Ethics Dunce: Doug Wilkey

Let’s shame this guy but good: he deserves it.

The horror.

The horror.

Dunedin, Florida 12-year-old T.J. Guerrero has received a neighbor’s  permission to set up a lemonade stand in front of his property for the last couple years. This isn’t some kind of mega-stand: it’s exactly like the ones I purchased sweet drinks of varying quality from last weekend. It’s Florida, and T.J. is unusual: he is virtually running the 3 to 7 business all year long.

Another neighbor named Doug Wilkey, 61-years-old going on “Get off my lawn, you lousy kids!,”  has emailed City Hall at least four times in two years demanding that T.J. ‘s traditional foray into junior capitalism be shut down. He says that the kid’s  operation is illegal, and that it causes excessive traffic, noise, trash, illegal parking and other problems that, he says, threaten to reduce his property values.

To its credit,  local government officials appear to have the sense of proportion Wilkey does not. “We’re not in the business of trying to regulate kids like that; nor do we want to do any code enforcement like that,” said Dunedin planning and development director Greg Rice. “We are not out there trying to put lemonade stands out of business.” Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Matt Groening

Duff-Beer

Cashing in, selling out, maximizing income, monetizing assets: the crash of 2008 only accelerated what was already becoming a coarsening cultural trend in America, the mania of never, never allowing any opportunity to make money go unexploited. Every creation or idea is copyrighted or trademarked; every open space is marked with a billboard; every person, place or thing imaginable is sponsored or branded, every citizen who does something admirable or remarkable will sell his or her life story or hire someone to write a book. The effect of this on the community, on life itself, is toxic.

When everything is a potential cash cow, then our choice is to milk it or wait for someone else to steal the milk. A Profit Above All mindset turns everyone into a potential competitor, which means that trust becomes impossible. There are only two antidotes for this trend, which I fear is irreversible. One is for there to be so much money to go around that nobody worries about it any more, which is to say that there is really only one antidote. That one is for our society to evolve and reinforce a hierarchy of values in which money, wealth, profit and material things are not seen as ends, but as means to ends, and not the only means to those ends, either. Wealth can lead to freedom, for example, but only if it is joined with proportion, moderation, responsibility, modesty, and restraint. Otherwise, wealth and the pursuit of it can restrict choices and liberty as effectively as chains.

This is why a rare case where someone eschews the opportunity to make a lot of money for no other reason than that he thinks to exploit the opportunity will make the world a worse place is a qualification for the Ethics Hero designation.  I hate the speech in “Traffic” given by Seth Abraham, the loathsome preppy coke-head played by Topher Grace, about how suburban drug users corrupt the inner city:

“Ok, right now, all over this great nation of ours, ‘hundred thousand white people from the suburbs are cruisin’ around downtown asking every black person they see ‘You got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs?’ Think about the effect that has on the psyche of a black person, on their possibilities. I… God I guarantee you bring a hundred thousand black people into your neighborhood, into fuckin’ Indian Hills, and they’re asking every white person they see ‘You got any drugs? You know where I can score some drugs? within a day everyone would be selling. Your friends. Their kids. Here’s why: it’s an unbeatable market force man. It’s a three-hundred percent markup value. You can go out on the street and make five-hundred dollars in two hours, come back and do whatever you want to do with the rest of your day and, I’m sorry, you’re telling me that… you’re telling me that white people would still be going to law school?”__

I hate it for two reasons. First, it is more or less true, and second, it is only true because the vast majority of people have such a weak commitment to behaving ethically and not selling out, because our culture reinforces healthy ethical values less and less effectively. It shouldn’t be true, and in a rational society, it wouldn’t be true.

So I am giving Matt Groening the Ethics Hero for something that is relatively minor and trivial, because, I guess, it gives me hope. Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “The Atheist, the Graduation, and the Prayer”

Tgt, the Ethics Alarms resident atheist, backs graduating high school senior Damon Fowler, voting for “hero” rather than the jerk-in-training assessment of my original posts on the topic, to be found here and here.

“I think impeding the encroachment of religion into schools is important, especially when it is unpopular to do so. While Damon is not actually hurt from school backed prayer, some of the other listeners will be: anyone who gets the impression that the school and government back Christianity, anyone who feels they must believe to fit in.

“The danger in this prayer isn’t that Damon will be hurt or his rights violated. The danger is to the weaker people unwilling or unable to stand up against this behavior. The danger is to the children not yet graduated, that they will learn in an environment that sees a place for superstition and pandering at a ceremony that should be celebratory.”

More on “The Atheist, the Graduation, and the Prayer”

Damon Fowler, School Adminstrator-In-Training?

Either by design, bias, or because I was not sufficiently clear (always a distinct possibility), a lot of readers seem to have misunderstood the central principle in my post about Damon Fowler, the Louisiana high school senior who singled-handedly bluffed his school out of including a prayer in his graduation ceremonies. Let me clarify.

The post is only incidentally about atheism vs. religion. The ethical issue arose in that context, but it just as easily could have been raised in other circumstances. The ethical values involved here were prudence, tolerance, self-restraint, proportionality, consideration, generosity, and empathy. Fowler’s actions assumed that preventing what he believed was a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government favoring one religious belief over another justified ignoring all of these. They don’t, and the same conclusion applies whether we are discussing a technical legal violation, a breaching of organizational rules, or personal misconduct.

Anyone who reads Ethics Alarms knows that I believe that the culture only becomes and stays ethical if all its participants accept the responsibility of flagging and, when necessary, condemning and stopping harmful societal conduct, as well as unethical personal conduct that will be toxic to society if it becomes the norm. Nevertheless, society becomes oppressive and intolerable if every single misstep, offense, violation, possible violation, arguable violation or mistaken judgment is cause for confrontation, conflict and policing, without regard for context and consequences. Indeed, much of the challenge in ethical analysis involves deciding what kind of misconduct matters, even once the question of whether something is misconduct has been settled. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Melissa Leo

Give the soap to Melissa, Ralphie...

That certainly settled it: Melissa Leo is an inexcusable boor after all.

Winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Leo blurted out, “Really, really, really, WOW” and then,“When I watched, it looked so fucking easy!”

And thus do tasteless, disrespectful, uncivil so-called professionals degrade our language, public standards of decency and respect for others. Continue reading

Self-Restraint in Congress: Great Idea, Little Hope

Is Congress capable of exercising discipline and self-restraint? It will have to, in everything from avoiding partisan bickering and pay-back to cutting dispensable programs with loud constituencies, if the government is to have any chance of reducing the deficit and putting the nation back on the road to fiscal responsibility. We can hope, but the signs are not encouraging.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the incoming G.O.P majority is going to try to take the symbolic step of banning honorific proclamations, on the theory that Congress passing hundreds of bills each session saluting the American pickle industry, noting the retirement of Georgia Tech’s rugby coach, or lauding the memory of actress Delores Del Rio wastes time that needs to be spent doing the real work of governing. Continue reading

The Damage of Health Care Reform “By Any Means Necessary”

I have no idea whether the health care reform bill, assuming it finally gets passed in one form or another, will make things better or worse, and if you are honest about it, neither do you…and neither, I am certain, do most of the elected representatives who will have voted for it or against it (or for it and against it) by the time the dust clears. To only cite the most obvious proof, the bill’s current form was just posted yesterday, giving Congress 72 hours to read and understand over 2,000 pages of technical jargon and badly-written prose. I don’t believe I have ever read 700 pages a day for three days at any point in my life, and if I have, I know it had to be something more diverting than a health care bill.

Relying on second-hand analysis—also by individuals who haven’t read the current bill—simply puts us (and the members of Congress) at the mercy of the biases of those rendering the opinions. For example, one of my favorite commentators, Robert Samuelson, has persuasive arguments against the bill here and here, while one of my least favorite, Paul Krugman, weighs in on the bill’s virtues here and here. Now, I think Krugman has squandered his credibility by blatant untruths in the past (One howler, his infamous statement about the national health care systems of Canada and Great Britain that “We’ve all heard scare stories about how that works in practice; these stories are false” is derisively quoted almost daily by Wall Street Journal blogger James Taranto as he relays tales of national health care horrors from the London press), but the man has won a Nobel prize: maybe he’s right and Samuelson is wrong. I really don’t know.

I do know this, however: whether the bill proves to be disaster or panacea, the manner in which President Obama and the Democrats have gone about passing it has done real and lasting harm.  Continue reading