Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/19/18: Unethical Wedding Gifts, The Fairness Conundrum, What Really Makes Students Unsafe, And More

Good Morning!

1 A Not Exactly Hypothetical… A family member is getting married, and the social justice warrior spouse has decreed that no gifts should be sent, just contributions in the happy couples’ name to designated charities and causes, all political, partisan, and ideological. Does this obligate guests to give money to causes and organizations they object to or disagree with? One might be tempted to teach a life-lesson in abuse of power, and pointedly give a contribution to, say, The Family Research Counsel, the NRA, or Paul Ryan’s re-election campaign, but that would be wrong. Wouldn’t it?

2. “Progressive fines” poll update. The percentage of readers who regard so-called “progressive fines” as fairer than fining all law violators the same amount regardless of resources is about 6%, in contracts to 40% who think this is less fair. As I suspected, the schism is driven by the long-standing (and resolvable) arguments over what constitutes “fair” government policies, and whether it is the government’s job to try to make life less unfair. Is it “fair” to treat everyone the same, when we know that life doesn’t treat everyone the same? Are those who argue that life’s unfairness should be addressed by individuals, not society, taking that position because they are winners in life’s chaotic lottery? Can society and governments be trusted to address “unfairness” and inequality without being influenced by the conflicts and biases of the human beings making and carrying out laws and policies. I don’t generally care to spend a lot of Ethics Alarms time or space on abstract ethics questions, but some of them can’t be avoided. You can take the poll, if you haven’t already, here.

3. On the topic of fairness, here is a study that will make you bang your head against the wall: Following on the heels of this discouraging study I posted about on March 3 is this report by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau, as described here by the New York Times. A taste sufficient to ruin your day: Continue reading

Another Religious Freedom vs. Gay Rights Ethics Clash: The Country Mill Farms Farms Affair

Steve Tennes (above) and his devout Catholic family own  Country Mill Farms, Winery, Orchard and Cider Mill. in Charlotte, Michigan. The picturesque locale makes additional income by renting out the venue for weddings and events.

Last August, a visitor to Country Mill’s Facebook page asked if they hosted gay weddings at the farm. Tennes answered in the negative, explaining that his Catholic family believes marriage should be between a man and woman. The Tennes family sells its products at an East Lansing  farmers market, and that city’s officials were notified of their “no gay weddings” policy. A city ordinance  requires that participants in the market, even those not located within East Lansing city limits, have to agree with its non-discrimination ordinance.  “I think it’s a very strong principle that you should not be discriminating against somebody elsewhere and then come here and want to participate in our market,” East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas told the news media.

Lansing  officials urged (threatened?)  Tennes to comply with its ordinance, so the farm stopped hosting weddings of any kind for a while. Then Tennes decided to defy the order and announced on Facebook that the farm would resume hosting weddings, but only those involving a man and a women. In turn, the city told Tennes that his farm would not be welcome at the farmer’s market for the 2017 season.

“It was brought to our attention that The Country Mill’s general business practices do not comply with East Lansing’s Civil Rights ordinances and public policy against discrimination as set forth in Chapter 22 of the City Code and outlined in the 2017 Market Vendor Guidelines, as such, The Country Mill’s presence as a vendor is prohibited by the City’s Farmer’s Market Vendor Guidelines,” the city said in a letter to the family. Just coincidentally I’m sure,  East Lansing recently updated its civil rights ordinance to include discrimination at “all business practices” for participants the city’s farmers market. City Mayor Mark Meadows said the farm’s exclusion is based on the Tennes family’s “business decision” to exclude same-sex weddings. (Since the limitations on the weddings performed undoubtedly forfeits business, I have my doubts about whether the city can win the claim that it is a business decision and not a religious one.)

Now the farm is suing East Lansing. “Our faith and beliefs on marriage and hosting weddings at our home and in our backyard of our farm have nothing to do with the city of East Lansing,” Tennes said at a press conference last week “Nor does it have anything to do with the produce that we sell to the people that attend the farmers markets who are from all backgrounds and all beliefs.”

The suit asks the court to restore Country Mill Farms’ freedoms, stop East Lansing’s “discriminatory policy,” and award damages. The city claims its policy is in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling eliminating a ban on same-sex marriage.

My first comment: Yechhh. I’ll sure be clad when society is accustomed enough to same-sex couples that people stop treating them like they are viruses and other people stop bullying those who are slow to accept the cultural shift into submission.

I think East Lansing loses this lawsuit, or at least should.

At first it reminded me of this case, from 2014, where a family-run chapel was initially told by Coeur d’Alene, Idaho that it had to hold same-sex weddings. The city backed down, but the decisive issue in that case was that the chapel’s minister would be forced to do a ceremony that his religious beliefs didn’t permit. Forced speech is as unconstitutional as restricted speech, so the city eventually said, “Never mind!”

I wrote in part,

What’s next, legally requiring citizens to accept invitations to gay weddings? Make sure they get a nice gift? …It appears not to even occur to dedicated gay marriage rights activists that Americans can’t be forced to say what the good people think they should say, or support what the right people insist they should support. I happen to believe that same-sex marriages are good, and that legalizing them is right. Nonetheless, if you tell me I have to officiate at one of them or be fined, we have a problem. This kind of fascism from the left—and that’s what it is— forfeits the support of the fair, the moderate and the sane…Any advance in ethics can become a slippery slope to the unethical, and this is a good example. Personal autonomy still matters; freedom of belief is still an important right to respect and protect. Slippery slopes need sand, and this is an excellent example of why.

The ethics issue here is related, but different. This one reminds me more of the Chic-Fil-A controversy, when various mayors were announcing that because the company’s owner was a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, his business wasn’t welcome in their cities. I wrote (in part) about that ethics train wreck: Continue reading

The Conundrum Of The Tolerant, Excessively Honest Jeweler And The Gay Couple’s Rings


It’s not a photographer, chapel, baker or pizza place this time, indeed not even a business that discriminates or that said that would ever discriminate. As for the allegedly aggrieved gay couple involved, they did not choose the establishment looking for a fight or to make headlines, nor do they claim they were treated differently than any other couple would be, or that they were discriminated against.

Yet here we are again.

Canadians Nicole White and Pam Renouf, a same-sex couple, went shopping for engagement rings a few months ago, and eventually  found Today’s Jewelers in Mount Pearl, in Newfoundland, which specializes in custom-made rings. Everything went well as they ordered their rings and agreed on a price—the service, the atmosphere, the professionalism was all as it should have been. “They knew the two of us were a same-sex couple,” White said.”I referred some of my friends to them, just because I did get some good customer service and they had good prices.”

One of her friends took such an endorsement and went in to Today’s Jewellers to buy a ring for his girlfriend. There he saw a recently posted sign in the store. This sign:


He took a photo, and sent it to White. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The Marriage Mark-Up

Wedding reception

The New York Times published a feature in December exposing how hotels and wedding service vendors typically charge more to couples planning wedding festivities than they do to corporations seeking the same facilities and the same services. Is the result of  gauging, market forces, negotiation inexperience by the happy couple, or something else? Is it unethical?

The article seems to conclude that the vendors are simply taking advantage of purchasers who have no sensitivity to price, especially so-called “Bridezillas.” They want what they want for their perfect day, and will pay whatever it will cost to get it. Are the venders being unethical to take advantage of what is an emotional rather than a rational mindset? After considering whether more price transparency in the wedding industry would help (the author thinks not), the piece concludes,

“Strong consumer preferences — about the flower type, bridesmaid dress, cake decorations, music style, whatever — mean less price sensitivity (what economists refer to as greater demand inelasticity). If the cocktail napkins must be blue, the happy couple will be willing to pay more for blue. So if there are enough brides out there with strong and specific preferences, who want their weddings to be the special day they always dreamed of, that’s going to push equilibrium prices higher, no matter how transparently they are displayed. In other words, the Bridezillas keep prices high for the rest of us.” Continue reading

Gov. McDonnell And The Wedding: When Ethics Hypotheticals Come True


I thought I was dreaming when I read this in the Washington Post this morning:

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has said his daughter and her husband paid for their own wedding. So a $15,000 check from a major campaign donor to pay for the food at the affair was a gift to the bride and groom and not to him and therefore did not have to be publicly disclosed under the law, the governor says. But documents obtained by The Washington Post show that McDonnell signed the catering contract, making him financially responsible for the 2011 event. The governor made handwritten notes to the caterer in the margins. In addition, the governor paid nearly $8,000 in deposits for the catering. When the combination of the governor’s deposit and the gift from the donor resulted in an overpayment to the caterer, the refund check of more than $3,500 went to McDonnell’s wife and not to his daughter, her husband or the donor….The question of who was responsible for paying the catering bill is a key one because Virginia law requires that elected officials publicly report gifts of more than $50. But the law does not require the disclosure of gifts to the official’s family members. McDonnell has cited the statute in explaining why he did not disclose the payment in annual forms he has filed with the state.

I have taught an ethics hypothetical very similar to this in several contexts, including government, business, and legislative ethics. The lesson is that regardless of the laws, and whether a particular set of regulations designates gifts to a direct family member as creating a conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety, this kind of transaction is suspicious, probably corrupt, looks terrible, undermines trust, and should be rejected by the official whose family member is getting married. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: Photographer Flambé

The YouTube video description reads:

“While photographing Murray and Emma’s wedding Ceremony at Netherwood Estate, Jacki Bruniquel’s hair caught alight after getting too close to a candle. One of Murray’s groomsmen attempted to help Jacki put the flames out.

Now watch the video (you’ll want to skip the movie trailer at the beginning).

Does anyone seem to be the least concerned about the woman whose head is on fire? Would you react that way if a friend of yours caught fire?  Hypervocal headlined this WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING? MY HEAD IS ON F*&KING FIRE!”

Your Ethics Quiz question:

Is it fair to conclude from the video that this is a wedding party of heartless jerks ?

I suppose not, but I have to say, I find the lack of any hint of concern on the faces of the bride and groom disturbing. Especially the bride. Then again, maybe it was her new husband’s old flame.
Pointer: Hypervocal

Bad Mother, Bad Football Coach


Item: Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long fired stellar Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino, the married father of four, for having an affair with Jessica Dorrell with a comely 25-year-old subordinate and lying through his teeth about it to Long and the University of Arkanasa. Commenting on the scandal, ESPN’s Calvin Cowherd described Petrino as a “great football coach.”


Item: In White Plains, NY., Jessica Vega, 25, has been indicted on charges of fraud and grand larceny for falsely claiming that she was dying of leukemia to inspire her friends and the community to donate money, gifts and services to her for her”dream wedding” in 2010. Later, her husband, Michale O’Connell,  discovered that the doctor’s letter she used as a prop was fake, and he divorced her. Now he’s living with her again, in Virginia, and the couple has had a second child. “She’s a good mom,” O’Connell explained.

Even more wrong.

We see this mistake all the time: observers separate core character and trustworthiness from an individual’s job performance. That cannot and should not be done, and to do it is dangerous and irresponsible.

Bobby Petrino, whose record since being hired at Arkansas had indeed been remarkable, is a miserable college coach, and not just because he is an untrustworthy and dishonest employee. In the incident that led to his dismissal,  he conducted an inappropriate on-campus relationship with a woman, who was not his wife, and who Petrino had personally added to his football staff. Petrino did not disclose he was in a relationship with the woman when he hired her, raising various issues including misuse of University funds, and after he hired her, sexual-harassment.The two were in motorcycle accident, and Petrino attempted a cover-up by calling a friend in law enforcement, leaving the scene with his mistress,  insisting to university administrators that she was not on the motorcycle with him at the time of the crash, and maintaining the lie that there was no relationship between them.   He called a press conference to “clear the air” about the accident, and continued the falsehood.

As Arkansas knew when it hired him away from the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, Petino had a long, long record of untruthfulness, mostly exhibited in his surreptitious job hunting while being under contract, including when he jumped from the Falcons mid-season.

Okay, he’s a liar—but doesn’t his football record prove he’s great at his job? No…because he’s an educator; he coaches students, young men, in whom he’s supposed to imbue the principles of good character. Petrino can’t do that, because his own character is swill. Having someone with Petrino’s propensity to lie and break laws, rules, and commitments when it suits his needs to do so can only warp young minds, and a coach that wins games at the price of nurturing liars and cheats doesn’t belong on any college campus. He’s not a “great coach,” but an ethics corrupter.

But he’d be a better mother than Jessica Vega, I think. What kind of monster tells everyone including her husband-to-be that she has terminal cancer so she can have a glamorous wedding? A very, very sick one, I assume. Someone whose values are rotted through, and for whom the depths of her perversity and heartlessness are incalculable. She not only shouldn’t be raising children; she shouldn’t be permitted in the same room with them, lest her vile, sociopathic sensibilities and utter contempt for others seeps into their young souls like industrial pollutants contaminating ground water.

Sure, she’s a good mother… if the objective is to raise Lucretia Borgia, Joseph Mengele, Pol Pot and Voldemort.