Tag Archives: rationalization

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

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Filed under Comment of the Day, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement, Race, Research and Scholarship, Rights

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

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Filed under Around the World, Character, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Law & Law Enforcement

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

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Filed under Bioethics, Character, Education, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, Health and Medicine, Professions

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

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Childhood and children, Education, Government & Politics, Health and Medicine, Law & Law Enforcement, Research and Scholarship, Science & Technology, U.S. Society

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.

 

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Filed under Childhood and children, Education, History, Literature, Religion and Philosophy

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

north-wind-and-the-sun-story-oil-painting

[ I vowed that the next time I got a comment on this post, I would publish it again. It hails from four years ago, when  Ethics Alarms got a quarter of the traffic it gets now. I confess that I wrote it on a whim, having been talking with my wife about how Aesop’s Fables were joining Mother Goose stories,  Edward Lear limericks and American folks song in the Discarded Bin of our culture and then stumbling upon a fable I had either never read before or forgotten about.  To my surprise the post attracted intense criticism from fans of the story—I even had to ban a commenter who got hysterical about it—and the post joined a very eclectic group of early essays here that get considerable and consistent readership every week. Apparently there are a lot of Sun-worshipers out there. Anyway, since you probably missed it the first time, here it is.]

Today, by happenstance, I heard an Aesop’s Fable that I had never encountered before recited on the radio. Like all Aesop’s Fables, at least in its modern re-telling, this one had a moral attached , and is also a statement of ethical values. Unlike most of the fables, however, it doesn’t make its case. It is, in fact, an intellectually dishonest, indeed an unethical, fable.

It is called “The North Wind and the Sun,” and in most sources reads like this:

“The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.”

The moral of the fable is variously stated as “Persuasion is better than Force” , or “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

The fable proves neither. In reality, it is a vivid example of dishonest argument, using euphemisms and false characterizations to “prove” a proposition that an advocate is biased toward from the outset. Continue reading

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Filed under Around the World, Childhood and children, Education, Literature, Religion and Philosophy, War and the Military

Comment Of The Day: “US Priorities: Make War On Cheese, Not On Drugs”

smoking_weedThe articulate squid commenter, Extradimensional Cephalopod, weighed into the contentious discussion over the wisdom of pot use and government approval there-of with this thought-provoking piece.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post: US Priorities: Make War On Cheese, Not On Drugs.

I’ll have a few comments at the end.

Full disclosure: I have not used marijuana, but I have had its effects described to me in detail by people who have. My understanding of it is that it has at least two separate and notable effects, which can vary based on the particular strain. One of them is a relaxing effect, although some strains actually increase anxiety at some point after use. However, the relaxing effect makes it suitable for medical purposes such as treating seizures. The other effect I am aware of is an increase in the brain’s divergent thinking patterns; that is, it increases random association, enhancing creativity and making experiences more vivid. A user can increase this effect deliberately by increasing the quantity inhaled or ingested to the point where coherent thought is difficult, but this requires very high levels of intake. I am told that it is not chemically addictive, or toxic except inasmuch as inhaling smoke in general is toxic, but more on the level of incense rather than cigarettes.

In my opinion, people have a right to use the substance provided they do not take actions that put others at risk by doing so, such as driving. I see no reason to ban the substance, but one can certainly ban taking actions that become dangerous under its effects. As a transhumanist, I see nothing inherently wrong with using a form of technology to alter one’s mental state artificially. Marijuana does not seem like a harmful or dangerous way to do so, as long as one is responsible. I agree that people who use marijuana, or alcohol, for that matter, can become very boring and less able to have interesting conversations, although sometimes the opposite happens; it depends on who the person was to begin with and how they react.

On the other hand, the ethics system that I subscribe to and through which I come to the above conclusions is based on promoting consciousness. One of the root problems with this world is that humans get very easily addicted to mindsets, experiences, or control. Addictions are blind spots, limitations that a consciousness has picked up that allow it to be manipulated by the world instead of being its own master. An addiction occurs when a mindset, experience, or form of control automatically becomes a person’s first priority in certain situations even where the person would intellectually judge it to be subordinate to a more important goal. It is possible to get mentally addicted to pretty much anything: alcohol, marijuana, candy, sex, adrenaline, attention, solitude, et cetera. To a certain extent we all have addictions in that when our lives are changed we feel uncomfortable and stressed, but toning addictions down is part of empowering ourselves.

That being said, my ethics system leads me to disapprove of the use of marijuana (or other drugs, for that matter) as a means to induce apathy to escape the stress that would otherwise lead a person to self-improvement. My worldview draws a distinction between joy and well-being. Joy is a positive feeling towards one’s current circumstances. Well-being, however, I define as regularly developing new abilities or improving one’s point of view, or any sort of change that results in a person having a more harmonious relationship with the world and being able to promote harmony for other individuals. Here is where the “it’s the journey, not the destination” cliche comes in. Joy may be the destination that people try to reach because it is associated with a state of increased harmony, but consciousness, the process by which people try to reach asymptotically-increasing states of harmony, is what makes us people in the first place, with all the associated awareness and abilities, and it is consciousness that I prioritize.

Long story short: it’s okay to use drugs to augment one’s ability to improve oneself (especially if one has a disability that requires the use of drugs to bring mental functions within human normal), as a tool (yes, sometimes a crutch) to access mindsets you want to use but can’t invoke at will, or as a neutral form of recreation. Using drugs as a substitute for self-improvement so that one can stagnate without feeling bad about it is pathetic and not empowering at all.

I hope this post has been coherent, but I have an internal vocabulary that has developed in partial isolation, so if there is any confusion that you want resolved, please let me know.

It’s me again. Just a few notes:

  • One thing I always appreciate about EC is that he never makes a typo. I am awash in envy.
  • I have been shocked at how many commenters on the main post never have used pot. Either I am not as strange as I always thought I was, or this blog does not attract anything close to a representative cross-section of America.
  • I should have mentioned in the original post that the Federal government still regards pot as illegal. However, with its first confirmed former pot-head as President ( Clinton didn’t inhale, remember), and the “base” of the Democratic party as well as most reporters clearly in favor of Stoned America, I think the eventual legalization is a certainty.
  • Alcohol is not chemically addictive either, except for the minority of the population that doesn’t metabolize booze properly, those we call alcoholics. However, there are many alcohol addicts who are not alcoholics, and they are psychologically addicted, and seriously so. Psychological addiction to a drug can be and often is both indistinguishable from the physical kind, and just as destructive to them and those who depend on them.
  • I am dubious about the substantive beneficial effects of pot, John Lennon and Timothy Leary notwithstanding. The use of marijuana for genuine palliative purposes is obviously valid; it is also obviously being abused.
  • I endorse the Squid’s penultimate sentence, but I think that this kind of drug use should never be discussed without the adjective “irresponsible” prominently displayed. For this is why discouraging such use is a legitimate, indeed crucial, government function, and a function the government cannot perform while approving the conduct, and, as we all know is coming, profiting by it. The government has to promote responsible conduct from its citizens, because irresponsible conduct does material harm to society.

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Filed under Comment of the Day, Government & Politics, Health and Medicine, Law & Law Enforcement, Religion and Philosophy, U.S. Society