Found Money

On Thursday, drivers on U.S. Route 31 in Grand Haven, Michigan confronted one of those moral dilemmas that ethicists love to discuss.  A fellow driver somehow forgot that he left a cash box containing $30,000 on the bumper of his car.  As he drove on the highway, the box fell off the bumper and opened on impact with the pavement, and the thousands of dollars in cash spilled onto the road and into the air.

image-photo-money-thrown-in-the-air-april-2016And thus, the ethical thought experiment met reality:  if you were driving one of the following cars and saw the money on the road — where you were out in the open, surrounded by total strangers, where no cameras would see your conduct and no criminal consequences were likely to attach to what you did next — what would you do?

In this instance, other drivers immediately started stopping, scooping up the money, and driving off — conduct that, incidentally, caused a traffic tie-up on Route 31.  Of the $30,000 in the cash box, only $2,500 was immediately recovered and returned to the owner.  Since Thursday, police have appealed for drivers who pocketed the loot to probe their consciences and turn in the money.  Only some have done so.  Two teenagers turned in $630, which would sure seem like a lot of money to a kid, and one woman turned in nearly $3,900.  The police commended them for their honesty.  However, most of the money remains unrecovered.

Over the years, I’ve found wallets and car keys and credit cards and other valuable items, and I’ve always returned them immediately because I’d like to think other people would do the same with an item I misplaced.  But before I hurt my shoulder patting myself on the back, I also recognize that I haven’t been in desperate need of money on those occasions, either.  If you were at the end of your financial rope and suddenly saw hundred dollar bills on the Route 31 asphalt, would you do the honest thing — or would you think that your prayers had been answered and drive off with fistfuls of money without a second thought?

Selfie Soullessness

In northern Italy, a tragedy happened at a train station.  A Canadian woman was struck and badly hurt by a train. Rescuers and station personnel went to help her, and ultimately the injured woman was taken to a hospital, where her leg was amputated.

selfie1-870x418But while the helpless, injured woman lay prostrate on the track bed and rescue workers assisted her, a guy in white shorts and a white shirt positioned himself on the adjacent platform so that the woman and the workers appeared in the background behind him, flashed a hand gesture and no doubt a facial expression . . . and then used his cell phone to take a “selfie” of himself and the tragic scene.  The man’s act of cold-hearted callousness was captured by a news photographer in the photograph published above.  Police noticed the man in white shorts, too, and briefly detained him.  Although he was found to have committed no crime, they required him to delete the selfie — so we’ll never see the photo that he thought was so important to take.

The above photograph of the heartless selfie-taker has caused shock and outrage in Italy.  The photographer said the scene caused him to think that “we have completely lost a sense of ethics.”  A commentary in a popular newspaper spoke of a “cancer that corrodes the internet” and said that the man in white shorts had lost his soul and his personality; a popular radio said the scene showed that the human race is “galloping towards extinction.”

But should anyone really be surprised by the man in white shorts who thought a scene of personal tragedy would be an interesting and fitting backdrop for yet another photo of his face?  We’ve seen stories of people risking life and limb — and sometimes losing the bet — to take selfies, and we all know people whose first thought, wherever they may be, apparently is to take a selfie and publish it to their friends.  The selfie zealots have allowed their narcissism to overwhelm their common sense, and the guy in white shorts has allowed his basic sense of decency to be overwhelmed, too.

For the selfistas, the real world is just an abstraction, and nothing more than background for their self-absorbed grins and gestures.  For the sake of the guy in white shorts, let’s hope that if he ever is injured or needs help, there are people nearby whose first reaction will be to help him — rather than step back and take a selfie.

Cashing In On Tragedy

The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012 was in every respect a tragedy.  Martin was shot by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who claimed the shooting was in self-defense; a Florida jury later found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in connection with the shooting.

29906170001_4892088941001_4892074610001-vsNow Zimmerman is trying to sell the gun that fired the shots that killed Trayvon Martin.  This morning he’ll put the weapon, a Kel-Tec PF9 9mm handgun, up for on-line auction on a gun sale website.  He’s asking for a starting bid of $100,000 for the gun, which he describes as an “American firearm icon” in auction materials.  The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for a brand-new Kel-Tec PF9 9mm handgun, by way of comparison, is $356.36.  Whether Zimmerman will actually be able to sell the gun is anybody’s guess — an earlier attempt at an on-line auction was highjacked by obviously fraudulent bids.

A jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of a crime in shooting Trayvon Martin, and we’ll never know exactly what happened the night Martin was shot.  But now we do know this:  George Zimmerman is a cheap, classless person who is trying to cash in on his role in the death of a kid.  It’s indecent, unforgivable, and grossly unfair to the family of Trayvon Martin, who have denounced the effort to sell the gun.  When several other gun sale websites declined to auction the gun on ethical grounds, it tells you all you need to know.  

It’s a free country, of course, and people buy and sell all manner of curiosities.  But selling the gun used in the Trayvon Martin shooting for big bucks is a new low.  It’s trafficking in death and blood money, and it’s wrong.

 

Should We Go To Organ Opt-Out?

There was an interesting piece on the CNN website today.  Written by a young woman whose health condition required her to receive a heart transplant, it argues that the United States should change its approach to organ donations, and go from a voluntary donation system to an opt-out system.

organ-donation-transplantationThat is, the United States would presume that all of its citizens have agreed to become organ donors unless and until they have “opted out.”  Some European countries, most recently Wales, have gone to an “opt-out” system, and the argument is that the system will allow the U.S. to avoid the many deaths — according to the writer of the CNN piece, 22 each day —  of Americans who are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant that simply doesn’t arrive in time.

I’m one of the 40 percent of Americans who have voluntarily become organ donors.  I figure that when I’m dead I won’t need my eyes, or organs, or anything else, and if somebody can get some additional use out of them, that would be great.  (Of course, I’m hoping that I’ll have gotten a lifetime’s worth of production out of them before that inescapable eventuality happens.)

Still, there’s something about an opt-out system that troubles me, ethically.  The CNN writer argues that such a program will heighten awareness of organ needs, and better match public opinion — where polls indicate that 95 percent of Americans favor organ donation — with the number of actual organ donors.  And, she contends that an opt-out approach is still voluntary, only the choice is to opt out, rather than opt in.

I disagree with that.  Unlike some, I don’t think an opt-out approach would turn doctors into ghouls who would fail to provide appropriate care in order to expedite harvesting valuable organs.  Instead, I think the issue boils down to one of very basic, essential choices.  If the United States went to an opt-out system, the government would presume to be deciding what to do with your organs, and the burden would be on you to take action to reverse the government’s decision.  I think deciding whether to contribute organs upon your death is about the most personal choice a human being can make.  The fact that the government thinks the greater good might support one choice rather than another doesn’t make the choice any less personal, or one that should be taken away from the individual, even if it is only until they state their intention to the contrary.

I hope that everyone decides to contribute their organs upon their death, so people like the young CNN contributor can live a long and healthy life — but I also think it is a decision that everyone has to make for himself.

The Fakes And Cheaters World

Sometimes diverse news stories coalesce to sound a deeper, underlying theme.

This week we’ve witnessed the curious ongoing story about Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president who says she self-identifies as black, and the disclosure that the FBI and federal prosecutors are investigating the St. Louis Cardinals for hacking into the database of the Houston Astros to obtain confidential player information.  And The Week has a fascinating story about a business in the Philippines where people spend their workdays manufacturing fake people on Facebook — using a “fake name generator” website — and then using those fake people to sell fake likes to people or businesses who want to look more popular on social media than they actually are.

What’s the deeper theme here?  That my grandmother was right when she said “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”  It’s a fakes and cheaters world out there, and we all would do well to maintain a healthy skepticism about . . . well, virtually everything.  Even in the sporting world, where you would like to think that hard work, training, and talent on the field of play ultimately will be decisive, teams apparently aren’t above doing whatever it takes to gain an edge.

I’m not a Pollyanna about how the world used to be; I know that there have always been fraudsters and scammers and hustlers who make their living through lies and deception.  But we seem to have crossed a line now, and there is a big difference between throwing spitballs and stealing signs on one hand and hacking into another team’s computer systems on the other.  Falsifying and airbrushing and cheating seem to have become almost routine in everyday life, and distinguishing the legitimate from the illegitimate has become much more difficult. Can you trust anything you see on a resume anymore?  Should you give credence to any data about Twitter followers or Facebook likes?  What about reported corporate financial results, or government budget figures?  How deep, exactly, does the culture of counterfeiting, and the ethical rot that accompanies it, go?

Rachel Dolezal isn’t apologizing for what she has done, and says she would do the same things again. She says “the discussion is really about what it is to be human,” and she hopes “that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”  Huh?  We’re now supposed to have a “dialogue” about what, exactly?  That we are all “empowered” to “self-determine” and represent ourselves in any way we choose, regardless of reality?

Forcing Adherence To The Law

We may be on the verge of a new era in personal choice and personal responsibility:  Ford is getting ready to roll out a new car that simply will not allow you to exceed the speed limit.

From a technology standpoint, the Ford S-Max is an interesting step forward.  The car will come equipped with a camera that will read speed limits posted on roadside signs.  The S-Max will then automatically adjust the amount of fuel to the engine to prevent the car from reaching speeds above that posted limit.  So, rather than using braking action to control speed, the S-Max will use the operation of the engine itself to prevent any lawlessness by the lead-footed driver.

The Ford S-Max is in line with a recent trend to use technology to force adherence to the law, whether it is through electronic ankle bracelets that control where people can and cannot go or proposals for cars that require you to pass a breathalyzer test or to fasten your seat belt before the ignition will engage.  Leave aside the issue of whether requiring complete compliance with the law at all times is always safe and smart — there are circumstances, for example, when exceeding the speed limit to get out of the way of other vehicles in a merging situation is the only prudent course — and consider, instead, what such technological controls do to affect concepts of personal morals and to encourage governmental intrusion into personal choice.

If you have no ability to break certain laws, do you even need to develop a personal code of ethical behavior that will apply to your daily life and help to guide your actions?  If you can’t make the wrong choice, what does the concept of personal choice really mean?  And if we start to accept routine technological controls on our behavior, will government entities be tempted to increase the range of controls, by enacting new laws that regulate behavior and by requiring further technological limitations on our ability to act freely?

The Ford S-Max is a long way from futuristic, sci-fi worlds where computer chips are implanted into human brains to rigorously control behavior, but every journey begins with a single step.  I’m not going to be in the market for an S-Max — if the choice is left up to me.

The Biology Of Conscience

Scientists at Oxford have made a fascinating discovery about the human brain. They have identified an area called the lateral frontal pole that focuses on considering alternative courses of action and comparing them to what we’ve actually done. Even more intriguing, their work shows that there is no similar area in the brains of monkeys.

The study used MRI scanning techniques to map neural pathways within the brain and determine which areas are connected to the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with language and cognitive flexibility. The studies allowed the scientists to identify the location and function of the lateral frontal pole, a bundle of neurons described as the size and shape of a Brussels sprout.

What really makes us human? One essential characteristic is comparing what we actually did to what we could have done — and then pondering endlessly about what we should have done. The concept of choice, and the identification, evaluation, and comparison of choices by the lateral frontal pole, lies at the root of many of the higher attributes of humans, because the concept of choice and causation leads inevitably to the concept of right and wrong. Philosophy, morals, ethics, and religious beliefs all argue about which choices are right and which are wrong and what considerations should go into how we make those choices. Should we pursue individual pleasure? Should we always try to act in furtherance of the greatest societal good?

These notions are all wrapped up in what we broadly call a conscience — which apparently lurks in the lateral frontal pole. It’s what makes us feel guilty and second-guess ourselves. It’s why Scrooge dreamed of Marley’s ghost. And it’s fascinating that monkeys, which have brains that are generally similar to the human brain, lack the section of the brain that engages in such activity. They apparently can steal a piece of fruit, happily gobble it down, and sleep soundly that night without a second thought or pang of guilt.

The next time you toss and turn at night, unable to sleep because you wonder whether you did the right thing, you can be sure the neurons in your lateral frontal pole are firing and churning away. We’ve got choice, and the lateral frontal pole ensures that we must live with the consequences.

Is Everything For Sale, And If So, Why?

Is everything for sale in America?  Have we reached the point where the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar has become too all-consuming?

An article in MarketWatch, published by The Wall Street Journal, discusses the teaching of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, author of the recent book What Money Can’t Buy:  The Moral Limits of Markets.  Sandel posits that at some point over the past 30 years America crossed the line from a market economy to a “market society” in which virtually everything, such as naming rights to public buildings, ad space in school cafeterias, and carbon offsets, is for sale to the highest bidder.  A market economy is a tool for organizing activity in the most productive way, but a market society is one in which market values — rather than morals, ethics, religion, or other non-money-oriented concepts or belief systems — intrudes upon and governs our relationships and our behavior generally.

I’m a big fan of capitalism as an economic system.  Human history has proven that it is the most fair and effective way of allowing people to control their own destinies and create wealth, and no other system even comes close.  But Sandel has a point — there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.  When capitalism crosses those lines, the effect is corrupting and defeating of any selfless impulses that motivated the activity in the first place.  When public money is used to erect a public building and the structure is named after whichever large corporation or wealthy individual ponies up the most money for the naming rights, it detracts from the important public, communal element of the endeavor.  When a couple decides to have a child but pays a hefty price to a clinic to try to genetically engineer the perfect offspring, what are they really trying to accomplish?

I disagree with Sandel on one fundamental point.  He is quoted in the article as saying:  “We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.”  I don’t buy that — no pun intended.  I think part of the witches’ brew of developments that is leading us down the road to perdition is the notion that the public is never to blame for anything, that we are trapped and buffeted by forces beyond our control.  I think people can make a difference and can act morally and ethically; the thousands of acts of kindness and human decency that occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing, where strangers acted purely out of concern for their fellow man rather than concern for the bottom line, prove it.  Our challenge is to bring more, much more, of that same sense of ethical behavior to the public arena and to our everyday lives.

A Different Perspective

An interesting debate is occurring in Great Britain about assisted suicide and right to die laws.  Previously, much of the coverage has been about a woman named Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and who has led a fight to clarify Britain’s assisted suicide laws.   Now, a prominent scientist who, like Ms. Purdy, has multiple sclerosis, weighs in on the opposite side of the debate.  His basic message?  People should be talking about how to live, not how to die.

A Wuss For A Speaker

When it comes to Rep. Charles Rangel, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a bit of a wuss. Even though Rangel, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has been dogged by his unseemly failure to list many of his assets on financial disclosure forms — so much so that even the Washington Post has called for him to yield his chairmanship — Pelosi apparently is unwilling to oust him. She is concerned that booting Rangel will upset members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and she also is concerned that she doesn’t really have any good candidates to replace him.

Why don’t politicians just ‘fess up? In reality, they don’t care about ethics — at least, not about the ethical lapses of the people on their team. Ethics is hauled out only when it is a problem for the other party; it is disregarded when enforcing ethical behavior involves any meaningful political cost.  If Nancy Pelosi won’t enforce ethical behavior when a powerful Congressman grossly flouts his disclosure obligations, then she isn’t much of a Speaker. And, if the Democrats don’t take meaningful action against Rangel, then they will have no credibility the next time they protest when, as will inevitably be the case, a Republican is found to have acted unethically.

Attention And Accountability

Rep. Charles Rangel

Rep. Charles Rangel

The ongoing stories about Congressman Charles Rangel’s failure to disclose significant assets and transactions, and even checking and brokerage accounts, in his congressional disclosure forms is just another example of the culture of contempt for the rules and disdain for the little guy that is so sickeningly pervasive in Washington, D.C.

The whole purpose of congressional disclosure rules is to report assets, outside income, and other financial data that could suggest corruption with respect to the industries Congress is regulating.  Rangel is the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for tax litigation in the House of Representatives.  What position could be a more likely focus of special treatment and sweetheart deals designed to obtain undue influence?  If the congressional self-reporting system were intended to be a meaningful regulatory regime, you would think it would be especially attentive to proper, full, and complete disclosure by the heads of powerful committees — yet Rangel grossly understated his income and net worth and failed to disclose lucractive transactions for years.  Once his omissions were disclosed, he promptly amended his forms and no doubt will claim “no harm, no foul.”  Care to bet whether he will be disciplined in any way by the House Ethics Committee for his chronic flouting of the disclosure rules?  Don’t hold your breath.

Frankly, it gets boring writing about the personal greed, negligence and ethical vacuity of our elected representatives, but if informed citizens don’t do so the corruption problem won’t get any better.  People like Chairman Rangel need to know that some people are paying attention, even if the voters who routinely return him to Congress apparently aren’t.

Journalistic Ethics

The New York Times has reported that one of its reporters who was captured by the Taliban and has been held captive for seven months has escaped. What makes the story particularly interesting is that the Times kept the story of the reporter’s capture confidential during that entire time because it was advised that disclosure of the capture would endanger the reporter. The Times therefore was confronted with a choice between printing what was a newsworthy story or refraining from doing so because printing the story could be fatal to its subject. The situation presented a question of journalistic ethics, and I think the Times clearly made the right choice.

When I attended the Ohio State University School of Journalism, ethics was part of the curriculum — not a major part, but at least a topic that was discussed. I was surprised to learn that there really are no hard and fast standards that apply to all members of the news media. Instead, every newspaper and every reporter had to make their own rough cuts. One of my journalism professors said his particular rule of thumb was never to accept a gift that could not be consumed in one sitting.

For reporters, the ethical questions can arise in countless different scenarios. If a kidnapping occurs, do you follow the requests of the police and the family on what to print and when? I think most journalists and editors would agree to do so, because no story is worth a life. Do you offer a source anonymity when you suspect that they may be leaking to pursue a political agenda? I think most journalists would say yes, if the reporter had done enough checking to believe in the truth of the source’s information and there was no other way to get the story. Do you accept a free meal or round of golf from someone trying to garner some favorable press? I think most reporters would permit themselves to do so, and believe that they could maintain their objectivity — but what if it turns into many meals, rounds of golf, and maybe a junket to an exotic location? Some lines are easier to draw than others.