“Don’t Breathe” Ethics

I just watched the 2016 horror/suspense thriller “Don’t Breathe,” in which Stephen Lang, always excellent, plays a blind veteran whose home is invaded by three self-righteous young sociopaths who intend to rob him. The movie is the latest genre movies with ethical mind-benders concocted in the House of Raimi, as Sam Raimi, the flamboyant auteur behind “The Evil Dead,” “Xena,” the first couple Spiderman movies and especially “Drag Me To Hell,” was the lead executive producer here and Raimi’s protege, Fede Alvarez, directed and wrote the script.

How do I do this without spoiling the film for someone who hasn’t seen it? I can’t. If you intend to ever see the hit 2016 movie but have not yet, then just wait for the next post. Otherwise, read on.

“Don’t Breathe” becomes one of those monster movies where you start rooting for the monster, and even that doesn’t encompass the  ethical morass the movie creates. Imagine “Wait Until Dark”except that the imperiled blind woman (Audrey Hepburn) is replaced by a blind Steven Seagal (the younger, thinner version), or maybe Billy Jack, and he beats the living daylights out of  or kills the three middle-aged male thugs—including a creepy evil mastermind played by Alan Arkin— who get into his house.

Got that? Okay, now replace the three thugs with three attractive twenty-somethings, including a troubled young woman trying to start a new life after an abusive childhood. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The Overly-Trusting Law School

The almost lawyer, learning about the justice system...

The almost lawyer, learning about the justice system…

Mauricio Celis, 42,was expelled from Northwestern Law School, just before he was due to graduate, for not telling the school when he applied that he was a former felon in Texas,  convicted there for falsely holding himself out as a lawyer and also for  impersonating a police officer. Northwestern confirmed that it never asked him to disclose any criminal history, but argued that Celis should have known that his criminal record was material.

The school didn’t check on his background; it didn’t even google him. If it had, it would have learned that Celis was infamous in Texas, and called “The Great Pretender.” A prosecutor called him “the biggest con man in the history of Nueces County.”  He certainly was audacious, opening law offices in multiple cities, raking in fees, using his success as a fake lawyer to raise money for Democrats. Compared to his scam, Northwestern was timid. It just took his money, $76,000, and then expelled him without giving him a diploma.

Your strange Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Was it ethical for Northwestern to expel Celis?

Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Clayton Lockett Is Dead, Right? Then 1) Good! and 2) His Execution Wasn’t “Botched””

capital-punishmentThere are well-established group of ethics topics that will always cause spirited debates here, because they are issues that have always divided public opinion and always will: morality vs ethics, drug legalization, abortion, war, social justice, socialism, plus various controversies involving race, sexuality and gender. I try to wade into these only when a current even beckons, as to some extent the arguments are futile and familiar, and too many people refuse to think or listen anymore, retreating to slogans and reflex positions articulated by others.

I decided to wade into one of the most polarized, of these, capital punishment, when the Clayton Lockett execution in Oklahoma sparked a national debate that seemed strange to me, and indeed driven by the unwarranted assumption, uncritically accepted by the news media, that the painlessness of executions were a crucial feature of making them ethical as well as societally palatable. It also opened the question of whether one execution that doesn’t follow the script necessarily calls capital punishment itself into question. I confess: both in my post’s title and in the tone of my responses to anti-death penalty commentators, I intentionally sought to roil the waters of debate, and was determined not to allow the nice people who usually express compassion for the pain and suffering of humanity’s worst and deadliest escape with the usual pieties.

Sure enough, this annoyed the heck out of some readers. Responding to the emphatic objections of one, Isaac delivered a personal and powerful rebuttal. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post Clayton Lockett Is Dead, Right? Then 1) Good! and 2) His Execution Wasn’t “Botched:” Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky)

dunce-capSenators should not intentionally set out to make the American public stupid, or to validate invalid ethical constructs. Thus this explanation of his current proposal from Sen. Rand Paul needs to be derided, and should also cause concern for anyone who thinks it’s important for the Republican party to find some leaders who are trustworthy. Paul, in the course of pushing his stillborn, grandstanding plan to use a constitutional amendment to require government bigwigs to live with the same health care laws they impose on the rest of us, said this to The Daily Caller:

“My amendment says basically that everybody including Justice Roberts — who seems to be such a fan of Obamacare — gets it too. See, right now, Justice Roberts is still continuing to have federal employee health insurance subsidized by the taxpayer. And if he likes Obamacare so much, I’m going to give him an amendment that gives Obamacare to Justice Roberts.”

See, the fact that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts refused to declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional using a highly-controversial legal distinction in no way suggests that he personally “likes” it, and anyone who thinks that is what judicial opinions, especially Supreme Court Opinions, mean is shockingly ignorant of the judicial system, the legal system, the law, the role of judges in society, the Constitution, and by extension, pretty much most of the principles that give government, management and leadership any integrity or competence. The fact that such an anyone has risen to the level of U.S. Senator goes beyond shocking to terrifying. Continue reading

Ethics Mega-Dunce: The First National Bank in Wellston, Ohio

Katie Barnett, the victim.

Katie Barnett, the victim.

As I cull the news to find good topics for ethics discussions, the single thought that goes through my mind most frequently is this: “What is the matter with people?”  This is often followed by “How do people get this way?” and later, “What can we do with them?”

Most ethical decisions are not brain teasers. They are strikingly obvious, unless you are determined to do wrong, an evil super-villain, or were raised in a barn. How people of influence without a serious head injury can make the horrible decisions they do is one of the mysteries of the age, along with the fate of Judge Crater, the elusiveness of Bigfoot, and the continuing popularity of Jimmy Kimmel.

Imagine, for example, that you run a bank. The Three Stooges wannabes who you sent to repossess a home get the address wrong (the lawn hadn’t been mowed, so they “just assume”), and they trash the wrong house. They remove possessions, losing some, auctioning off others, damaging the rest. The innocent owner of the home comes to you and points out that your contractors screwed up outrageously, a fact that is beyond rebuttal. She presents you with a good faith estimate of the property that was lost—never mind the trauma of having her home emptied by strangers and the fact that she has had to live elsewhere for two weeks. What do you do?

If you are the president of the First National Bank in Wellston, here’s what you do, because you have a non-functioning ethics alarm and more than a few screws loose in other places besides: you reject her assessment, and try to low-ball her on the amount.

“What is the matter with people?”

“How do people get this way?” Continue reading

Hollywood Ethics and Lindsay Lohan: Kick ‘Em When They’re Down

Here's a pro tip, Lindsay: when you find yourself in bad with Charlie Sheen, there is trouble ahead.

Here’s a pro tip, Lindsay: when you find yourself in bad with Charlie Sheen, there is trouble ahead.

If Hollywood reports are true—and when the sources are primarily gossip sites, you never know—the honchos at Dimension Films played a dirty trick on actress Lindsay Lohan. Lohan is one of the featured performers in the upcoming comedy “Scary Movie 5,” like its occasionally funny predecessors a parody of recent horror films. Lohan’s sequence has her paired with Charlie Sheen, in a spoof of “Paranormal Activity.” In one scene, we are told, Lindsay screams hysterically as if she has seen some ectoplasmic horror, when what has really upset her is having to see Lohan’s own 2005 post-“Mean Girls” pre-train wreck Disney flop, “Herbie Fully-Loaded” appear on her TV.  When the trailer for the yet-to-be-released film was unveiled, however, there had been a change in the scene to make a more hurtful joke at the actress’s expense. Now it appears that Lohan is screaming at the news that her probation has been revoked, as indeed it was just this month. Lohan could get significant jail time.

Lindsay says she was blind-sided by the switch, which holds her up to (more) humiliation and which she never approved. Inside sources say that the producers changed the trailer in retribution for Lohan’s unprofessional conduct during the shooting. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: Progressoverpeace’s “Fool’s Golden Rule”

“There is nothing more ethical and fair than reciprocity.”

—- Conservative web pundit “progressoverpeace,” one of the approximately 300 commenters who attempted to make the ethically impossible argument that spreading the falsehood on the internet that “Harry Reid is a pederast (or pedophile)” is “ethical and fair” in opposition to my post, Funny! But Wrong: “The Harry Reid is a Pederast” Rumor.

This is, of course, a profoundly unethical distortion of the real ethical principle of reciprocity, as embodied by the Golden Rule and its many similar ethical systems from various cultures, philosophies and faiths. The Golden Rule is benign, and urges prospective and aspirational reciprocity, advising us to treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves, were we in the other individual’s circumstances. Progressoverpeace—let’s call him “Pop”—embraces a punitive form of reciprocity—I’ll dub it the Fool’s Golden Rule— that endorses retribution, and precludes generosity, kindness, forbearance, perspective, peace—and civilization.

Pop’s “reciprocity” holds that once someone has treated another human being badly, it is ethical for that person to treat him or her just as badly in the same manner, presumably on the false assumption that this will teach him better “ethics.” Of course, what it is more likely to teach him was that he was correct to mistreat that individual in the first place. Such warped reciprocity seeds a perpetual cycle of hatred and escalating feuds, because it begins a cycle that can never stop short of death, terror, or surrender. Continue reading

Ethics Bulletin: Payback Is Not Always Unethical

"Sure, honey, take all the photos you want. And if your girlfriend wants to see the birth of our daughter, she's welcome too!"

Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax, as I have noted before, has an almost pitch-perfect ethical sense, and negotiates difficult relationship dilemmas with consistent skill and wisdom. She is too nice sometimes, however, and her recent advice to an expectant mother is a striking example.

The woman wrote Hax about how to handle the request of her AWOL husband, who left her mid-pregnancy to move in with his mistress, to witness the birth of his daughter. He also wants his family to be present. The mother-to-be said that she fully intends to allow her child to have a good relationship with her father, but she does not want either her weasel husband or his family, which hid his affair from her, around when the baby comes. “I don’t want any of them there,” Expectant Mom writes. “Many of them knew about the girlfriend but kept it from me, and I don’t want my husband to have the satisfaction of comforting me when I’m in pain. Do I have the right to tell them this, in some collected, nonconfrontational way?” Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Ameneh Bahrami

Ameneh Bahrami, now, and then

Ameneh Bahrami, the Iranian woman whom a spurned suitor blinded and hideously disfigured with acid,  had her long-awaited opportunity for both revenge and culturally-sanctioned justice today.  She watched a doctor prepare to put several drops of acid in one of Majid Movahedi’s eyes as his court-ordered punishment for maiming her. Then, at the last moment, she waived her right to have him blinded, as Movahedi, who had repeatedly asked her to marry him before responding to her rejections by throwing acid the young woman’s face, wept in gratitude.

The story of Banrani’s insistence on the full retribution available to her under Islamic law had spurred human rights protests around the globe. In the end, with all of Iran watching on live television, she decided on mercy instead of revenge. Continue reading

When The Ethics Alarms Don’t Sound: A Cautionary Tale From Seattle



Like all of us, Seattle attorney Ronald Clarke Mattson was infuriated when he found cars parked straddling the lines in crowded parking lots and garages.

It really is rude, inconsiderate, obnoxious and unethical behavior, especially when it is blatant, as when the owner of the Lexis or the Jaguar intentionally takes up two spaces to guard his baby against any accidental dings. This is a statement that rings out loud and clear: “My car is more important than your convenience, and I’ll take up two spaces, robbing you of your right to one, because I matter, and you don’t.” 

I’ve left nasty notes for these jerks, for all the good that does. I’ve complained to stores, and even had them make announcements over their public address systems. On a couple of occasions, when one was handy, I’ve recruited a police officer, and several times I’ve waited for the owner of the car so I could tell him off (if he wasn’t armed or too big).

Once, when the car was a brand new, loaded, shiny  sports convertible, I engaged in the intentional infliction of emotional distress, leaving a note that said that I had used a tool to leave a fairly deep, but small, indentation on his now no-longer-pristine car, and I hoped he had fun looking for it. (There was no such wound, but I am not proud of this.)

If I had a momentary desire to really harm the car, as I may have had once or twice, several considerations set off my various ethics alarms. The Golden Rule alarm wouldn’t sound, because this isn’t a Golden Rule situation: I would never take up two spaces.  Others, however, would:

  • The “Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right” alarm.
  • The “It’s Against the Law” alarm.
  • The “What If Everybody Did This?” alarm
  • The  “Don’t Take Action That Has No Purpose Other Than To Do Harm” alarm
  • The “Sons of Maj. Jack Marshall Sr./ Lawyers/Ethicists Don’t Act Like This” alarm
  • The “I Would Be Ashamed If Anyone Found Out” alarm, and most of all,
  • The “You Know This Is Wrong” alarm.

And if they all failed to sound, due to poor installation and maintenance? Then I might have done as Ronald Clarke Mattson did, more than once. He pleaded guilty this week to a reduced count of attempted second-degree malicious mischief, a gross misdemeanor, for keying three automobiles in retribution for their owners’ parking misconduct.  He received a one-year suspended sentence, 240 hours of community service, restitution for the three victims, and has to attend an anger-management class.

But his problem isn’t anger management. His problem is malfunctioning ethics alarms.

Mattson has been a lawyer since 1972, and could now face punishment from the Washington State Bar Association, which is charged with making sure that attorneys with faulty ethics alarms seek immediate repairs.