Observations On An Ethics Mess

Ethics Messes are situations too chaotic and ugly to qualify as Ethics Train Wrecks. This is an Ethics Mess. Think of it as a runaway Ethics Train Wreck that hit a nitro-glycerine factory and was then stomped by Godzilla. All we can do is sift through the gore.

California State University, Sacramento associate professor Tim Ford and his wife had a confrontation with their neighbors during which Ford’s wife, who was intoxicated, called one of the neighbors a “nigger” several times as well as a “bitch.” The target of her abuse, Mikaela Cobb, videoed the exchange and posted it on Facebook. The professor’s conduct was far from civil as well, as he is caught shouting, “I’m a professor at Sac State, dude. I have a Ph.D. I don’t need to be dealing with shit like this!”  He can also be seen tossing  a can of some beverage at the neighbor’s window.

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen said last week that he had recently received and watched the “very disturbing video” that showed the professor and his wife in “an ugly verbal dispute with their neighbors.” Even though the couple’s neighbors are not Sac State students, Nelsen said, he still regarded the situation as serious and a school matter, and he said that the video had a harmful impact  on the campus community. Continue reading

Unethical Technology On The Way: Imagine What Breitbart Will Be Able To Do With THIS

The video above shows a still-in-development system called Face2Face (research paper here) created by researchers at Stanford, the Max Planck Institute and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. It would allow you to take YouTube video of anyone speaking, and to pair it with a standard webcam  video of someone else emoting while saying something entirely different. Thehe Face2Face system will synthesize a new video showing the originals speaker making the second speaker’s facial movements, including the interior of the mouth, so it looks like the original speaker is saying what the second speaker was.

Tech Crunch reports that the system isn’t quite ready for market yet. Gee, I can hardly wait. This “advance” has the potential of making video just as unreliable and untrustworthy as still photography is now. Web hoaxers, Ted Cruz’s marketing team, unscrupulous political websites like Breitbart and others will have a field day once Face2Face is perfected.

The justification for creating such technology is the same as the rationalizations behind cloning velociraptors in “Jurassic Park”: because we can, and because we can make money with it. Can any good come from Face2Face? It’s late and I’m not at my best, but it seems to me that the end results of having another tool for liars just means more lies, more cynicism, more misinformed people, and less trust.

Isn’t it irresponsible and inherently unethical to invent something like this?

The Kinky Law Professor Principle: “It’s No Shame To Be Kinky, But It Still Might Be Newsworthy”

We haven’t had a “Naked Teacher Principle” story to mull over for a while, and this isn’t one. It raises some parallel issues, though.

I saw the story about the Drexel Law professor who who accidentally sent her students a link to a pornographic video about anal beads. I didn’t find it worthy of a post, though I thought it was funny. It is funny. But we had covered a similar issue here, in the ethics quiz about the hapless teaching assistant at the University of Iowa who somehow managed to send her class not merely sexually provocative photos of herself, not merely nude photos of herself, but something much more kinky. Attached to a message that read “Hi Class, I attach the solutions for number 76 and 78 in this email” were a series of images showing the young woman sans clothes and sans inhibitions having a lively cyber-sexting chat with a partner in which the two were pleasuring themselves in front of video equipment while streaming to each other.

That was funnier. She was “reassigned”—a not unreasonable result of presumed reduced respect from the class.  The Naked Teacher Principle doesn’t strictly apply when the students are adults, and Lisa McElroy, the professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law who is apparently an anal bead fan–the video she sent by accident was called called “She Loves Her Anal Beads”—wasn’t naked. There is no “Kinky Law Professor Principle.”

However, Prof. McElroy was mightily offended that her cyber-goof was picked up by the professional publications and websites, and that she was embarrassed as a result. She even posted a Streisand Principle-defying op-ed in the Washington Post, blaming everybody—students, bloggers, and Drexel, which briefly suspended the professor pending an investigation on the basis of possible sexual harassment—but herself. She argued that she should not have been publicly shamed, because, she wrote,

“…there was nothing newsworthy about it. What happened was, in the grand scheme, pretty trivial. My students are adults. The link was quickly removed. There was nothing illegal in the video. The post occurred in the same two-month period when the movie “Fifty Shades of Grey” grossed almost $570 million worldwide. Yet, because it was porn and I’m a law professor, news organizations spread the story around the world.”

Yup. Because it was funny. I understand that the Professor doesn’t see the humor of a law professor—especially her—inadvertently sending her private porn film about anal beads, which themselves are kind of amusing, to a staid law school class. It’s still funny. Trivial? Of course. But trivial can still be funny. Would it be kind for all of us to scrupulously refuse to communicate the hilarious tales of when we do dumb things or embarrass ourselves? Yes. But society as a whole benefits from being reminded that we are all equally fallible human beings—especially the elite and privileged. A lot of people think laughing at slapstick is cruel too.

I pity them. Continue reading

“Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” Ethics: The Public Defenders And The Rap Video


Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, two  lawyers who worked for the New York City-funded public defenders group called the Bronx Defenders, ran headlong into an ethics mess when they appeared in a video posted on YouTube the December day after the grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges in Eric Garner’s suspicious “choke-hold” death. In the video titled “Hands Up” (of course), Rao and Napoli comfort a grieving mother at the Bronx Defenders offices as they work on a case involving police brutality. The video also includes the image of a white man in a police uniform with pistols pointed in his face and the back of his head by black men, as rappers chant that it’s “time to start killing these coppers.”


The video came under heavy criticism from Mayor de Blasio and others. City-paid public defenders should not be lending their positions and the prestige of their office to calls for retribution and violence. Lawyer Rao defended his appearance, arguing that the video supported the mission of the Bronx Defenders to zealously defend minority clients, and that a rap video was an ideal vehicle to make their services known. Gallant try, but no cigar. That message about killing cops is not part of the organization’s mission presumably, nor is it a responsible message for those in the justice system to appear to endorse. Continue reading

Cellphone Videos Of Stand-Up Comedy Routines Are Unethical: Ban Them

no cell phonesVulture features an interview with Chris Rock, on which he waxes forth on many topics.I don’t especially care what Chris Rock has to say about Ferguson, but I care a lot about his views on stand-up comedy, where he qualifies as an expert, and the disastrous effect unauthorized videos are having on his art.

Rock has walked off the stage in appearances when he couldn’t stop audience members from filming him, and for very good reasons. He doesn’t want untested, half-baked material to get out to the public via YouTube:

“There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, ‘Oh, I went too far,’ and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.”

On Elahe Izadi’s Syle Blog in the Washington Post site, other comics voiced similar concerns. Continue reading

Chinese Food Ethics, Mexican Food Ethics

Chinese Food

In a dilemma reminiscent of my ice cream sundae problem last year, I faced the question of how to ethically respond to yet another food service botch. We ordered a modest dinner from the local Chinese carry-out establishment, and after we got the order home, discovered that it was missing an appetizer. It was raining hard, and when I called the restaurant, they agreed, after putting me through the third degree, that they had screwed up. They said they would deliver it. I was prepared to drive over and pick it up, but at least this allowed us to begin eating the rest of the dinner before it got cold. It took about a half an hour, but my precious pan-fried pork dumplings finally arrived, along with profuse apologizes from the deliverer.

The ethics issue: Should I tip him or not? Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: “How You Gonna Keep Her Teaching The Class After It’s Seen Paree?”

horrified students

…..or “It May Not Be The Naked Teacher Principle, But It May Still Be A Problem.”

In the wake of the most recent post here about the Naked Teacher Principle, Ethics Alarms received many inquiries from readers who cited the news item about the hapless teaching assistant at the University of Iowa who somehow managed to send her class not merely sexually provocative photos of herself, not merely nude photos of herself, but something much more kinky. Attached to a message that read “Hi Class, I attach the solutions for number 76 and 78 in this email” were a series of images showing the young woman sans clothes and sans inhibitions having a lively cyber-sexting chat with a partner in which the two were pleasuring themselves in front of video equipment while streaming to each other.

Hmmm. That didn’t come out quite right.

Anyway, the question was: Does this conduct, which goes well beyond the conditions of the Naked Teacher Principle but which occurred at a university rather than a high school or middle school, trigger said principle, regardless of intent?

The answer is no, not regardless of intent. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz (And a Poll!) : The Fan, The Girl, and The Grope

I wrestled with whether it was ethical to show this video or  just link to it on another website instead. I have, as you might have surmised by now, an ethical objection to the practice of taking videos, photographs or recordings of people without their knowledge or permission and publicizing them, and that objection is intensified when it is done for the purpose of embarrassing them or shaming them, unless the conduct is illegal or so unquestionably vile that society is obligated to issue an objection in the strongest terms possible. I think that the borderline episodes of this are  important to discuss and yet it is difficult to do that without aiding and abetting what may be unethical conduct, as I help publicize what perhaps should have been left private.

I haven’t resolved this dilemma. When a video has gone viral, as this one has (as well as another I show here), I think that the impact of my embedding the clip in order to discuss it is minimal, and that the value of presenting the actual video for readers to see outbalances the harm to the victim/victims, if that’s what they are, of posting it on one more site on the web among many. I invite opinions to the contrary. (In the instant case, I should note, the episode was inadvertently captured by a TV cameraman—he shot what he thought was a sleeping fan, and then the copping and feeling began—and broadcast live. Someone else then put the touching moment online.)

With that introduction, here is the video, YouTubed and picked up by Gawker (naturally) as well as many other sites. It shows a male fan at a Yankee game with a sleeping or otherwise unconscious young woman resting her head on his chest. While she sleeps, he appears to fondle her breast, thus spawning endless leering references, since it was at a ballgame, of “stealing second.” We do not know whether the young woman was a stranger who collapsed his way (this actually happened to me once, and at a ballgame, so it’s not that far-fetched), a friend, his wife, his girlfriend, or, as some disturbed individual on one site suggested, his sister.

For the sake of this quiz, we will assume they are a couple. YouTube pulled the video I had embedded, so to see the action, go here.

All set?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz today is…

Assuming this was the fan’s wife or girlfriend, was it unethical for him to cop a feel, in public, while she was unconscious? Continue reading

David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) On Being An Ethical Adult


The late author David Foster Wallace—who committed suicide in 2008, the victim of depression— gave a wise, inspiring, ethically-astute  commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005. The speech was later published as a book in 2009 under the title “This Is Water.” It was recently made into a vivid video, and has been viral on the internet. You can see it here, at least for a while.

If the video sends anyone to Wallace’s other works, it has done good; if it causes people to ponder what ethics really means, for that is what Wallace was talking about, it had done better. Apparently the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust is in the process of ordering that this video be taken down as copyright infringement, which if his words belong to the Trust, is their right. I wish they wouldn’t; I think letting Wallace’s eloquent life lesson reach as many people as possible, especially young people, would be both ethical and consistent with the values and aspirations of Wallace himself, but it is not my decision to make. I am a little conflicted about sending you to the link, in fact, if the piece was, in effect, stolen. I am applying utilitarian balancing here.

You can also read his speech, presumably legally, here, where it was republished upon his death. The essence of it is in this passage:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”


Pointer: Tim LeVier

Sources: Upworthy, The Guardian

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.