Ethics Quiz: The Dog-Poisoners [UPDATED]

This is, I know, a poor topic for Christmas, but it just came down the chimney.

While shopping yesterday, we encountered a man who lived in the neighborhood. Rugby had enjoyed conversing with the two dogs owned by the man and his wife, two friendly, lively min-pins. As shoppers bustled around us, our neighbor announced that he was more our neighbor than ever: he and his wife had moved from where I had met them to a home less than a block away from ours, on the long street that our cul de sac opens onto. The reason for the move: their next-door neighbor had poisoned their dogs. One had survived.

Our neighbor said that they had called the police, who investigated. Based on motive (the there had been a property dispute, and the resulting law suit had gone our friends’ way), opportunity, and the demeanor and comments the police got while questioning the suspects as well as accounts about their threats and general sociopathic tendencies from others on the street, the police reported that they were pretty sure my neighbors’ neighbor were the culprits, but that they did not have sufficient evidence to make an arrest.

This story had unpleasant resonations for me. My Dad, when he was a 10 year-old only child being raised by a single mother during the depression and having to move to new neighborhoods constantly, owned a large, loyal Airedale named Bumbo. One day someone put ground glass in his beloved dog’s food dish, and my father had to see his best friend die in agony in his arms. It was one of the great tragedies of his life. His mother was certain who had killed the dog, but again, there was insufficient proof.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is my neighbor obligated to tell anyone who is interested in renting or buying his now-abandoned property that the neighbor poisoned his dogs?

Continue reading

Are Haunted House Ethics The Same As Murder House Ethics?

Haunted-Homes2

I spent the wee hours last night watching “Insidious 2” (not as scary as “1,” and too confusing to watch while composing ethics blog posts), and, to fend off nightmares, the Wayans’ “A Haunted House” (sillier, grosser and not as funny as their two “Scary Movie” efforts). Naturally, this set me wondering about the ethics of selling a haunted house to an unaware buyer.

I thought I had covered this problem before here and here, where the topic was whether a property owner had an ethical obligation to divulge that the house in question had been the site of gruesome murders or suicides. The law in most states declares caveat emptor, but that’s only the law. The ethics verdict, in my view (but not everyone’s) is this, which my last comment on the topic, in 2013: Continue reading

Ethics Poll: The Amityville Kidney

"Wait---you're going to put THAT  inside me???"

“Wait—you’re going to put THAT inside me???”

In the comments to the post The Kidneys of Orlac, Texagg04 raises a fascinating angle that I had not considered. I have previously written, regarding state regulations that do not require realtors or sellers to disclose that a grisly murder or six occurred on a property, that a purchaser has the right to know about such conditions that may bother him personally, and that regardless of the laws involved, there is an ethical duty inform  a potential purchaser know that he is buying the site of the Amityville Horror (for example). Texagg04 suggests..

“Much like real estate agents ought to reveal that a house had a grisly murder in it, I’d submit that recipients of organ donations of this kind should get to be informed of the donor’s convictions.”

Hmmm. I’m not so sure. One of the reasons for my views about the death houses is that they may be difficult for the uninformed buyer to sell later if the home’s history is known or becomes well known. Also, there are always alternatives to buying a particular house—given a choice between the site of a murder and a similar house with no such history, I might opt for the latter—I’ve seen too many of the “Paranormal Experiences”  and “The Grudge” movies, I guess. But with donated organs, the options are more limited. Maybe not telling the recipient that he has the heart of the Green River Killer is the fair and kind thing to do.

Let’s vote!

Ethics Hero: Millikin University

This story sounds like it was dreamed up for joint production of the Lifetime Movie Network and Chiller.

Above: The scene of Wolcott's mothers shooting; below, his father.

Above: The scene of Wolcott’s mothers shooting; below, his father.

Millikin University is a private institution in Decatur, Illinois with approximately 2400 students. It has been thrust into local headlines with the discovery that one of its psychology professors, James St. James, who heads the schools Department of Behavioral Sciences, murdered his parents and his older sister when he was 15. Then he was called James Gordon Wolcott.

He changed his name after being treated in a mental institution, where he was sent after being found not guilty of the crime because he was legally insane at the time of the killings. High from sniffing glue, the brilliant but emotionally disturbed teen grabbed a .22-caliber rifle, walked into the living room and shot his father, then shot his sister and his mother.

Six years after being sent to Rusk State Hospital,  Wolcott emerged apparent cured, and ready to lead a productive life. Ironically, his patricide and his insanity  had greased the way for his rehabilitation: he inherited his parents’ estate and was able to draw a monthly stipend from his father’s pension fund. Changing his name to St. James, he earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a PhD, and became an award-winning professor at Millikin. Professor St. James’ secret was undiscovered until this year. He is now 61. Continue reading

A Compliant, Law-abiding and Unethical Murder House Sale

Immaterial

Immaterial

We last considered the issue of realtors sneaking murder houses by trusting purchasers nearly two years ago, when Jon Benet Ramsey’s home and place of death came up for sale. We had a knock down, drag out argument about it too. My position: while it might be legal for a seller not to disclose that a home was the site of a murder or worse (and in most places it is), and while many regard sensitivity on such matters mere superstition not worthy of serious respect, the seller and the realtor have an ethical obligation to inform  potential buyers when the property for sale is a murder scene As I wrote in the conclusion to the post about the Ramsey home:

“The truth is still this: there is something about the $2,300,000 house that makes it undesirable to a lot of prospects, and that means that even if the law doesn’t require the seller to tell interested house-hunters the story of the little dead girl in the basement, fairness and the Golden Rule do.”

This applies to the case at hand, where Pennsylvania’s Superior Court recently ruled that a murder-suicide occurring in a home is not a “material defect” that requires disclosure in that home’s sale. While a murder-suicide occurring in a house might be “psychological damage” to the property or its reputation, the court said, realtors don’t have to disclose it. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Murder House Ethics and the Validity of Feelings”

"Oh THAT! You would have cared about THAT?"

Tgt, the ghosts of whose earlier argument in series of comments haunted me prompted a revisit to the issue of murder houses and a seller’s obligation to reveal their history to potential buyers, came back with this Comment of the Day, thought-provoking, as usual:

“…I still want to know the line that determines what ethically does and does not need to be disclosed. It was never settled. This post generally boils down to another emotional appeal that something should be done in some cases. I want to know which cases and why those. Otherwise, my argument holds fast. I don’t see multiple murders (the latest clearly having nothing to do with the earlier ones) as being any more relevant than one murder.

“I also believe Jack misrepresented my position on emotion in general. Us rational humanists still mourn our dead, though we try to celebrate their lives more than anything else. While humans are not special in the concept of the Universe, we understand that we are special to ourselves and in our relations with other people. Humanism is about celebrating human life and relationships.

“As for death specifically, I see no need of a grave or burial rites. A dead body is just decomposing flesh. It does not need to be prayed for and cleansed. The person though, the lasting effects they have had on others, the memories of them – these are all important. I cried when a somewhat distant high school friend died in a freak accident at 17. I sent his family flowers on the anniversary of his death for the next 2 years. Why? Because it let his family know that he wasn’t forgotten, that he made an impact on other lives. It let them knew that people cared… people they only knew by name. I cherish the cards they sent in response. Continue reading

Murder House Ethics and the Validity of Feelings

We last visited the issue of the ethical selling of murder houses in February, when  the Jon Benet Ramsey house went on sale. I opined that even though Colorado doesn’t have a legal requirement that a seller must reveal the history of the house as long as it has no structural implications, there is an ethical obligation to let prospective buyers know about house-related events that might cause them to reconsider their decision to buy it:

“The truth is still this: there is something about the $2,300,000 house that makes it undesirable to a lot of prospects, and that means that even if the law doesn’t require the seller to tell interested house-hunters the story of the little dead girl in the basement, fairness and the Golden Rule do.”

The debate over this issue was unexpectedly intense. Ethics Alarms’ resident rational humanist “tgt” objected strenuously, writing,

“I don’t see how you can avoid the slippery slope question. Your basis is 50% of the population having a desire. Is that the cutoff? I think over 50% of people would prefer to live in a house where there hasn’t been child abuse. Go back a few years, and I bet a significant portion of the population would prefer to live in a house that had never had black occupants. Back in today’s world, more than 50% of the population doesn’t want to live in a haunted house. If a previous tenant thought the house was haunted, does the complete nonexistence of ghosts make not mentioning this a material representation? If an event is uncommon, does a realtor need to take a poll before deciding what is material and what isn’t?”

Karl Penny, however, bolstered my position:

“…the question is, does the realtor have an ethical obligation to fully reveal the history of this house. Well, the funny thing about behaving ethically is, it often requires us to act in ways that are not in our own immediate best interest… this may give a potential buyer a leverage point to negotiate a lower price for the house, to the detriment of the realtor, who could end up taking a lower commission as a result. No surprise, then, that the realtor would love to find a reason not to opt for full disclosure. But, if that realtor successfully conceals the house’s history from an actual buyer, one who would not have bought had they known otherwise? The realtor had a simple, human duty to disclose, even if it cost him money (and, yes, even if it cost me money, were I the realtor)….Jack’s right: this is Golden Rule time. If I am willing to treat with someone else in a way that I would not want anyone to treat with me, is that logically consistent (much less ethically consistent)? And would any of us want to live in the resulting society should everyone behave in that fashion?”

Now another house with a Hitchcock-worthy past is on the market: 9337 Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring, Maryland, a state that also doesn’t require its realtors to disclose when a house has been the scene of a murder…or, in this case, three murders in the last decade. Continue reading

What the Realtor Didn’t Tell You About Your New Home

"Conveys with property"

From the Boulder, Colorado real estate listings:

FOR SALE: $2,300,000

“Stunning, updated, classic Uni-Hill home. Elegance of past generations combined with modern updates make this home unique. Huge rooms, great light and an over-sized, gated lot on a fine street just a short walk from CU and Chautauqua. Beautiful high-end kitchen, a large terrace with a view and a master suite which encompasses the entire upper level and has stunning views. Nicely finished basement with high end finishes, wet bar & wine cellar. Too many features to mention in this beautiful home.”

One of those “features”: JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in that nicely finished basement, and was almost certainly murdered in the house.

Oh, that. Continue reading

A Real Estate Appraiser Discovers “the Appearance of Impropriety”

You won’t find a better example of the ethical breach known as “the appearance of impropriety” than this, a question from a real estate appraiser posted on appraisersforum.com. (Note: This is one of the infuriating websites that won’t allow you to post a reply or a comment until you register, and then informs you that it may be a day or more before the registration is approved, so you still can’t post a comment. Yes, the site is so crucial that I will hold my comment…or maybe write it down and save it in a file labeled “pending Appraisers Forum comments”—and wait with palpitating anticipation while my plea to be allowed to interact with a bunch of real estate appraisers is evaluated for worthiness. )

Here is the question: Continue reading

Ethics, Ethics, Everywhere…

Stories with ethical implications are popping up everywhere, in many fields. I’m running hard to keep up; if you want to join the race, here are some recent developments and notes:

  • A prominent Harvard professor and respected researcher just retracted a major paper and has been put on leave, as an investigation showed irregularities in his methods and results. “This retraction creates a quandary for those of us in the field about whether other results are to be trusted as well, especially since there are other papers currently being reconsidered by other journals as well,’’ wrote one scientist. “If scientists can’t trust published papers, the whole process breaks down.’’
  • A Wisconsin lawyer bought a farm from his own client in a bankruptcy matter, a classic conflict of interest. The lawyer’s defense was amusing: since his license had been suspended, he no longer had a fiduciary duty to his now former client. The court canceled the sale. The story is on the Legal Profession Blog.