Ethics Reflections On The Sudden Death Of Wonderful Human Being


I returned from a legal ethics teaching tour to the horrible news that a friend of mine had died in a freak accident at his home. I had just seen him for the first time in many months when he showed up unexpectedly on the final weekend of my theater company, and the production I directed for it as a final bow. When I spotted him in the theater lobby that day two months ago, I shouted his name and gave him a long hug. He was one of those amazing people who just made you feel better about the world knowing that people like him were still in it.

Now, just like that, he’s gone. An e-mail from him that arrived right before my trip sits unanswered in my in-box. I didn’t rush to return it—what was the rush? Life, of course, is the rush, and this has happened to me before. Why don’t I learn? Continue reading

Ethics Quote Of The Week: Kiefer Sutherland

“I’ve been mystified by this. You have to understand that we’re not writing foreign policy. This is a dramatic television show, and Jack threatening to blow someone’s knees off because he wants information is a dramatic device to show how urgent or desperate a situation is. It should not be taken as this is what we think the CIA should be doing.”

—–“24” star, as “Jack Bauer,” Kiefer Sutherland, expressing his bewilderment at criticism of his show for depicting a hero who resorts to torture repeatedly, in an interview with United’s in-flight magazine, “Hemispheres.”

jack_bauer_tortureWe shouldn’t criticize actors for not being rocket scientists, or even ethicists. Nonetheless, this comment shows a remarkable ignorance of how a society passes on values and virtues, and the role played by literature, legends and pop culture.

Sutherland is the hero of his show, one of the good guys. What our society depicts the good guys as doing, the values they hold, the virtues they display, the goals they seek and the methods they use to achieve them, both reflects the values of our culture and sends the message that these are the kinds of conduct that the culture wants to encourage. Celebrating as heroes individuals who routinely kill when they are not protecting themselves or the innocent, engage in cruelty, theft, or the abuse of others, or unapologetic law-breaking encourages our younger generations to regard such anti-social conduct as defensible, or even the norm. Continue reading

Dear Sincerely Shallow: “It’s True, You’re Horrible. Show Your Fiancé Your Letter, And Go Pimp Yourself Out Like Anna Nicole.”

This could be you, SS!

This could be you, “Sincerely Shallow” ! Go for it!

Emily Yoffe is Slate’s stunt advice columnist, who in her “Dear Prudence” column answers questions reminiscent of the freak-show howlers they used to concoct for the “Penthouse Forum” (or so I’ve heard.) Sometimes Emily’s advice has me convinced she is the consort of Pazuzu, and other times her advice is measured and wise. This time, she sided with the demon, and I’m about finished with her.

Here is the query sent by “Sincerely Shallow” in its entirety. I’m sure it’s viral by now:

Dear Prudence,
I’m recently engaged to the most honest, thoughtful, and loving man I’ve ever met. He has supported me through many hard times, including losing my job and being assaulted. Here’s the but about him: He makes no money. He has ambitions, and he’s smart, but will likely only bring a middle-class income at best. I have an OK job and I’m self-sufficient. Now here’s the but about me: I’m really, really pretty. My whole life people have told me I could get any man I want, meaning a rich man, and are shocked that I’m engaged to my fiancé, nice though he is. I’ve never dated a rich man, but it does make me curious. So part of me thinks I’m squandering my good looks on this poor man, and the other part of me thinks that I’m so shallow that I don’t even deserve him or anyone else. Am I a fool for thinking that a poor man can make me happy, or an idiot for believing a sexist fantasy?

You can read “Prudence’s” annoying answer here, which concludes with this: Continue reading

The Basics

I know it is asking a lot, but it would save a lot of frustration and aggravation on all sides if newcomers to Ethics Alarms would take the time to read, not only the Ethics Alarms Comments Policies, but also the Concepts and Special Terms (under the masthead above),  the Unethical Rationalizations and Misconceptions, the Virtues, Values and Duties, the Alarm Blockers, and the Ethics Decision-making Tools, all of which have permanent links to the immediate left of the most recent post. Not only do the essays and commentary constantly refer to these terms and topics, they are also based on them. I don’t expect to stop all new commenters from relying on “everybody does it” logic or from stooping to “who are you to judge?” as their sole argument, but if more would just read these sections, I wouldn’t have to keep writing the same thing in response quite so much. That would make me happy, and also get more new relationships here off to a friendlier start. These are the concepts, tools and language that underlie everything that’s written here, and the more we all are speaking the same language, the better the discussion will be.

I have also recently added material to both Concepts and Special Terms and the Rationalizations section, as both were out of date. I encourage regular visitors to re-acquaint themselves with those areas, and feel free to suggest changes, additions and deletions, as well as flagging the inevitable and apparently unavoidable, for me at least, typos.

Comment of the Day: “Penn State, the Child Molester and the Dark Side of Loyalty”

Newcomer Steven Ardler muses over a provocative question about the virtue loyalty in his Comment of the Day on“Penn State, the Child Molester and the Dark Side of Loyalty”:

“Out of curiosity: would you say that a better definition of Loyalty is needed? It seems to me that the dilemma can be partially resolved by claiming all Loyalty need be to “the good” rather than to a person/institution/nation (I put the term in quotations because I am conflicted as to its actual meaning).

“We choose people and institutions that we believe maximize the good and adhere to their policies and behaviors accordingly. When those people or institutions step away from the good, our “Loyalty” to them is revoked. In this case, nearly by definition, Loyalty will always be a virtue. Of course, a very simple counter to this idea will be the varying interpretations of “good.” Muslim suicide-bombers are, in their ethical consideration, maximizing good in the universe by doing Allah’s will (according to their interpretation of that will). A bishop in the Catholic church may *feel* as if he is maximizing good by not condemning his pederast brethren, as he serves what he thinks is the ultimate good – a god. A coach at Penn State may think that he is loyal to the good, by determining that the university accomplishes enough good to be worth preserving from scandal. All of these are very apparently flawed, but this type of reasoning would abound with a new definition of loyalty, nonetheless. I feel like a re-tuned definition of Loyalty *helps*, but certainly does not resolve the problem. Is there a way to define loyalty in which it is actually a virtue, and not just a description of a series of actions?”

On Civility

Civility is a core ethical virtue but a tricky one, both to define and to maintain. Peter Wehner has written a superb (and short!) essay on the topic at the Commentary Magazine site, applying it especially to political discourse.

” We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments, ” Wehner writes. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: Glenn Beck

No, it wasn’t a big lie, a harmful lie, or a malicious lie that Glenn Beck told at his recent rally. Beck had claimed that he held George Washington’s handwritten first Inaugural Address “in his hands” at the National Archives, but a spokeswoman at the institution denied it: they don’t allow that. After Keith Olbermann and other full-time Beck-bashers kept pressing the issue, Beck admitted that he had fabricated the story to cut through the extraneous details of the real process:

“…Yesterday I went to the National Archives, and they opened up the vault, and they put on their gloves and then they put [the document] on a tray. They wheeled it over and it’s all in this hard plastic and you’re sitting down at a table…you can’t actually touch any of the documents, these are very very rare. So … they have it in this plastic thing and they hold them right in front of you; you can’t touch them, but then you can say ‘can you turn it over,’ and then they turn it over for you and then you look at it.”

“I thought it was a little clumsy to explain it that way,” Beck told his cable audience, shrugging off the controversy. No, as lies go, it was about as harmless as it gets.

Except. Continue reading

What Was Right and Wrong With Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” Rally

The pundits of the airwaves, newsprint and blogosphere have issued their assessments of the Glenn Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial with predictable results: those who admired Beck before the rally liked it, and those who detest him ridiculed it. The New York Times, in its inimitable fashion, showed contempt for the proceedings by relegating its account to page 15, even though every past D.C. rally and march of equivalent or lesser size (especially those advocating social or political positions popular with the Times staff) received more prominent coverage. To Times columnist Frank Rich, Beck’s rally was part of a racist conspiracy hatched by billionaires—yes, Frank, sure it was. John Avlon, who long ago branded Beck as a wingnut, reasonably pointed out that it was a wee bit hypocritical for Beck to preach against divisiveness when his own cable show is one of the most polarizing, even by Fox news standards. And John Batchelor, who may be the most serious, erudite, and balanced public affairs radio talk show host in captivity, dismissed the rally as harmless and Beck as a clown:

“I think of him now and again as Quasimodo Lite, a deaf bell-ringer swinging from the Notre Dame of Fox, a man who is eager to confess his own unsightly warts—“I’ve screwed up most of my life”—and who is also heroically delighted to be our slightly stooped “Pope of Fools,” because this accidental role, in this Festival of Fools called 2010, wins the cheers of the crowd.”

Even less charitable was the Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, who accused Beck of “stealing Martin Luther King’s moral authority.” Less charitable still was MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who seems to have been driven a little mad—or at least a little unprofessional, perhaps— by the fact that Beck had the audacity to hold his rally on the anniversary of King’s iconic “I have a dream” speech. Matthews’s hyperbole was, well, Beck-like:

“Can we imagine if King were physically here tomorrow, today, were he to reappear tomorrow on the very steps of the Lincoln Memorial? “I have a nightmare that one day a right wing talk show host will come to this spot, his people`s lips dripping with the words ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification.’ Little right wing boys and little right wing girls joining hands and singing their praise for Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. I have a nightmare!”

Was Beck’s bash really a nightmare? Political biases aside (Chris), the question for Ethics Alarms is what was right and wrong about the “Restoring Honor” rally. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: CNN

Eliot Spitzer, disgraced New York Governor, law-breaking lawyer, spectacularly unfaithful husband and hypocrite for the ages, is just perfect, in CNN’s eyes, for trenchant and probing news commentary. He will be co-hosting a new talking head show on the network, partnered with conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who as far as we know hasn’t operated any prostitution rings, not that it would matter to CNN.

Thus will the venerable cable news network adopt the strategy that has worked so well for Fox News and too many other media organizations: find infamous people who have thoroughly humiliated themselves and betrayed those who have trusted them—individuals who by all principles of justice and fairness deserve to be relegated to permanent obscurity until they have proven by hard work, good deeds and appropriate contrition, that they may again be worthy of trust—and give exposure, celebrity and employment to these anti-role models rather than to any of the large number of more deserving, talented, honest, reliable and admirable professionals who are available and capable. Continue reading

Ethics Dunce: President Barack Obama

I am old-fashioned, I guess: I really do not like to criticize this President, or any president, for being intentionally unethical. His is the most difficult job in the world, and requires more ethical dilemmas, more trading off of interests, and more responsibility, than a human being can be fairly expected to navigate with anything approaching perfection. Balancing the interlocking requirements of politics and leadership alone are virtually guaranteed to create ethical missteps

President Obama’s direct campaign appeal in his just-released video to “young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women who powered our victory in 2008 [to] stand together once again” has to be criticized, however, because it is clumsy, offensive, a startling breach of integrity and a dangerous one at this time in America’s history. More than that, it has to be condemned. Continue reading