Ethics Quiz: The Milking Class Gaffe

The photo above was taken in a Plains state elementary school in the early 1950s, and depicts a cow-milking exercise. It is, obviously, one of those “Oops!” unfortunate—but funny!—shots that ended up in a local newspaper somewhere because nobody noticed the problem until it was too late.

A Facebook friend posted it on the social media platform for “a chuckle”, and it was clear that the reaction was…restrained.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is tougher than it may seem…

Is posting that photo unethical, as it will be legitimately offensive to some, or is it innocently funny, and only objectionable to the political correctness scolds?

I thought it was funny when I saw it. I also thought my friend would get a fair amount of flack. But the more I think about the factors involved, the more uncertain I am of the answer to the quiz question…

  • Is posting the photo in a public forum a Golden Rule breach? Obviously the photo embarrasses the teacher who, as my freind wrote, “probably wishes she had been standing for the photo.” My friend, however, was a professional performer, in a field where being able to laugh at moments that would humiliate normal people is essential.
  • Based on the period of the photo, it is certain that the teacher by now must be either dead or too old to care about an old newspaper clipping. Does that take the Golden Rule off the table.
  • It is more likely that the children shown might be embarrassed by the photo, or were when it was originally published. Does that matter? Was showing it more unethical then than now, when parents (unethically, even though “everybody does it”) post videos of their children in embarrassing (but funny!) situations constantly?
  • Some people thought  the photo was very funny, and appreciated seeing it. It brightened their day! Is that enough to make showing the picture ethical? What formula should we use to determine whether utilitarian analysis justifies an action where the benefits are tangible and the “harm” is ephemeral? If the photo brightened one viewer’s day, isn’t that enough?
  • One critic of the photo sniffed, “Photoshopped!” If so, and I note that there is always someone who will try to discredit any photo they object to as photoshopped whether it was or not, does it matter to the question at hand. If it’s funny, it’s funny. Or, since it is theoretically funnier if genuine, does being photoshopped change the utilitarian analysis? Should it?
  • Can showing the photo be justified as a social statement and attempt at a course correction, echoing the common lament that the culture is becoming humor adverse thanks to woke-poisoning, and it is a serious problem?

Revisiting The Celebrity Post-Retirement Photos Ethics Quiz…

Way back in January…at least it seems way back…Ethics Alarms used a shocking photograph of retired actress Bridget Fonda to raise the question of whether it was ethical “to take unflattering photos of former performers and celebrities and publicize them expressly to invite cruel comments and ridicule.” The fact that it was offered as a quiz indicates that I was torn on the matter.

On one hand, such photos could be legitimately called newsworthy, although their main attraction is prurient and mean. There is also a fair argument that if one profits by fame and celebrity on the way up, taking the hit during one’s decline in career, popularity and allure is part of the price.

Never mind all that, though. I’ve made up my mind. The practice is unethical, and a blatant Golden Rule breach. I shouldn’t have made the question a quiz.

Why the change of heart? Yesterday I saw photos circulating in social media, and in various memes, showing Sylvester Stallone in his back yard looking every inch of his nearly 76 years and carrying an enormous gut that made him resemble Don Corleone if he had just swallowed Luca Brasi. This caused much hilarity on the web (“Look! I can finally say I have a body like Rambo!”) but it is just cruelty.

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Ethics Quote Of The Month: Kim Phuc Phan Thi

“I thought to myself, “I am a little girl. I am naked. Why did he take that picture? Why didn’t my parents protect me? Why did he print that photo? Why was I the only kid naked while my brothers and cousins in the photo had their clothes on?” I felt ugly and ashamed.”

I always  uncomfortable with that photograph from the moment I saw it, and thought it was cruel and unethical. Would the AP have published a similar photograph of a white American girl? I don’t know, but I don’t trust the Associated Press (or any press, at this point). It won Ut a Pulitzer Prize and helped energize the anti-Vietnam war effort in the U.S., but the photo (shown in the underlined link above) fails two basic ethics systems: Reciprocity, as in the Golden Rule, and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which forbids using another human being as a means to an end. Can it be justified under Utilitarian principles, as a balancing of outcomes? Was the benefit of publishing the photo sufficient to make it ethical conduct, despite the harm it would do to an innocent child?

 Not on my scorecard.

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So You’re A Bigot, Then, And Discard Fairness And Reciprocity As Guiding Values! Thanks, Malcolm Gladwell! Good To Know…

I was once a big Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”) fan before I figured out the pop psychology and “airplane book” author’s shtick. This latest revelation completes my disenchantment. On his website, Gladwell, discussing interview questions, wrote that he never hired any job applicants who answered in the negative when asked whether they could drive a manual transmission automobile. Those who have mastered a shift and clutch, Gladwell says,realize that the most fun cars in the world to drive are sports cars with manual transmission, and they like the idea of being able to turn a rote activity (driving) into an enjoyable activity. That, and his belief that people who drive a shift like “knowing how to do things that most people do not,” causes him to conclude that these are the only people he wants to work with

Got it. He’s a bigot and an asshole. If I were asked that question and I wasn’t interviewing for a chauffeur, I would ask, “What does that have to do with anything?” The question is really no different from asking one’s religion or party affiliation, ethnic background or position on abortion. It’s a justification for bigotry. The question would be enough for me to terminate the interview, and walk out. I don’t want to work with unfair people.

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Ethics Quote Of The Week: Actor Tim Considine (1940-2022)

“Thank God there’s no justice in this world.”

Disney and “My Three Sons” actor Tim Considine, who died last week at age 82, in an interview quoted in his New York Times obituary.

Considine was referring to his success and rich experiences in life, which he felt were relatively undeserved. He did not regard himself as especially talented or ambitious.

The more I ponder his statement, the more profound I think it is. Understanding that there is no justice in the world is a necessary predicate for committing to an ethical life for the right reasons. Society needs as many people as possible striving to be good, having their lives exert a net benefit on others, and being exemplars of ethical values as often as they can. These habits and objectives must be committed to while fully understanding that they only collectively and on balance result in desirable results, and sometimes not even that. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Twitter


Ethics Alarms has honored some unlikely people as Ethics Heroes—Bill Clinton, Bill Maher, and Terry McAuliffe, for example. Twitter nabbing the distinction may be a record for cognitive dissonance, though. It is an unethical company, with a platform that does more damage than good. And yet…

Twitter announced that it was expanding its private information policy to forbid posting the ” media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted.


Not that this policy is remotely possible to enforce; it isn’t. “When we are notified by individuals depicted, or by an authorized representative, that they did not consent to having their private image or video shared, we will remove it,” Twitter explains. “This policy is not applicable to media featuring public figures or individuals when media and accompanying tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”

Yes, the policy goes well beyond any legal restrictions: that’s what makes it ethical rather than compliant. What is ethically admirable about the rule is that it calls attention to an ethical violation so common that few think it is a violation at all. When I allow a friend to take a photo of me, that is consent for that friend to make and have a copy of my likeness. It is not consent for my likeness to be circulated to the world on social media, included in facial recognition databases, be manipulated digitally to embarrass or humiliate me, or any other purpose. No law will help me claim that I did not consent to circulation of my likeness, which is why Naked Teachers have a problem. The law assumes that such use can and should be anticipated when I let myself be photographed. That, however, is a legal fiction. I have seen, online, photos of me when I wasn’t aware that I was in the picture. I hate photos of me.

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Ethics Dunce: Camilla Parker Bowles [Corrected]

Fart manners

This goes right into the “Stop making me defend Joe Biden!” files. And, if I had one, the “Princess Diana was right about Camilla” files.

During the recent virtue-signaling, wasteful gathering in Scotland to discuss climate change, at which, for some reason, the wife of Prince Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles, The Duchess of Cornwall was attending, the President of the United States had occasion to spend a bit of time chatting with the woman who “crowded” Princess Di’s marriage.

And, during this bit of time, Joe Biden emitted an involuntary flatulent outburst. Now, even forgetting for the nonce the fact that Joe is older than dirt, this can happen to anyone in public, and the most basic Golden Rule-based manner of reacting to it is not to. Never elling anyone else, especially the media, about said discharge is even more required by etiquette, empathy, and reciprocity. [ Note of correction: That “not” got dropped in the original version posted last night. Ugh. Sorry.]This is true no matter who the unfortunate farter is, but it is certainly true when the individual is a world leader who must try to maintain an image of strength and dignity.

But what was Camilla’s reaction? The Daily Mail reports that Parker Bowles “hasn’t stopped talking about” Biden’s accident. The fart was, per the Daily Mail’s source, both “long” and “loud,” and also “impossible to ignore.”

This is despicable on her part: unkind, cruel, and a breach of respect and diplomacy. As Danielle Cohen observes over at “The Cut”: “Is there not a “discussing farts” section in the royal etiquette curriculum? I can’t believe Meghan Markle got in trouble for wearing nail polish and Camilla is allowed to do … this.”

My Neighbor Indicates That He Embraces The Golden Rule. I’m Keeping My Fingers Crossed…

Spuds head small

Spuds is keeping his toes crossed.

After sunset, four neighbors with puppies of varying ages and sizes have been gathering in the field near my house to let the adorable little dears run free. They are all inordinately fond of Spuds, who isn’t a puppy but acts like one, and I often let him run around and wrestle with the younger dogs on his leash. (Spuds is a constant risk to gallop off to meet any child, dog or human who appears in the distance, so I let him run free rarely.) This week, two of the puppies ran up to greet him as I tried to sneak past the pack on our evening walk, and after Spuds started crying pitifully, I gave in and allowed him to join the group.

It was cold and dark, and the likelihood of anyone tempting Spuds by showing up on the horizon was minimal, so I relented and let him run with his pals, off the leash. They were a sight to see, tearing around the field. One puppy, a hound named Vinnie, was a particularly lively instigator: earlier, while eluding a puppy he had incited, Vinnie ran full speed into my knee, causing him (not me) to yelp. You have to be wary when a pack of pups is having fun.

Suddenly I saw that Vinnie was coming at us again at mach speed, with Spuds galloping right behind. They veered a bit away from me and at one of the owners of the lively Belgian Shepherd puppy. I shouted to her, “Watch out!” but in vain: she stepped aside to avoid Vinnie, but right into Spuds. He tried to avoid her, but his 70 pound-pus body slammed into her leg, and she went down writhing in pain. We had to call the EMT’s to get her off the field and to a hospital.

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Ethics Quiz: Shock Therapy For The Disabled


Here is an issue from July that I never had time to write about…

In a 2-1 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned a Federal the ban on the use of electric shock devices to modify destructive or otherwise problematic behavior by students with intellectual disabilities. The Food and Drug Administration sought to prohibit the devices in March 2020, saying that delivering shocks to students presents “an unreasonable and substantial risk of illness or injury.” The court ruled, however that the ban was a regulation of the practice of medicine, which is beyond the FDA’s authority.

The now banned ban only affected a single school, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts. It is the only facility in the United States that employs the shock devices to correct self-harming or aggressive behavior. The center serves and houses both children and adults with intellectual disabilities or behavioral, emotional or psychiatric problems.

What ethics approach do we use to assess such a practice?

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