Why Did A Judge Let A Man Who Was Trying To Kill His Wife Get Off With A Tough, “Now, Now, Don’t Try To Poison Your Wife Again!” [Updated]

[Notice of corrections: This post had way too many typos, and I apologize profusely. Thanks to Crella for alerting me. I think I got all of them.]

I have a theory.

I wish I didn’t.

Therese Kozlowski got a videotape of her husband Brian poisoning her coffee with sleeping pills. Even with this evidence, the poisoner received a sentence of just 60 days in jail, which he will be allowed to serve on the weekends. The prosecutor called the sentence “a slap in the face” of the victim. Oh, it’s much worse than that.

It all started after Therese said she wanted a divorce. Then she noticed that she was feeling drowsy and tired on mornings when Brian made the coffee. She narrowly avoided an accident when she fell asleep while driving to work. So she secretly installed a small video camera by the coffee machine, and sure enough, Brian was putting the equivalent of eight sleeping pills in the morning java.

“Brian’s continuous, methodical, and calculated plot to poison me included a complete disregard for human life, including his own daughter [she also drank some of the spiked coffee], along with hundreds of other drivers who he put at risk every day for weeks,” Therese Kozlowski said in court. “I believe this was attempted murder. Once Brian realized he lost me and there was no getting me to stay in this unhealthy marriage, his goal was to eliminate me.”

This convinced Macomb County (Michigan) Circuit Court Judge Antonio Viviano , he said, to give Brian jail time instead of merely probation, which was his initial instinct. Continue reading

Comment(s) Of The Day: “Ethics Dunce: Actress Busy Philipps”

As always happens when the topic of abortion raises its ugly head, the commentator responded with passionate and entertaining arguments. Outstanding in the fray were the posts of jmv0405and Benjamin on opposite sides of the question of when life begins and human rights attach to it.

I’m combining two of Benjamin’s comments here, both addressing jmv0405‘s contention that the unborn doesn’t necessarily qualify as human. In his second comment, directly attempts to rebut specific assertions.

Here is Benjamin’s two-part Comment of Day on the post, “Ethics Dunce: Actress Busy Philipps”...

You’ve moved the question “what does it mean to be human?” into the fore. I think you’ve taken it lightly though. We’ve all seen the science fictional stories of men who turn into animals. If you turn into a horse in this sense, your physical form becomes that of a horse, but you somehow remain you. There’s another sense of this that intrigues old philosophers. What if the physical form remains the same, and you (the you that lies under and in all that meat, the you that’s looking at this screen through your eyes) become a horse in some essential sort of way? How would that appear to us from the outside? You can forget things and even experience amnesia and still remain you, so memories and knowledge aren’t you rightly so called. This horse imposter may very well behave exactly as you did before you were displaced. This could be happening every day. It may have happened to you, you horse, you! There’s no evidence to tell us otherwise. I suppose this does not happen. You suppose something like this does happen at some vague stage of human development.

I argue that my supposition, a continuous chain of being, is no more false than yours. William of Ockham would agree, his razor being rightly understood, because we have no reason to think otherwise. Continue reading

Comment Of The Day: “The Most Unethical Sentencing Fallacy Of All: Lavinia Woodward Gets “The King’s Pass”

I am almost caught up on my backlog of Comments of the Day!

This one, by multiple COTDs author Humble Talent, is really two; I’m taking the liberty of combining his later explication with the original comment, as they follow as the night follows day. The topic is bias and double standards in the criminal justice system, and hold on to your hat.

Here is Humble Talent’s 2-for 1 Comment of the Day on the post, “The Most Unethical Sentencing Fallacy Of All: Lavinia Woodward Gets “The King’s Pass”:

You know, every now and again when I’m feeling adventurous, I go to a place I think will have a whole lot of people that don’t think like me and poke at their sacred cows. You meet all kinds of people, and recently, I was given probably one of the better answers to a gender/race issue from the other side yet.

The original fact pattern is that racial activists will cite disparate impact as a problem at every stage of an interaction with the legal system. Black people are more likely to be pulled over, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive harsher sentences… All for the same stimulus. All of this, by the way, is true. It doesn’t account for the five-fold disparity between the black and white prison population on a per capita basis, but it is a thumb on the scale.

The juxtaposition is that the disparity between men and women in the justice system is about six times that of the racial disparity I just described. Men are more likely to be pulled over, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive harsher sentences… All for the same stimulus. Sonja Starr wrote extensively on this, and despite some of her methodology being questioned, there’s general consensus that she was on to something.

So the question is that if someone is deeply concerned about inequality, that they are genuinely interested in justice for everyone, why wouldn’t you be just as, if not more concerned with the gender disparity, than the racial one? Continue reading

The Most Unethical Sentencing Fallacy Of All: Lavinia Woodward Gets “The King’s Pass”

Oxford University student Lavinia Woodward, 24,  punched and stabbed her boyfriend in a drunken rage, then hurled a jam jar, a glass and a laptop at him. This, in the U.S., would be called a criminal assault, and maybe even attempted murder.  Ah, but British Judge Ian Pringle knows better. He agrees these acts would normally mean a prison term, but Lavinia is a star student, and wants to be a surgeon. He hinted that he would spare her prison time so that her “extraordinary” talent would not be wasted. As poor Lavinia’s barrister, James Sturman, argued, his client’s dreams of becoming a surgeon would be “almost impossible” if she had to serve time.

Well, we certainly mustn’t jeopardize a violent felon’s dreams.

This kind of reasoning is infused with The King’s Pass, also known as The Star Syndrome, the rationalization making the perverse unethical argument that the more talented, prominent, useful and important to society a miscreant is, the less he or she should be accountable for misconduct that nets lesser lights serious and devastating consequences:

11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?”

One will often hear unethical behavior excused because the person involved is so important, so accomplished, and has done such great things for so many people that we should look the other way, just this once. This is a terribly dangerous mindset, because celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected whenever it raises its slimy head.  In fact, the more respectable and accomplished an individual is, the more damage he or she can do through unethical conduct, because such individuals engender great trust. Thus the corrupting influence on the individual of The King’s Pass leads to the corruption of others.

Judge Pringle is taking the King’s Pass/Star Syndrome to a new low: he’s arguing that Lavinia should receive special treatment based on how valuable to society she might be, given enough immunity from the consequences of her own conduct.  Continue reading

The Unlikely Ethics Dunce, And Why Nobody Pays Attention To Ethicists And I Don’t Blame Them

Wait, how can the nation's most famous ethicist be an Ethics Dunce? It's not easy...

Wait, how can the nation’s most famous ethicist be an Ethics Dunce? It’s not easy…

Ethicists have managed to make ethics nearly invisible in our cultural debates, and nearly useless as a decision-making tool, when it ought to be the most useful tool of all. They accomplished this over centuries of work, making the discipline of ethics abstruse, elitist, abstract, and worse of all, boring. Nobody should be bored with ethics, hence my statement, “Ethics isn’t boring, ethicists are.” Once ethics was pigeon-holed in the realm of philosophy, however (it belongs with “crucial life skills” and “critical thinking”) and philosophy became associated with scholarship, advanced degrees and academia, the jig was up.

The problem is that academic ethicists teach and write about abstract ethics, and life is not abstract. Their quest is for one formula to determine right from wrong, and life and human beings are more complicated than any one formula can encompass. When I started this blog, I got a lot of grad students writing me who demanded to know whether I was a Utilitarian,  Kantian Deontologist, a follower of Natural Law Ethics,  a Virtue Ethicist or a devotee of Stakeholder theory. My answer was “all of the above and none of them.” All of these and more are useful tools of analysis, but none work all the time, and the amount of words loaded into jargon to explain and debate the nuances of any of them render them all useless except for  writing scholarly papers.

The ethics that the public learns, as a result, are what pop culture and society teach them, and most of that isn’t ethics at all. For example, in the cable series “The Affair,” a well-educated older man was advising a young woman, the mistress in the affair, about how to think about the illicit relationship that broke up he lover’s marriage. Wise and thoughtful, he described his own adulterous affair, and then said, “What you did wasn’t wrong. You didn’t kill anybody. You didn’t break any laws.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.”  There is no ethics in that statement. Itis just employs two popular and facile rationalizations (#4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical,” and #22, the worst of all, #22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”) with another lurking but unspoken one, the Cheater’s Special, #23. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants,’ underlying the whole scene.

That’s ethics, I would guess, to about 90% of the population. Scary. This is, however, where ethicists have taken us. They could be so important to the culture, if they would get their heads out of their asinine models and explain ethical principles that are relevant to real lives in a manner that doesn’t make normal people become hostile to the subject.

This brings us to Peter Singer, Princeton’s acclaimed professor of bioethics who has been called the most influential ethicist alive. It is admittedly faint praise, but probably correct. Continue reading

Let Us All Bow In Gratitude To Colorado For Generously Sacrificing Its Children And The Safety And Welfare of Its Citizens To Prove What Responsible People Knew Already: Pot Should Stay Illegal

Hey, Que pasa! You idiot...

Hey, Que pasa! You idiot…

I’m probably going to stray a bit from strictly professional rhetoric here, but this really makes me angry.

According to a report released this month by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, there has been a 29% increase in marijuana-related emergency room visits and a 38 % increase in pot-related hospitalizations during retail marijuana’s first year in Colorado.

[ NOTE: This is a correction. The original version of the post gave the wrong impression that hospitalizations were up: this was not my intent. Thanks to Humble Talent for being persistent. Ethics Alarms apologizes for the error. We’ll try to do better.]

Now 11% of Colorado’s 12 to 17 year-olds use pot,  56% higher than the national average.There has also been a 40% increase in drug-related suspensions and expulsions in school, primarily from marijuana.

Mercy, what a surprise! Who could have predicted that? Well me, for one, as well as others neither dedicated to getting their periodic recreational buzz nor addled by moldy Sixties cant.

Of course making pot legal and widely available for adults would cause an epidemic of use by kids, who, the evidence increasingly shows, may suffer long term adverse effectsOf course it is causing accidents. Of course adding a third harmful legal drug to the devastating and deadly duo of alcohol and tobacco is going to make society dumber, less safe and less productive. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Ethics Alarms Encore: ‘Aesop’s Unethical and Misleading Fable: The North Wind and the Sun”

AESOPSFABLNever let it be said that we aren’t eclectic on Ethics Alarms! Today’s Comment of the Day is a thoughtful response to my objections to Aesop’s “The North Wind and the Sun,” a 2011 post that I republished this week in fascination over how it continues to draw traffic. The thread here and on the original has touched on many diverse topics, including theology; commenter Rich (in CT), however, just submitted the most interesting analysis yet.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Alarms Encore: “Aesop’s Unethical and Misleading Fable: The North Wind and the Sun:

”The comparison of God and Satan in Job to the Sun and Wind is an apt comparison, because the fable relies on “divine privilege”. An exercise of divine privilege should not be taken as an example of behavior that non-divine entities should emulate. Rather, they are external parameters that set up a hypothetical environment to illustrate the lesson of the story.

I specifically say “lesson”, because the objective of the story need not be a superficial “moral”. The “moral” that was selected here was a lazy plot device by an author who attempted to pigeon-hole the fable into his limited definition of a fable. While the particular moral in the version you share is useless, the fable perhaps might better illustrate both the use of strategic thinking and well as illustrate the role of moral luck in one’s success. A more apt “moral”, if any, might be to be clever, but acknowledge the limit of cleverness.

Ethical behavior never takes place in a vacuum, but must balance certain principles with the current circumstances. In the fable, an arbitrary task is selected, and the two actors use the tools at their disposal to attempt to achieve the task. The wind has two tools: blow hard or soft; the sun has analogous tools: beat hard or soft. Given the task, arbitrarily set up as a competition, only one had tools that could creatively solve the task.

The tale here thus illustrates a few important principles that are of value to a child; creative use of ones tools can lead to success, and that not everyone has a every tool available. A non-lazy author might use the fable to teach the value of cooperation, pooling a group’s tools to complete a task.

The particular task is irrelevant, and is set up as an exercise of divine privilege. Mere mortals have no right to manipulate the weather, but the fable’s embodiment of the solar rays and moving air manipulate these elements in an ethically neutral manner. The selection of a mere mortal as a target of task, might be to lead the reader indirectly, through empathy, to the conclusion that some circumstances are arbitrary and beyond one’s control. The objective might be to teach humility, that one is never entirely responsible for one’s success, no matter how clever one might be.

I thus agree that the particular version of the fable shared is unethical. This is, however, the result of a lazy author. The premise, if used wisely, is ethically neutral; Aesop, or some other interpreter, could use the premise of the story to teach a valuable lesson if so desired.