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.

The Last Birthday Gift

blown out candles on a birthday cakeThis is my birthday. It’s also the third anniversary of my father’s death, as the two dates collided for all time when I found him dead, as if asleep, in his favorite chair when I went to my parents condo to meet him for a late birthday dinner, December 1, 2009.

I feel no more in the mood to celebrate my birth this day than I did that one, and seriously doubt if I ever will again. I miss my father terribly, every day really, and yet I recall that moment when I realized he was gone with mixed emotions. I knew that the old soldier, 89, fighting cancer, a heart condition and old war wounds, was facing a sharp down-turn in his quality of life; I knew that this was the way he always said he wanted to go out—quickly, without drama, humiliation or excessive expense—and I knew that among the members of his immediate family, I was the one whom he would have wanted to find his abandoned body. I never felt closer to my father, who, like so many of his gender and generation, had trouble expressing affection and intimacy directly, than I did in those last moments before the EMT’s arrived, as I stroked his thin, gray hair and said good-bye.

I have also come to believe that he gave me a great gift three years ago, probably unconsciously, but with my father, you never know.  He detested and rejected all forms of score-keeping, including regrets, accolades, praise and bucket lists. He was proud of many things in his life, especially his military service and his family, but he never felt superior to another human being based on what had happened in the past. My father believed that what mattered in life was going forward—doing one’s duty, helping others, setting a good example, and making every minute of your life count by trying to leave the world, even if it is only your small corner of it, better than it was before you got there. And when you’re done, you’re done. There is nothing to be sad about, or to be afraid of, or to regret; no recriminations for what didn’t happen, what couldn’t be completed, or mistakes made along the way. Just do your best, as you have learned to do it, for as long as you can. It’s not a competition, and you shouldn’t judge yourself by anyone’s standard but your own.

My father’s death reminded me that there is nothing special about being born. Everybody is born. It is how we use whatever time we have, when we use it well, that is truly worth celebrating, and even then, past achievements never justify resting on our laurels as long as we are still capable of doing some good, and have time left to do it.

On the day he died, my father spent loving hours with my mother in her hospital room, gave some needed advice and encouragement to my sister, wished his son a happy birthday, and made him laugh one last time. Good work, right to the end. If the timing of his finale changed for all time the meaning of my birthday for me, it also made vivid the life lessons that were the essence of Jack A. Marshall, Sr. Care about others. Be responsible.  Be fair. Do the best you can for as long as you can. Keep trying to be better. Never give up. Don’t be afraid. If you do all of that, you don’t need celebrations to prove your life has meaning. It just does.

It is true that “Happy Birthday” will never sound right to me again. Still, my father’s life and his way of leaving it gave me ideals good and true to celebrate on every December 1,  the wisdom to cherish whatever birthdays I have remaining, and the sense to never waste precious time regretting what is past and beyond changing. In many ways, his last birthday gift to me was the best one of all.

For My Father

The better Jack Marshall

My father’s birthday is coming up; oddly, I remember the date now that he’s gone, when I never managed to so while he was alive. It is May 2, and by lucky happenstance, Eugene Volokh chose to post another of my father’s favorite Rudyard Kipling poems on his blog today. I had completely forgotten about it, so this is a gift to me, especially since it helps my dad’s memory burn even brighter, always a boon when I feel the walls closing in.  He loved Kipling’s poems, books and stories, and he was a man whom Rudyard would have admired. Like most Kipling, this poem is about ethics, as well many other things, some of which readers must figure out for themselves.

For you, Dad. And all of you, too:

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

By Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) Continue reading

It’s You, Keith.

The news that The Angry Man of the Self-Righteous Left, Keith Olbermann, was fired by Al Gore’s Current TV was hardly news at all, since most of us had entered a pool on when Olbermann would get jettisoned from his latest gig. The predictable episode does have an ethics lesson for all of us, however, that involves the virtues of accountability, humility, honesty and contrition.

Olbermann, true to form, attacked his former employers and blamed them for his exit, writing  via Twitter…

“…I’d like to apologize to my viewers and my staff for the failure of Current TV. Editorially, Countdown had never been better. But for more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I’ve been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff. Nevertheless, Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt, instead of abiding by their promises and obligations and investing in a quality news program, finally thought it was more economical to try to get out of my contract. It goes almost without saying that the claims against me in Current’s statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently. To understand Mr. Hyatt’s “values of respect, openness, collegiality and loyalty,” I encourage you to read of a previous occasion Mr. Hyatt found himself in court for having unjustly fired an employee. That employee’s name was Clarence B. Cain. In due course, the truth of the ethics of Mr. Gore and Mr. Hyatt will come out. For now, it is important only to again acknowledge that joining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.”

This, of course, is not really an apology. It’s not an apology when your message is, “I’m sorry my employers are unethical slobs who didn’t appreciate the excellent job I was doing.

Keith Olbermann has either been fired or quit under acrimonious circumstances in engagements with, count them, five broadcast organizations: ESPN, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and now Current TV. This, despite being obviously talented and often getting excellent ratings. Olbermann is a smart guy, and yet even now, his reaction seems to be, “Why, oh, why, do people keep treating me so badly?”

It’s you, Keith! Continue reading

More Airport Encounters: Saying Thanks To An Accidental Mentor

Better late than never.

I previously wrote about the dilemma of whether to impose on celebrities who you encounter as they engage in the necessities of life (though I did not mention the time I was using a Kennedy Center urinal next to Colonel Sanders). I generally have ambivalence about the situation, but when I saw former Senator Alan Simpson standing at my gate as I disembarked at La Guardia, there was no question in my mind. I crossed over to him immediately, shook his hand, and said thank you.

I owe him, you see. Continue reading

The Most Ethical President

When I am asked who I think was the most ethical President of the United States, my answer is the man whose birthday President’s Day preempts: George Washington. He was not our most brilliant or eloquent President, and it often took him a while to find his way to the right thing to do, slavery being the most important example. Still, the United States was extraordinarily fortunate to have such a principled and instinctively wise leader as its first. He created the template that, though weakened by time and inferior successors, continues to exert a powerful influence over our choice of Presidents. He was honest. He was civil. He was dignified and insisted on respect, but never worship: his simple decision that America’s Chief Executive be called, humbly, “Mr. President” had immense consequences for the nation’s attitudes toward executive leadership. Perhaps most important of all, Washington was a gifted leader but a reluctant one. He believed that a citizen should heed the nation’s call when needed, but he was a reluctant public servant, and condemned those who sought power for its own sake.

I am always amazed, when I return to Washington’s writings and speeches, how sure, persuasive and perceptive his statements remain, so long after they were made.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from our most ethical President.

Happy Birthday, approximately, General Washington. Continue reading

Would It Be Ethical To Prohibit Civicly Ignorant Citizens From Voting?

CNN columnist L.Z. Granderson made the argument in a recent website post that it would be reasonable to deny the right to vote to ignorant Americans who cannot name the three branches of government and who have nary a clue about the issues facing the country .

Granderson could have saved some time by simply writing the undoubted truth that American policies, progress and choices of leaders and are greatly handicapped by the fact that lazy, uninformed, blissfully ignorant boobs warp our democratic process….and have almost from the beginning. But so what? What can be done about it? There is one thing for certain: taking away the right to vote based on someone’s subjective formula for measuring “ignorance” isn’t among the realistic—or ethical—solutions. Continue reading

Ethics Alarms Presents: The Top Ten Thought Fallacies That Undermine Our Ethics

Don't expect this list from Dave. ESPECIALLY not from Dave...

Today I’m teaching two ethics seminars for The Washington Non-Profit Tax Conference in D.C. One is on accounting ethics, the other is for lawyers. One segment in the accountants’ program involves the sub-conscious and genetically programmed human tendencies that can interfere with our better judgment and perceptions, warping our ethics, and causing our ethics alarms to sound faintly, if at all. There are a lot of them:  I have a list of more than thirty, and it’s growing. Here are my current Top Ten to be especially alert to, in your own thinking, and for understanding the behavior of others: Continue reading

Aesop’s Unethical and Misleading Fable: “The North Wind and the Sun”

Today, by happenstance, I heard an Aesop’s Fable that I had never encountered before recited on the radio. Like all Aesop’s Fables, this one had a moral, and it is also a statement of ethical values. Unlike most of the fables, however, it doesn’t make its case; it is, in fact, an intellectually dishonest, indeed an unethical, fable.

It is called “The North Wind and the Sun,” and in most sources reads like this:

“The North Wind and the Sun disputed as to which was the most powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power and blew with all his might, but the keener his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, until at last, resigning all hope of victory, the Wind called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.”

The moral of the fable is variously stated as “Persuasion is better than Force” , or “Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.”

The fable proves neither. In reality, it is a vivid example of dishonest argument, using euphemisms and false characterizations to “prove” a proposition that an advocate is biased toward from the outset. Continue reading

Mr. Friedkin? Mr. Hawks? Meet Mr. Madison and Mr. Twain

It was Saturday Censorship at the Movies last night in Cable Land.

First, I got to watch that manly channel, Spike, blanch at showing a possessed 12-year-old girl use the work “fuck”, which, as you horror devotees know, is a word rather central to showing how she has been taken over, like Helen Thomas, by the demon Pazuzu. There was Linda Blair, as the suddenly possessed Regan O’Neill, bouncing rhythmically on her bed as her horrified mother and physician looked on, shouting “—Me!—Me!—Me!”, apparently horrifying them with a noisy outbreak of egocentricity. The later scene in which the Demon Child is found masturbating with a crucifix was also clumsily chopped up so it was impossible to figure out what was going on. Continue reading