Posts Tagged ‘Ethics’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Jaw-dropping is a term ripe for overstatement. I mean, how often has your jaw literally dropped from awe or surprise?  Recently though, I stumbled upon a 40 year old story retold at Smithsonian.com that made my mouth physically gape open. The article’s title was amazing enough: “For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of WWII.”  “Well”, I said to myself, “this sounds intriguing.” Within three paragraphs, my jaw was touching my chest.

The Lykov Cabin

The Lykov Cabin

The Smithsonian.com piece retells the tale of the Lykov family. (For the full story, I highly recommend the whole article; but I will simply relay some the major details here.) The Lykovs  had been living in the Siberian steppe, totally isolated from other people for forty years when they were discovered by a Soviet geological team in the mid-1970s.  There were six family members living an amazingly hardscrabble existence in a small wood cabin deep within Russia’s expansive wilderness.  The family was composed of a husband, wife, and their four children, the youngest two having been born in the Siberian wild.  They literally had not seen another human since 1938.

The Lykovs were ‘Old Believers’, a conservative, traditional Eastern Orthodox Christian sect that had slowly been disappearing in Russia since the time of Peter the Great’s reign in the early 18th century.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, and with the Russian Revolution of 1917, there were hardly any ‘Old Believers’ left.  Joseph Stalin harshly persecuted the few remaining  ‘Old Believers’ during the 1930′s.  During 1937-38, Stalin was in the midst of one of his many ‘purges’ of state enemies, and the ‘Old Believers’ were not  copacetic with Stalinist ideology.  Like many other Russians, religious or secular, the ‘Old Believers’ were violently repressed. As one of the few professing Old Believers left, father Lykov moved farther and farther away from Stalinist ‘civilization’.  After his brother was killed by Soviet agents, daddy Lykov packed up his family and moved into the Siberian wilderness.  They would stay there for 40 years, ignorant of the horrors of the Twentieth Century.  The family knew nothing of WWII, oblivious to the death of 20 million of their fellow Russians.

karpagafia1

The Lykovs

The family was living the life of ultra-ascetics.  A primitive, asocial, and yet, devout lifestyle. My first thought was that these people were living like extreme monks.  But, for the two youngest children, monastic life does not even describe the extremes of their existence.  Whereas the parents and two older Lykov children had memories of the old world, of cities, communities, and a larger society, the two younger children had no knowledge of this lost world. Monks choose to live away from others after experiencing the social world.  These two youngest girls had no choice in their absolute life of solitude. Their only connection to the outside world  were stories of their parents; and the family Bible.  Evidently, when the Soviet geologists found the family, and walked into their ‘hut’, they found rags for clothes; homemade furniture; etc.  However, the Lykovs did have the prominent family Bible as one  remnant of the civilization they left behind   According to the article, “their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina (the mother) had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink.”

So, how did these two youngest children, who never came into contact with strangers or the outside world, interpret the Bible?  Would the stories, the prophecies, the parables make sense?  Could these girls empathize with the tales of pain and glory.  There is no doubt that the book of Genesis’ descriptions of man’s relation with nature would be understandable.  But, what about the ethics espoused within the four gospels?  What did ethics mean to two girls who had never seen another person?  If you live completely asocially, do ethics even exist since you have no one to be ethical with?

Bloch-SermonOnTheMountImagine the challenges the girls faced when they read these words of Jesus?:

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

The Lykov girls must ask, “What is a treasury?  What is a crowd? What is money?”  These things would mean nothing to them.  More importantly though, these girls wouldn’t understand concepts such as inequality. They would not understand giving, poverty or social class.  They would not understand hypocrisy.  So, what would they get out of this story?  I really wonder.

I need to make it clear that this has nothing to do with Christian ethical priniciples per se. Without ever coming into contact with others and partaking in a larger society, I believe no ethical code would make sense.  Immanuel Kant’s ethics would be even harder to understand than usual. Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian ethics would be useless.

Perhaps this is why Aristotle stated:

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.  Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I just can’t look away.  The Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal is rocking the sports world, and the ethical, social and economic questions that it raises have me thinking.

Students and fans celebrate Joe Pa.

First of all, I am not going to recap the scandal, or deal with Sandusky. He will be spending the rest of his life in prison, and no one in their right mind feels that is not just.  That part of the scandal is black and white; the more difficult question centers around Joe Paterno, the face, football coach and benefactor of Penn State since the mid 1960s. What has dumbfounded me is that when journalists, commentators, athletes, coaches, and general fans discuss Paterno, they constantly return to one question: How will Paterno’s assisted cover up of a child predator affect his ‘legacy’?    I would hope there would be no controversy. His ‘legacy’ is now the scandal.  Case closed. Everything else he has done pales in comparison.

Many disagree. Here is what Matt Millen, a former PSU player said on ESPN after the damning Freeh Report was released last week: “My opinion is he (Paterno) made a mistake.…He (Paterno) made a mistake and it was compounded and it was over a course of time…What means something to me is what he (Paterno) stood for. And what he was. And the character part and the character side of what he was. And what he stood for was significant….It (the report) shows he was fallible…He made a mistake for whatever his reasons are. Is it spoiled? It’s absolutely spoiled but there is still a lot of good there.”

Coach K.

Millen is by no means alone in the sports world in his defense of Paterno’s ‘character’.  Perhaps the most famous person to speak out in this way was the active dean of college basketball coaches, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K).  A month ago, Coach K made it known that he thought the firing of Paterno last year after the scandal broke was not handled properly by the university.  “You had somebody who’d given six decades of service to the university and done such an incredible job…Somehow, you have to let – something has to play out and respect the fact that you’ve gone through all these experiences for six decades. And it doesn’t just go out the window, right at the end.”  In other words, ‘JoePa did lots of good, and some bad, and we shouldn’t let the bad overshadow all the good.’ Coach K is correct in his pop-philosophy that we ‘all make mistakes’; that we are all sinners and saints. His ethical philosophy falls short though with his misunderstanding that all sins are equal, and all sins can be washed away by our good deeds.

What I see here is a problem that goes beyond Paterno, and strikes at the heart of big-time athletics. Moneyed athletics seem to lack of an understandable moral hierarchy. When an athlete is important enough, small transgressions and large moral failings often mean the same thing: an athletic slap on the wrist. Insignificant slips such as public intoxication have the same consequences in the sports world as disturbing behavioral patterns, such as physically attacking your own mother.  The athletes may face different legal repercussions (notice I write MAY), but athletically, the punishment is often the same no matter what they have done.  They are made to sit for a quarter/half/game, and cheered like mad by the hometown fans when allowed to come off the bench, out of the doghouse.

I always assumed there was a limit to this type of situation.  Assault people regularly enough, and you will see your career end; your reputation ruined. In other words, the moral hierarchy of our world would eventually catch up with the ethics of athletics. However, the response to Paterno throws this into question, and unnervingly so. By covering up for a sexual predator of children, Paterno should fall within the abyss of moral approbation on all counts. In any other line of work or society, this would be the case; but not athletics. Instead, when Joe Pa was fired last year, thousands of fans took to the streets, others ‘mourned’ at his statue (that is right, statue), and athletes were abuzz on the twitter-verse saying how unjust all this was to poor ol’ Joe. They obviously thought, as with other realms of athletics, he should be forced to sit on the bench for a quarter, thus serving his penance. As the role of Joe Pa becomes more damning in this scandal, his defenders often hold even tighter to such beliefs.

Up is down, and down is up in such a world and these topsy-turvy ethical standards are making me feel a little nauseous.

By Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty.

Boy, do I hate those Freakonomics guys. I mean, seriously, they write a book that assures us, through the point of view of economists, that we’re better than “drug dealers” and that the way we look askance at names other people give their kids is justified and we buy it like our own prejudices are going out of style. Congratulations, Freakonomics dudes, we all think you’re geniuses because you can see the world from your own point of view.

So, you ask, what’s the problem with seeing things from your own point of view? Nothing, inherently. The problem is in the lack of nuance. Stephen Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, in their book and on Freakonomics Radio, speak from the point of view of economists. The whole enterprise is “surprising” in that they look at “real-world issues” through the lens of economics. Holy crap, economists look at the world through economic paradigms – you don’t say! Dubner and Levitt do, indeed, provide the economics perspective, but their assessment of the issues is myopic (to say the least) in that it fails to take into account the “real” thing about real life: it is nuanced, and it requires ethics.

A few months ago, for the holidays, the Freakonomics guys did this piece on turkeys. In the piece, Stephen Dubner discusses the fact (yes, it’s a fact) that nearly 100% of the turkeys we consume in this country are unable to procreate naturally. Yes, from the point of view of Freakonomics Radio listeners, the artificial insemination of turkeys is not only hilarious; it is “good economics”. Dubner and his interviewer laugh about the “jobs program” created by the fact that millions of turkeys are bred in this country so that their giant breasts (hysterical!) make them unable to stand on their hind legs long enough or to get into the appropriate position to have actual sex. The problem with this piece is that it gets so caught up in the comedy of turkey sex and the “job creation” of artificial insemination that it failed to address any of the ethical nuances of the issue. So, we are left with a humorous (at best) and congratulatory (at worst) piece about the awesomeness of an absurd, horrific, and completely unethical phenomenon that serves the business and consumer point of view nicely.

Freakonomics is not nuanced. Nuance requires the understanding of someone else’s point of view. With nuance comes ethics. I want to argue that it is our point of view that determines our actual ethics (actual, as in the way we ACT).

Earlier this week, NPR ran this story on “Why Good People Do Bad Things”. In this piece, the journalist asks whether it takes a bad person to do unethical things. As it turns out, we are all “frequently blind to ethics” in our decision making, because we approach problems from our own assumed point of view. The piece features (in awesome graphic-novel narrative) a man who, after promising his dying father that he would never be so unethical as his brother, who had just been convicted of fraudulent business activity, finds himself having done the very same thing 22 years later. This totally normal, “good” man had come to assume the identity (and, thus, the point of view) of a business man (like his brother), so, when he lied about his business’s income in order to get the loan that would (he thought) save his failing business, he ACTED as a business man. He acted in a way that was best for his business. Period.

Of course, most of us are not business owners defrauding banks and weakening the global economy, but that doesn’t mean that our own assumed points of view don’t allow us to act unethically on a regular basis. If your point of view is that of a homeowner, you might spray chemicals on your lawn, even though they have been proven dangerous to your local watershed. If your point of view is that of a consumer, you might look for the best bargain and buy the stuff that was made through the cheapest means possible, even though that means extractive, exploitive, and harmful methods. If your point of view is that of a parent, you might send your kid to a private school, even though it is a disinvestment in your community. All of these are reasonable decisions from the point of view of the individual. “Everybody’s doing it.” “It’s legal.” “It’s what’s best for me.” But they are not, generally, the most ethical decisions with regard to others. That’s what happens when we fail to incorporate nuance into our own decisions, and we accept the status quo. Thus, we get best-selling economists celebrating acute poultry suffering for the sake of “job creation” and we accept (even appropriate) their point of view. No nuance; no ethics; no challenge to the status quo.

David Fincher’s (highly nuanced) critique of the status quo point of view AND the fervent rejection of the status quo, “Fight Club” exhibits this problem with its exquisite denoument.  In his rejection of the unethical, corrupting, emasculating point of view of the status quo, Tyler Durden engages in a highly unethical act, but, the way he sees it: “everything’s going to be fine.”

Whether we accept the economic status quo presented by the Freakonomics guys or act to destroy the status quo by any means necessary like Tyler Durden, until we ask ourselves, “Where is my mind?”, we have confused “my point of view” with “the right thing to do”.