August 2005 Ethics Dunces

Isabella Rossellini's Housekeeper

It is no great revelation that a thief is ethically clueless. But a housekeeper, unnamed in press reports, who was recently charged with robbing her Manhattan glitterati employers has taken flawed ethical reasoning by criminals to an amusing level. In pleading not guilty to charges of grand theft and possession of stolen property, she explained that she only stole from nasty celebrities…those who treated her with disrespect. For example, she targeted Robert DiNiro's wife, because she was "disrespectful." "I didn't steal from Isabella Rossellini because she treated me well," the housekeeper said. This doesn't speak well, apparently, for Candace Bergen, Renee Rockefeller and Grace Hightower, who were among those whose valuables somehow made the journey to their housekeeper's abode.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

Her defense is, of course, the well-worn "they had it coming" rationalization for bad behavior. It isn't a valid excuse for unethical behavior, but it at least a novel explanation for theft. And some good may come out of the housekeeper's warped rationale, if it serves to remind Candace, Renee and others among the rich and famous that treating the help with consideration and respect is not merely the right thing to do. It may have other side benefits as well.

Just ask Isabella Rossellini.

Maureen Dowd

Maureen Dowd has fans of two sorts: Democrats and Bush-bashing liberals who love her below-the-belt scourges of Republicans and White House policy, and lovers of good, old-fashioned nasty wit. The latter is a guilty pleasure with Dowd, who will never let fairness, accuracy or a sense of proportion interfere with a wickedly funny line at a target's expense. But a recent column in praise of anti-war military mom Cindy Sheehan contained a line that could well be on an Ethics Dunce Admissions Test, preceded by the question, "Do you agree with this statement?" The line was this:

"The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute."

Morality, as distinct from Ethics, is a formal set of behavioral rules and values. The credentials, influence and prestige allowing a person or group to establish moral principles or a moral code that others will be inclined to follow is what we call "moral authority." More generally, if inaccurately, we sometimes refer to "moral authority" as the quality that makes someone's ethical judgements worthy of attention. Those without "moral authority" can still speak the truth and be correct in their ethical judgements, but not as many people will listen to them. Strictly speaking, there two kinds of moral authority: the ability to enforce a moral code, and the credibility to convince others to follow it regardless of enforcement. When the two unite, behavioral attitudinal change is likely to result.

Thus Dowd's statement is ethics gibberish, and the correct answer to the exam question is "no." Cindy Sheehan can't enforce morality on anyone. Nor has she done anything that makes her an especially credible or influential moral arbiter. Indeed, she is obviously hopelessly biased on the one matter in which she has attempted to seize moral authority: the Iraq war. A person who has had a devastating personal experience as the direct result of anything is not an objective judge or critic of that thing. People who have been mauled by pit bulls are not the ones to discuss whether it is the breed or the dog owners who are responsible for the dogs' aggressiveness. Adults who have been through ugly divorces are not the best people to ask about the virtues of marriage. And mothers who have lost sons in any war cannot be counted upon to objectively evaluate whether that war is "worth the cost."

Sympathy, pity, and empathy do not confer moral authority. All they confer, by themselves, is a limited license to engage in some conduct and speech that would not be tolerated from others. Cindy Sheehan has taken full advantage of that, but her moral authority, far from being "absolute," is nil.

Of course, she may still prove to be correct in her primary assertion. But the fact that she buried a son killed in Iraq has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Ray Hultman and Eleanor Cook

How rare it is to see two people voluntarily appear on television and announce, with no sense of shame or remorse, that they have a substantial deficit of principles, fairness, courage, honor, honesty, responsibility and intelligence! Yet this is the disgusting spectacle being provided to us by Ray Hultman and Eleanor Cook, two former jurors from the Michael Jackson trial who are now proclaiming, "Doh! We should have voted guilty!"

Did new evidence provoke this humiliating conclusion? Nope! Belted disclosure of bribery perhaps? Uh, no. A claim of hypnotism, maybe…or demonic possession, or being influenced by will-bending drugs surreptitiously poured in their coffee by Michael Jackson's henchmen…Tito! No again.

Then what happened? Well, they felt pressured. The Foreman said mean things to them.

So now they are writing a book about it all…in fact, two books, one for each gutless, dishonest juror.

And anyone that buys them can lay claim to being just as irredeemably stupid as these twin disgraces to the American jury system.

Let's begin with the primary victim here, Michael Jackson. Whatever anyone thinks of Mr. Jackson and his odd and inappropriate behavior towards young boys, he is an American citizen, and he has rights. He stood trial over many grueling weeks, and when the jury members announced, each and every one, that they could not find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, he had earned that verdict. Others could question it and argue about it, but that non-guilty verdict was his pass to begin rebuilding his life and reputation. For two jurors to come out later and tell the media that "they made a mistake" is an outrageous act of pure malice. It is worse than having your child's teacher, after awarding a high grade that has became a cause for celebration in the family, tell you and your child, "Actually, the grade was a mistake: it should have been an F, but I'm stuck with it." It is worse than if a judge in an Olympic Competition told a gold-winning athlete after his medal had been awarded, "You know, you didn't deserve that high mark I gave you that made you the winner. I really don't know what I was thinking."

But, some will say, why care about the feelings of Michael Jackson? After all, he's a child-molester. No, he's not. The law of the land says he's not. Even if these jurors actually had discharged the duty they had pledged to honor and voted to convict (assuming that really was their conclusion, which, given their admitted unreliability and obvious fecklessness, is an unwarranted assumption), Jackson still wouldn't have been a convicted child-molester. He would have just been a defendant in a mistrial. Now, he is a free man and an acquitted accused child-molester. And he still has both rights and the human right to be treated decently.

But Cook and Hultman have absolutely no right to cast doubt on the verdict now. They had a duty, an obligation, to have the integrity and the courage to stand up and vote guilty in the jury room if that is what they felt the evidence showed, take the arguments and antipathy of their fellow jurors, and cause a mistrial. They didn't. Either they weren't certain enough to hold onto their opinions in the face of a determined majority, or worse, they knowingly voted the opposite of what they believed. This isn't the fault of any other juror. This is their fault, and having done it, they had an obligation to shut up about it forever. Recanting their votes now doesn't help the alleged victim, nor does it further the interest of justice. Michael Jackson cannot be retried. What it does do is give them book deals.

Hooray.

They are undermining the American justice system for a couple of lousy book deals for what will undoubtedly be a couple of lousy books.

Cook and Hultman say the Forman threatened to kick them off the jury unless they voted guilty. What kind of a pathetic excuse is that? If they were being unfairly pressured, they could complain to the judge; that's the system. If they were removed from the jury, it was not going to cause a worse result, in their eyes, than if they stayed and voted against their conscience. Why stay? Why was the threat of removal so effective? The potential book deals, perhaps. Or, more likely, just an epic failure of courage and character on their parts.

If Cook or Hultman had been in Henry Fonda's place in "Twelve Angry Men," the movie would have been over in ten minutes.

Michael Jackson's lawyer, Tom Mesereau, told the Associated Press that the jurors' comments were "embarrassing and outrageous." He got that right, but he didn't go far enough. They broke their juror's oath. They lied when they said they had concluded, after weighing the evidence, that Jackson was not guilty. They didn't have the basic courage to stand up for what they believed after accepting a core democratic responsibility that requires that courage. They undermined the trial and the verdict after the fact, and they did so while basking in media attention and hawking their future books.

No American should feel anything but contempt for these two people, who have taken a sacred duty and distorted it beyond recognition. Perhaps shame and sadness too, that our fame and money obsessed culture may have so eroded our democratic values that even being a juror is now just one more opportunity to garner fifteen minutes of fame, a People Magazine feature, and some quick cash.

Cook and Hultman aren't merely Ethics Dunces; they are Super Ethics Dunces who should frighten us as much as any terrorist. If their value system…devoid of courage, honesty and accountability…flourishes, democracy cannot survive.

 

 

 

 

   
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