John McCain (1936-2018) And Ethics

Senator John McCain died last night, just a day after the announcement that he had suspended treatment for the brain cancer diagnosed last summer. His passing is an event that must be noted on an ethics blog, even though the Senator was nearly as prominent in his ethical missteps as he was in his moments of principle and heroism.

I think the fairest way to assess the career of John McCain is that he tried to do the right thing, and like most essentially good human beings, was sometimes misled and confused by emotion, bias, self-interest and careless ethical analysis. Senator McCain was an adherent of the common belief that if you know you are essentially good, your gut will guide you through ethical challenges. That belief is erroneous, unfortunately—ethics is harder than that—and sometimes steered McCain tragically wrong. Nonetheless, I have little doubt that if all elected officials had the approach to ethics that John McCain did and possessed the values that guided him, our politics would be cleaner and more trustworthy, and our nation and our culture would be better. Not perfect, for McCain was not perfect. But definitely better.

The reason this is true is that McCain refused to be locked into ideologies and partisan cant. When he thought his party or its leadership was wrong, he was unusually willing to say so, and to act on his words. This garnered him the over-used label of “maverick,” which trivialized a personal ethical code: Don’t do what everyone else—your friends, allies and followers–is telling you to do just because it’s the easier choice. If there was ever someone who rejected the #1 Rationalization, “Everybody does it,” and all of its variations, it was John McCain. That alone made him more ethical than the vast majority of his fellow citizens, and especially his fellow politicians.

I wish I could designate McCain an Ethics Hero Emeritus, but I can’t. He was certainly a hero in wartime, as a prisoner of war who endured great suffering without succumbing to the temptation to ease his own pain by inflicting more on his comrades in arms. His ethical compass failed, however, in many high-profile situations and events.

He blundered into the Keating Five scandal. He convinced himself that betraying the principles of the First Amendment was necessary to limit corruption in political campaigns, an embrace of “the ends justify the means” that despite being foiled by the U.S. Supreme Court, has undermined public support and understanding of the Bill of Rights. Seeking the GOP Presidential nomination in 2000, McCain refused to condemn South Carolina’s official use of the Confederate flag during the state’s crucial primary, then, after he lost, pandered to the left and moderates by announcing that he had been wrong—a sickening example of flip-flopping for a public figure whose trademark was integrity. (The episode marked the end of my illusions about John McCain.) He behaved similarly when his re-election campaigns in Arizona looked daunting, rejecting his own compromise proposals on illegal immigration and taking the same hard-line that his conservative opponents had taken against him. This was pure political expediency, hardly unusual in a politician, but disqualifying for membership in the Ethics Alarms Hall of Heroes. Continue reading

Ethics Observations On The San Bernardino Massacre

shootout1

1. Curse you, Moral Luck. Unless this attack turns out to have been coordinated with ISIS or other international terrorists, its timing and the fact that at least two of the suspects are Muslims and American citizens could easily be the result of random chance. Ethical analysts, pundits, advocates and politicians should resist any temptation to make this incident part of any larger narrative or use it to support any political agenda.

2.  Unfortunately, if the ethical analysts, advocates and politicians shut up until they know something, all we will hear from is the unethical ones, who are far more numerous. Anti-gun zealots will immediately say, “See? Now we’re having a mass shooting every day! Ban guns!” Donald Trump will say, “See? Muslims are dangerous and out to kill us! Ban Muslims!”

3. We have yet to hear from Trump, but President Obama, as is his habit, already proclaimed the root cause of the shooting that has cost 14 lives so far. It’s all the guns. This is certainly the canny argument to make in order to mobilize the anti-gun forces while emotions run high; it signals the Post Sandy Hook Propaganda Push, Part II. That doesn’t make it right or responsible. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

“The idea that allowing two loving, committed people to marry would have a negative impact on anyone else, or on our nation as a whole, has always struck me as absurd.”

—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after calling Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act “a great, historic day for equality in America.” Reid voted for the law when it was overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. Senate, back when treating gays like second-class citizens was popular.

Harry Reid, embracing absurdity when it is politically expedient...

Harry Reid, embracing absurdity when it is politically expedient…

It’s hard to say which of the legislative lions prowling the cloak rooms of Capital Hill are more loathsome—Republican Mich McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid. It’s easy to decide which is more shamelessly cynical and hypocritical, however. That would be Harry Reid.

If he “always” thought that DOMA was “absurd,” why did he vote for it? Are we to take from this that he not only is willing to vote for absurd measures (he has voted for many), but also votes for measures when he believes they are absurd? Or does he just say whatever he thinks will sound good to the low-information, knee-jerk progressives who have a memory of about two weeks (if that) regarding any issue, and possess the naïve belief, also absurd, that only Republicans lie to them? Continue reading

Barn Doors + Anger + Ignorance + Irresponsible Legislators = “Caylee’s Law”

When someone first mentioned the wave of support for “Caylee’s Law,” proposed legislation so far pending in four states making it a felony for a parent not to report a child’s death within an hour or a missing child within 24 hours, I responded that it “sounded like a good idea.”  Lots of dumb things sound good to me before I think about them. “Caylee’s Law,” is in fact a terrible idea, and about 10 minutes of quality thought illuminates why.

The law is the result of multiple factors more related to human nature than sound law enforcement. When something unpopular and frustrating happens, like the death of Caylee Anthony and her mother’s subsequent acquittal of murder charges, the response is often to try to fix the problem with a law. Such laws are often formulated in the heat of emotion and sentiment rather than careful reasoning and consideration, and the result is  bad laws that cause more problems that they solve.

These laws also embody the Barn Door Fallacy. Society passes broad-based measures to stop an unusual occurrence that has already done its damage, and that may be extremely unlikely to occur again. Nevertheless, society and the public saddle themselves with expensive, inconvenient, often inefficient measures designed to respond to the rare event. One shoe bomber, and millions of passengers have to remove their shoes to go through airport security. One adulterated bottle of Tylenol, and every over-the-counter drug bottle requires a razor blade and the manual dexterity of a piano virtuoso to open. Two sick boys shoot up Columbine, so third graders get suspended for bringing squirt–guns to school. Continue reading

Bin Laden Aftermath Ethics: Deadly Expediency and Incompetence at the Top

Psst! Joe! SHUT UP! You're killing people!

Secretary of Defense William Gates told a group of Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina that the Navy SEALs who took out Osama bin Laden were concerned about their safety and that of their families. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death  exposed President Obama’s inner circle, not for the first time, as inept and reckless in the responsibilities and priorities of leadership.

Mere days after the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound, Vice President Biden spontaneously announced the name of one of the men in charge of the SEALs team at a fundraiser in Washington, saying, Continue reading