Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 12/29/2020: Another Dark Date For Ethics

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December 29 is one of the bad days in ethics history, beginning with the 1170 murder of England’s Archbishop Thomas Becket as he knelt prayer in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights of King Henry II. The knights were not explicitly ordered to kill Becket, the King’s friend who had become a problem when he took his role as Archbishop of Canterbury to be a calling to defend the Church against royal efforts to constrain its power. Instead, Henry made his wishes known by making the public plea to his court,

“What a parcel of fools and dastards have I nourished in my house, and not one of them will avenge me of this one upstart clerk.”

This is often quoted as “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Either way, the idea of such an oblique request is to relieve a leader of responsibility for the actions of subordinates, giving the leader plausible deniability. It didn’t work for Henry, but it may have worked for, for example, President Obama, whose Internal Revenue Service illegally sabotaged Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election, greatly assisting Obama’s efforts to defeat challenger Mitt Romney. In truth, when a powerful superior makes his or her desires known, it may as well be an order. An order is more ethical however, because it does not require the subordinate to take the responsibility upon himself.

1. But The worst example of a U.S. ethical breach on this date is the Massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, when the U.S. Cavalry killed at least 146 Sioux at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. It is definitely the most people killed because of a dance: the government was worried about a growing Sioux cult performing the “Ghost Dance,” which symbolized opposition to peaceful relations with whites, and was seen as inciting violence. On December 29, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under the Sioux Chief Big Foot near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. A fight broke out between an Indian and a U.S. soldier, a shot was fired, and an unrestrained massacre followed. Of the estimated almost 150 Native Americans were killed (some historians put this number at double that number), nearly half of them women and children. The cavalry lost only 25 men. Many believe that the tragedy was deliberately staged as revenge for Custer’s Last Stand 14 years earlier, which seems like a stretch to me.

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