful for Bush that he had a trained service animal like Sully available to him [for 6] months. It’s a good thing that the dog is moving on to another gig where he can be helpful to other people (rather than becoming another Bush family pet). But it’s a bit demented to project soul-wrenching grief onto a dog’s decision to lie down in front of a casket. Is Sully “heroic” for learning to obey the human beings who taught him to perform certain tasks? Does the photo say anything special about this dog’s particular loyalty or judgment, or is he just … there? Also, if dogs are subject to praise for obeying their masters, what do we do about the pets who eat their owners’ dead (or even just passed-out) bodies?…”

Oh, thank you, thank you SO much for that lovely image.

Of course the dog doesn’t understand that Bush is dead, or that he’s in the casket, or anything. So what? Anyone who knows anything about dogs can figure that out. Why was this snark necessary? Continue reading

From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: Is The Current Photo Of Trump In The Site Background Unfair?

trump-1A reader asks,

“Earlier you admonished yourself for using unattractive photos of Hillary Clinton to illustrate various posts and in the blog wallpaper, and pledged to stop the practice, Now you have a serene photo of Mrs. Clinton, but a shot of Trump that looks like he’s in the middle of uttering an obscenity. Isn’t this a double standard?”

Answer: Nope. Not in my view. At this point, that photo fairly and accurately portrays Trump’s conduct in the campaign, which is ugly, assaultive, and a direct reflection on his character. Hillary Clinton’s public demeanor has always been dignified and appropriate for a Presidential candidate, so photographs that captured her in millisecond-long poses with her eyes crossed or looking demonic were both unkind and misleading. The photo you refer to is an accurate depiction of Trump’s demeanor and temperament, especially of late. That is Donald Trump.

Photojournalism Ethics: The Faces Of Hillary

Clinton fair

Long ago, a Pennsylvania governor named William Scranton ran for the Republican nomination. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, but he was given to extreme facial expressions, the most grotesque or silly of which always seemed to be captured by photographers and put on front pages. I was a kid, but just reading my dad’s Time Magazines was sufficient to make me feel sorry for Scranton. The photos made him look like lunatic or a drunk. Yet on TV there was nothing unusual about Bill Scranton at all. He had an expressive face, and a fleeting look that might pass his countenance in a nanosecond, barely visible to observers, could make him appear frightening or ridiculous when captured and frozen in time. I wondered then why editors chose and published such misleading and unflattering photographs.

Now I know. They do it because they can, and because they are mean and irresponsible.

As a victim of this tactic, Scranton got off easy compared to Hillary Clinton. Camera technology now permits even more fleeting expressions to be captured, and while the largely Clinton-protecting newspapers shy away from unflattering Clinton photographs, the web is teeming with them. Like Scranton, Hillary has a very expressive face, and one that has become more expressive with age. Unfortunately, this means that she has left a damaging trail of photos of her split-second facial reactions that make her look crazy, sinister, or ridiculous. Matt Drudge, in particular, revels in them. Yes, I have used them myself; like Clinton or not, they are almost irresistible. I’m not proud of it. I’m not doing it any more.

I have concluded, belatedly, that using these misleading and unflattering photos of Mrs. Clinton is very unfair, and the visual equivalent of an ad hominem attack. I know all the rationalizations: The camera doesn’t lie (but we know it does), the camera captures the soul (suuure it does), it’s a joke, and she can take it ( a double rationalization there); everybody does it.

None of them are persuasive. Doing this to anyone, celebrity or not, funny or not, is cruel and  unfair; I think most people know it’s cruel and unfair.

It is also conduct that violates the Golden Rule. Your host knows this as well as anyone: I’m not hideous in real life,  but photos of me often make me looks deranged or worse. Like these, for example: Continue reading

Celebrity vs Fan: The Amy Schumer Affair

Schumer Fan

Trendy comedienne Amy Schumer posted this tale of a recent encounter with a selfie-seeking fan on Instagram:

“This guy in front of his family just ran up next to me scared the shit out of me. Put a camera in my face. I asked him to stop and he said ” no it’s America and we paid for you” this was in front of his daughter. I was saying stop and no. Great message to your kid. Yes legally you are allowed to take a picture of me. But I was asking you to stop and saying no. I will not take picture with people anymore and it’s because of this dude in Greenville.”

She included the resulting photo of him above, which

a.) Made him an instant celebrity

b.) Made him an instant target,or

c.) Both.

Later, she “walked the statement back,” as they say in politics, and tweeted,

“I’ll still take pictures with nice people when I choose if it’s a good time for that. But I don’t owe you anything. So don’t take if I say no.”

The smiling young man with the blurry thumb  is named Leslie Brewer. This weekend, he contacted the Fox affiliate in Greenville–apparently everything will be happening in North Carolina from now on—to defend himself, and since conservatives hate Amy Schumer, Fox was eager to give him a forum.  The resulting story, in part: Continue reading

More Photography Ethics: A Federal Court Rules That There Is No Right To Photograph Police


U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney has ruled that citizens don’t have a First Amendment right to take cellphone videos and photos of police unless they are challenging or criticizing the police conduct.

This opinion makes no sense, and is dead wrong.

Richard Fields, a Temple University student, took a cellphone photo of about 20 police officers standing outside a house party because, he testified, he thought it would be an interesting picture. Amanda Geraci, who says she is “a trained legal observer,” whatever that is, tried to video an arrest during a an anti-fracking  protest.

Fields had his cellphone seized and was cuffed, as an officer searched his cellphone before returning it and cited him for obstructing the highway and public passages while taking the photo.  Geraci said an officer physically restrained her to prevent her from recording the arrest. The two both sued for alleged First and Fourth Amendment violations, and their cases were consolidated before the court, as the same Constitutional issues were involved.

Judge Kearney argued that Fields and Geraci would have to show their behavior was “expressive conduct” to support a First Amendment claim. Neither plaintiff met that burden, because neither told the police why they wanted to capture the images, Kearney wrote. “The conduct must be direct and expressive; we cannot be left guessing as to the ‘expression’ intended by the conduct.”

“Applying this standard, we conclude Fields and Geraci cannot meet the burden of demonstrating their taking, or attempting to take, pictures with no further comments or conduct is ‘sufficiently imbued with elements of communication’ to be deemed expressive conduct. Neither Fields nor Geraci direct us to facts showing at the time they took or wanted to take pictures, they asserted anything to anyone. There is also no evidence any of the officers understood them as communicating any idea or message.”

What astounding nonsense! Would Kearney argue that an oil painting was similarly ambiguous as “expressive” without the painter saying, “I am painting the picture so that I have a painting that I can show others”? Continue reading

I Found It! Presenting The Lost Rationalization, #57: The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!”

sleeping woman

Every time I come across a rationalization for the Ethics Alarms list, I metaphorically, and sometimes literally, slap myself on the forehead. How could I have missed it? Thus I have been long convinced that there was a huge, obvious, missing rationalization that somehow got lost in the search for others. Jimmy Durante did a piano routine called “I’m the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord!” (“The Lost Chord” is a previously famous composition by Sir Arthur Sullivan) in which he celebrated finding the chord, then lost it again mid-song. (Jimmy later found it again when he sat on the keyboard in disgust, and the magic chord issued forth. “Strange” he said, “I usually play by ear!”) This is how frustrated I was until today, when  veteran commenter Tim LeVier led me to the Lost Rationalization, #57, “The Golden Rule Mutation,” or “I’m all right with it!” It’s a major one:

57. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!” Continue reading

Celebrity Ethics: Sir Paul And Bill

Pual rejcected

Two recent ethics stories involving the famous, accomplished and popular:

1. Bill Murray The aging bad boy of SNL and “Groundhog Day,” found himself in some trouble recently when he was trying to chill at the Vesuvio rooftop lounge in Carmel, California, convenient to the annual Pebble Beach Pro-Am golf tourney in which Bill was playing. A few patrons started flashing cameras at him from close range—without asking, of course–and true to his on-screen character (and off-screen, where he is known as an impulsive jerk), Murray got up and chucked their phones off the 2nd story rooftop. Obviously, whatever the provocation, you can’t do that.

Bill paid for the phones, and the owners didn’t press charges. The problem for me were the typical reactions of commenters on the story, proving once again that the average, even above average member of the public can’t solve a simple ethics problem. Continue reading

Instant Mini-Train Wreck in Taunton: The Facebook Airsoft Homecoming Photo

Homecoming photo

From ABC:

1. The photo was beyond irresponsible and stupid, and looks more so in the wake of the recent school shooting. It’s creepy, Bonny and Clyde-ish, and the caption, “Homecoming 2014,” could be reasonably seen as a threat.

2. The fact that the guns were Airsoft replicas is irrelevant. My son left one of his Airsoft rifles in a car outside our house, and a virtual police S.W.A.T. team showed up. These toys are close enough to the real thing to be threatening.

3. Generally, punishing students for what they say on Facebook exceeds a school’s authority, but not in a case like this.

4. The punishment is wildly excessive. No threat was intended, no weapons were brought on school grounds. The kids broke no laws. They just used terrible judgment.

5. They needed to get a lecture, an assignment, and maybe a suspension of a single day. Hitting them with ten days and possible expulsion is just typical anti-gun bias and hysteria.


Pointer: Jeremy Wiggins