Tag Archives: rationalizations

From The “It’s No Fun Being An Ethicist” Files: I Offend Some Seminar Attendees…

mao

I facilitated a professional ethics seminar a while ago for a scholarly institution, (The locale, names and client have been changed to protect the guilty.) The discussion came around to rationalizations and my favorite on the list, #22:

22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

If “Everybody does it” is the Golden Rationalization, this is the bottom of the barrel. Yet amazingly, this excuse is popular in high places: witness the “Abu Ghraib was bad, but our soldiers would never cut off Nick Berg’s head” argument that was common during the height of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal. It is true that for most ethical misconduct, there are indeed “worse things.” Lying to your boss in order to goof off at the golf course isn’t as bad as stealing a ham, and stealing a ham is nothing compared selling military secrets to North Korea. So what? We judge human conduct against ideals of good behavior that we aspire to, not by the bad behavior of others. One’s objective is to be the best human being that we can be, not to just avoid being the worst rotter anyone has ever met.

Behavior has to be assessed on its own terms, not according to some imaginary comparative scale. The fact that someone’s act is more or less ethical than yours has no effect on the ethical nature of your conduct. “There are worse things” is not an argument; it’s the desperate cry of someone who has run out of rationalizations.

In this case I did a sarcastic riff that is usually well received, about the common example of #22, “It’s not like he killed somebody”:

“Well, you can’t argue with that logic, can you? And if he did kill somebody, it’s not like he killed two people. And even then, that’s not as bad as being, say, a serial killer, like Son of Sam, who, when you think about it, isn’t nearly as bad as a mass murderer like Osama bin Laden. But he’s not as bad as Hitler, and even Adolf isn’t as bad as Mao, who killed about ten times more people than Hitler did. And Mao’s no so bad when you compare him to Darth Vader, who blew up Princess Leia’s whole planet…”

It made the point, and the audience laughed. Then, quite a bit later, I received an e-mail from a participant, complaing about this section. Can you guess what the complaint was?

Think about it a bit…

Time’s up!

Do you have an answer? Continue reading

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Ethics Quiz Of The Day: Deadly Dairy Queen?

The late Kenneth Sutter

The late Kenneth Sutter

Harley Branham, 21, a manager at the Dairy Queen in Fayette, Missouri, has been charged with second degree felony manslaughter following the suicide of 17-year-old Kenneth Suttner, whom she supervised. At an inquest called by the Howard County coroner, witnesses testified that Branham mistreated the teen. She  made Suttner lie on the restaurant floor as he cleaned it by hand, and once threw a cheeseburger at him.  Other witnesses said the boy also had been bullied for years at his school, where students mocked his weight and a speech impediment.

The coroner’s jury blamed both the Dairy Queen and the Glasgow School District for failures in training and prevention of harassment, concluding that Branham “was the principal in the cause of death,” and also that Dairy Queen negligently failed to properly train employees about harassment prevention and resolution, according to the inquest’s verdict form. Jurors also found that the Glasgow Public School system was negligent in failing to prevent his bullying.

All of those factors, the inquest concluded, caused the boy “to take his own life.”

Suttner shot himself on December 21, 2015.

Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler explained the inquest and the verdict, saying,  “I felt there was bullying going on and things weren’t getting corrected. Hopefully this makes the school pay attention to what’s going on. And it’s not just in that school. We all need to wake up and say this exists and we need to take care of it.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is this an ethical use of the criminal laws?

Continue reading

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Filed under Business & Commercial, Character, Childhood and children, Education, Law & Law Enforcement, U.S. Society

Super Bowl Sunday Ethics Quote Of The Day: Professor David DeSteno

pro-brady

“It’s not about the true facts, or about how honest you believe a group is, or what the group’s past behavior is. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, or what team it is, or even if it’s sports at all. Just being a part of a group, any group, is enough to excuse moral transgressions because in some way, you’re benefiting from it. Your moral compass shifts.”

—-David DeSteno, Northeastern University Professor of psychology, explaining why Boston fans believe the New England Patriots, their coach, Bill Belichik, and their star quarterback, Tom Brady, are as pure as the driven snow, while the rest of the country sees them as detestable

The professor’s point will be familiar to any Ethics Alarms readers who have perused the various pots here regarding cognitive dissonance, or even those familiar with the mantra, “Bias makes you stupid.”  However, he has done some interesting research on the phenomenon described in the Times Sports article this morning.

In a psychological experiment, researchers separated people into two groups and offered some of them an option: Complete a fun, 10-minute task, or take on a difficult, 45-minute one. Placed in a room alone, they were told to choose which task they would have to do, or let a coin flip decide. Either way, the person entering the room next would be left with the other task.

Afterward, those people were asked to rate how fairly they had acted, and 90 percent said they had been fair. Except that they were lying. In fact, they had picked the easy task for themselves, without even flipping the coin, wrongly believing that no one was watching…

DeSteno and his former student Piercarlo Valdesolo conducted studies that showed that even strangers placed into groups quickly start favoring the people in their group, as they would favor themselves, even if that group was created randomly, and only minutes earlier. Morality, as it turns out, can change by the second, and for no good reason.

Professor DeSteno told the Times that this isn’t a conscious decision, but an innate survival reaction…. Continue reading

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Filed under Character, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Quotes, Government & Politics, Research and Scholarship, Sports

Unethical Quote Of The Month: Jon Gruden

youth-football

“There are a lot of geniuses that are trying to damage the game, and ruin the game. Do you feel it? There are a lot of geniuses that want to eliminate all sports, including recess. Not on my watch, and clap your hands if you’re with me on that!”

   —-Jon Gruden, ESPN analyst and former NFL coach, speaking at last week’s annual U.S.A. Football convention, the three-day  meeting of  the national governing body for amateur football.

This will be my annual Super Bowl week post,  one of the “watch the game if you have to and enjoy your nachos, just understand that by doing so you are supporting a billion-dollar industry that pays young men to cripple themselves and that is covering up the real risks of brain damage as long as it can” essay that I have written here the last few years.

The New York Times reports that U.S.A. Football is experimenting with a radically altered  version of the game for kids that is designed to reduce head trauma:

Each team will have six to nine players on the field, instead of 11; the field will be far smaller; kickoffs and punts will be eliminated; and players will start each play in a crouching position instead of in a three-point stance…

“The issue is participation has dropped, and there’s concern among parents about when is the right age to start playing tackle, if at all…There are, legitimately, concerns among parents about allowing their kids to play tackle football at a young age,” [Mark Murphy, the president of the Green Bay Packers and a board member at U.S.A.] continued, “so they can look at this and say they’ll be more comfortable that it is a safer alternative.”

Later we are told that the new, supposedly safer version will only be tested in a few locales, and that it may be years before the new rules are widely instituted. And how many kids will sustain brain damage in the meantime, I wonder? From the Times piece…

Continue reading

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Filed under Childhood and children, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Quotes, Sports, U.S. Society

NBC’s Chuck Todd Offers Dubious History To Cover For Democrats

One of these things is not like the other...

One of these things is not like the other…

[A frequent and valued commenter asked Ethics Alarms to examine this, and I am, as many of you know, always eager to delve into the history of My Favorite Men, the Presidents of the United States.]

Yesterday, NBC presented the nauseating display of a prominent member of Congress attempting to undermine the peaceful transfer of power after a legal and fair election. This was unprecedented, and not surprisingly. Only a hyper-partisan ethics dunce who believed that he was beyond criticism and accountability and who was confident that journalists would rationalize his conduct would do such a thing.  In this regard, at least, Rep. John Lewis was correct. The news media had his back.

Before the actual interview was broadcast, news of Lewis’s statement was out regarding Lewis’s attack, and Donald Trump, as he has with Gold Star parents, beauty queens and others and award-winning actresses, had foolishly reacted with an insulting tweet that allowed his critics to shift public attention from the provocation to the target. Is Trump really incapable of learning how stupid this is, no matter how many times he suffers for it? Apparently.

Meanwhile, it was time for the news media to play defense for Lewis, because that’s what they do when Democrats misbehave.

Chuck Todd, the host of “Meet the Press,” used hsiMSNBC show “Meet the Press Daily” to argue that a prominent member of Congress claiming that an elected President isn’t legitimate is just not that big a deal, saying

In case you missed it, Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), civil rights hero and icon, said Donald Trump does not believe is a legitimate president because of the Russian meddling in the election. Leaving aside how you feel about Lewis’ position, it’s not first time a president’s legitimacy has been questioned.”

Then, no doubt thanks to some intern’s searches on Google, he regaled his audience with misleading American history:

In 1824 when John Quincy Adams won the presidency over Andrew Jackson, despite getting clobbered in the popular vote, a lot of people questioned the legitimacy of his victory. In fact, this happens pretty much every time the popular vote loser moves into the White House.

After the 1876 election, Rutherford Hayes, who was called Ruther-fraud Hayes when Congress gave him the electoral majority.

The same in 1888 with Benjamin Harrison. You may remember the occasional cry of foul in 2000 when the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount and George W. Bush won the election.

Sometimes, though, it has nothing to do with voting. When William Henry Harrison died a month after taking office in 1841, a lot of people didn’t accept the idea that as vice president John Tyler or any vice president for that matter could legitimately ascend to the presidency. A lot of people just called him an ‘acting president.’

Most recently, of course, the conservative right and and some Republicans claimed to doubt President Obama’s citizenship and therefore the legitimacy of his right to serve in the office of the presidency.

None of this is meant to pass judgment on John Lewis’ position, it’s just to remind us all this isn’t the first time someone has questioned the legitimacy of an American president. Surely won’t be the last.

This is what our political system does, we have this back and forth. It doesn’t make it any less shocking, frankly, to some of us when you do hear it from people with big influence. That’s all for tonight.

See? No big deal! Happens all the time! Everybody does it! Continue reading

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Presenting The First New Rationalization Of 2017: #32A Imaginary Consent, or “He/She Would Have Wanted It This Way”

roxieThe addition of  New Rationalization #32A Imaginary Consent, or “He/She Would Have Wanted It This Way” to the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List became obligatory after it got a work-out over the holidays. Disney turning long dead character actor Peter Cushing into a zombie performer for the new “Star Wars” film was defended with the claim, which was almost surely also used by his heirs who were paid handsomely for the use of Cushing’s CGI avatar.

And that’s always the way this rationalization arrives. Someone wants to profit through some dubious scheme or transaction, and uses the argument that a revered and quite dead family member, personage of importance or icon “would have approved,” or “would have wanted it.” Like its progenitor 32. The Unethical Role Model: “He/She would have done the same thing,” which employs misdeeds of presumably admirable figures of the past as precedent for misdeed in the future, this is an appeal to irrelevant authority. Worse, Imaginary Consent presumes what cannot possibly be determined without prior express statements from the deceased.

This is one reason why DNR (“Do not resuscitate”) orders are essential. Using a fictional consent to absolve a decision-maker from actual responsibility is both a dodge and cowardly, as well as dishonest. I remember the horrible day that my sister and I were called upon to decide whether to terminate my mother, who was unconscious, on life support and beyond recovery. We made the decision quickly, and what my mother “would have wanted” was never a factor. (She had delegated the decision on her own DNR to my sister.) What my mother wanted, we both agreed, was to live forever. She would have been willing to have her comatose body waiting for a miracle or a cure until the hospital crumbled around her….in fact, that’s why she delegated the decision without instructions. Sure, it would have been easier to fool ourselves with #32A. But it would have been a lie.

The other true story this rationalization makes be think of is the time the elderly parents of a friend decided to euthanize their wonderful, bounding, big and joyful dog Roxie, some kind of a felicitous hybrid between a boxer and a freight train. They were moving into a resort where dogs were not allowed.  I was aghast, but they insisted, “We just know Roxie wouldn’t be happy living with anyone else.”

I argued(they did not appreciate it), “You know what? I bet if she could talk, Roxie would say, ‘You know, I really like you guys, really, and I’ll miss you a lot, but on balance I think I’d rather keep living, thanks. I’ll miss you, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get over it. Have a great time in Florida.'”

They killed her anyway.

#32A is a way to pass off responsibility for an ethically  dubious decision on someone who is beyond participation in that decision, and sometimes even the victim of it. It is cowardly, unaccountable, and based on an assertion that may not be true.

___________________

Special Thanks to Reader/Commenter Zoltar Speaks!, who suggested the new entry.

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Filed under Arts & Entertainment, Childhood and children, Family, Health and Medicine

“Start The Car!” Ethics

“Start the car!” shouts the woman in a ubiquitous IKEA TV commercial for its “Winter Sale.” She has received her receipt, and  the total is so low that she assumes there has been a mistake.  She quickly exits the store with bags of purchases, and while running calls to her husband in the car outside so he will pick her up and hit the gas before someone comes to reclaim the merchandise or demand more payment. As they drive away with what she thinks are her ill-gotten gains, she lets out a whoop of triumph.

The narration explains that IKEA’s sale prices are so low, this how you will feel.

The commercial is unethical. It trivializes and normalizes theft, and rejects the ethical values of honesty, integrity and responsibility. Apparently the ad has been running internationally for a long time (it only just started showing up in my region) and is very popular. Writes one industry commentator, “People relate to the message because at one point or another while shopping we’ve all had that feeling that we just got away with something.”

Really? I haven’t. My father didn’t either (my mom was another story.) I’ve told waitresses and clerks that they undercharged me. I’ve returned excessive change. I’ve handed back money to tellers when two bills stuck together. You don’t? What the hell’s the matter with you? Were you raised by Fagin?

Though the commercial was a hit and positively accepted in all of the nations where it was viewed, there is hope:  it also received many negative comments and complaints. An Advertising Standards Board—I cannot for the life of me find out which; the U.S. has no such board. I’m guessing Sweden— thus considered whether this advertisement breached   its Advertisers Code of Ethics.

The breach would be that the commercial isn’t socially responsible, since it represents taking merchandise from a store that hasn’t been fully paid for as normal and acceptable conduct. The Board viewed the advertisement in light of the complaints and decided that the ad was ethically inoffensive.

Guess why.

No, go ahead, guess.

Continue reading

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