December 2005 "Easy Calls"
  • In a social system that depends on laws and the threat of punishment to prevent misconduct, a simple risk/reward formula will often determine when someone decides that the benefits of doing something wrong outweigh the risks. This is what happened when forty-nine contract workers for the Red Cross in Bakersfield, California allegedly decided to exploit flaws in the system to divert relief money intended for the victims of Hurricane Katrina to themselves, their families, and their friends. Obviously, this was wrong, and obviously the people who would do such a despicable thing, stealing donated funds from poor Americans who desperately needed it, know that it is wrong. But they also must have had no sense of ethics, the internal instinct that would tell them that even if the money is there for the taking and the chances of punishment are slight, they still shouldn't do such an abominable thing.

    If ethical instincts are strong enough and deeply felt, laws are unnecessary. When the law isn't enforced, or seems far away, or when the benefits of wrongdoing look too good to resist, only ethical instincts stand between a formerly law-abiding citizen and a new criminal. The Bakersfield scammers aren't aberrations; there's nothing especially dishonest about Bakersfield. This could happen anywhere, and that should alarm us. A good, fair, safe and just society can only exist where citizens do the right thing because it's right, not because they fear punishment. The Red Cross debacle shows that the message, so far, is not getting through. (12/28/2005)

  • The recent argument, made before the Supreme Court in the case Rumsfeld v. FAIR, that law schools should be able to bar military recruiters from their campuses despite receiving federal funds seems legally weak and ethically weaker. To begin with, the purported reason for the lockout smells of pretense, for law schools never seemed quite so eager to make this stand against military "don't ask, don't tell" policies until the country was involved in a war that university types overwhelmingly loathe. But even giving the schools the benefit of the doubt, the boycott unfairly takes legitimate choices away from law school graduates. Why is it a display of virtue for law schools to allow their students to interview with firms that serve environment-polluting corporations and executives sued for bias and harassment, for example, but not with a military that protects Americans? Isn't it a student's right to decide whether or not a potential employer is ethically objectionable, and not for the law school to make that decision unilaterally? As the "don't ask, don't tell" policy has so far survived legal challenge, isn't it the professional duty of a law school to respect the law of the land? And since when did law schools attempt to suppress opposing points of view? Don't lawyers practice an adversary system in which controversies are resolved by argument and logic? Even putting all of these aside, the fact is that military personnel, like other U.S. citizens, have a Constitutional right to representation by an attorney. How is it ethical for law schools to attempt to prevent its students from becoming JAG officers and providing that representation? It isn't. But if the graduates of the law schools making this ill-considered stand are not any more reasonable and ethical than the administrators and professors who brought it to the Supreme Court, maybe the schools are giving military clients a break. (12/21/2005)

  • Move-On.Org sees itself as a political "player," but it persists in following "the end justifies the means" as its unethical mantra. A case in point: a typically juvenile Move-On TV ad that ran over the Thanksgiving weekend condemning the U.S. activity in Iraq included a shot of soldiers having a spartan meal in the desert with the caption, "A hundred thousand American men and women are stuck in Iraq." The photo, the Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web" site (www.opinionjournal.com) points out, is of British soldiers, as anyone who looks at their insignias and dress could discern. An amusing example of the continuing unamusing failure of a well-funded advocacy group to hold itself to any perceptible standard of competence, fairness, or responsibility. (12/20/2005)

  • A group of out-of-state students has filed a class action suit against California for providing massive college tuition discounts to illegal residents who have graduated from California high schools. The suit contends that the policy discriminates by providing special benefits to illegal aliens attending California's public universities while withholding them from out-of-state citizens doing the same. The disputed discount is considerable: it amounts to more than $20,000 per student per year. Legally, the suit should be a slam dunk; ethically, its position is just as obviously correct. The policy allowing some California high school graduates who were not residents of the state to receive the resident discount was not originally intended to give one more incentive to law-breaking illegal immigrants, but that has been its effect in recent years. While it may be admirable for the state to want to assist struggling illegals with an education, the first duty of a government is to its citizens. One can argue whether a state should provide equal benefits to those non-citizens here by breaking America's laws (not that it's a good argument to make), but there is no question that granting them benefits withheld from other U.S. citizens is unfair and wrong. As with most disputes involving taxpayer-funded goodies provided to illegal immigrants, the arguments on the side of the illegals tend to avoid the real issue. A La Raza spokesperson defending the California policy on CNN said that the policy was fair because it "levels the playing field." The argument is as weak as it is illogical: those who cheated to get on the playing field in the first place do not deserve to have it leveled for them. A college student of Hispanic descent quoted in many press accounts suggested that the lawsuit is the product of bias. "I think it's anti-immigrant," the student said. "I don't think it's fair for our students who, all they want to do is get a better education and become a better person." Based on this comment, one might suspect that some newspapers may be intentionally publishing the weakest arguments imaginable. The lawsuit isn't anti-immigrant; it is anti-illegal immigrant because the law is supposed to be anti-illegal anything. And the fact that illegal immigrants have wants and needs has precisely no bearing on their right to break the law to pursue them. Bank robbers want a better life. High school students who cheat on their exams want a college education. These aren't justifications for giving them special treatment, and there is no ethical reason to give special treatment to illegal immigrants however lofty their aspirations. (12/20/2005)
  • A young man named Quentin Wilson thought it would be fun to see if he could get a homeless man named Rex Leo to drink cleaning fluid in exchange for five bucks. It was a riot: the man took the money and the drink, and now is in intensive care, his esophagus, gums, tongue and other tissue eaten away by acid. Wilson has been fired and is in jail, as police consider how to upgrade his charges. An Easy Call, for sure; unethical, outrageous. Yet the ethical instincts behind Wilson's terrible act are identical to the motives and methods used in America's popular media every day. Jerry Springer uses the lure of a TV appearance to persuade Americans who lack means, judgement and education to humiliate themselves on television. The "reality show" "Fear Factor" dangles the possibility of a huge prize to get fit young men and women to eat worms, animal innards, road kill and worse. Other shows like "The Surreal Life" induce desperate, maladjusted, neurotic and fame-addicted pseudo-celebrities to disgrace themselves and descend below the level of performing seals in front of millions of viewers. Danny Bonaduce, a former child star who has been engaged in a life-long search for the attention and adulation he received as a 10 year-old on "The Partridge Family," was given an opportunity on the cable show "Breaking Bonaduce" to abuse himself emotionally and physically in front of the TV cameras. He came perilously close to causing the collapse of his marriage, his own breakdown and even suicide. The greedy contestants, dim-witted talk show guests and fading celebrities differ from the homeless, alcoholic man enticed into drinking cleaning fluid by the degree of their desperation and the nature of their needs. But what entertainment-seeking exploiters seek to do with their vulnerabilities is exactly the same: cause them to harm themselves for the amusement of others. There was another young man with Quentin Wilson when he offered the five dollars: he played the same role as the millions of people who tune in to watch the self-destructive conduct the exploiters pay for on television. He didn't try to stop it. He just watched. It is time that the watchers accept responsibility for this increasingly common unethical conduct, since the exploiters won't and the exploited can't. Enticing weak, sick, desperate or damaged people to humiliate and hurt themselves for the amusement of others is wrong, and it doesn't have to result in death or hospitalization to be seen as the despicable conduct it is. The behavior is far older than cowboys throwing money into spittoons for barflies to fish for, and it won't be eradicated easily. We can start by deciding not to be amused by it. (12/18/2005)

  • The Scoreboard weighed in on this issue a year ago, but the fact that the Boston Red Sox have finally sued ex-firstbaseman Doug Mientkiewicz to get possession of the ball he caught to record the final out of the team's first World Series title in 86 years has recently inspired several sportswriters to blather on about how petty the team is being and how Mientkiewicz should be allowed to keep the ball. The fact is that the Red Sox must sue to settle a well-established and obvious ethical and legal issue that suddenly, thanks to their greedy former reserve, has been called into question. Never, before Mientkiewicz, had anyone claimed that the last player to catch a baseball in a game "owned" it. Teams pay for and own the property used in a game. By tradition, a ball hit out of play (foul or into the stands as a home run) belongs to the fan who catches it. But a player? That is exactly like an employee claiming that he "owns" the pens and supplies he uses at work. He doesn't. And now that certain baseballs, like the Sox World Series ball, are worth thousands of dollars to souvenir dealers and collectors, Mientkiewicz can't be allowed to create some kind of baseball player exception to the rules of the workplace. Sure…as the ethically ignorant sportswriters have pointed out, players have been allowed to keep balls in the past. But that's the key phrase…"been allowed." Teams consented to give them balls that either had no value or meant more to the player than the team. But the Red Sox never said Mientkiewicz could keep the 2004 Series ball; he just took it, saying that it was his kids' "college fund." Not to mince words, he stole it. Any conclusion other than giving the ball to the team would lead to chaos. Imagine the last out in a historic game being decided by an infield pop-up that could be caught by any of six players. The ball might be worth millions. Would some players try to muscle team mates aside to gain legal possession of the prize? Well, I can think of one right now. Mientkiewicz's theory is bad ethics, bad law, bad logic and bad policy. That ball belongs to the team that bought it and its fans who cherish what it stands for, not to the obscure bench player who just happened to catch the ball because he came into the game as a defensive replacement, and who wants to auction it off on Ebay. (12/7/2005)

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