The Ethicist and the Weather

While I truly miss Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist” columns in the NYT Sunday Magazine, I do enjoy reading Chuck Klosterman’s contributions.  I chuckled at the advice he gave to a concerned Hawaiian who was concerned that his wishes for good weather were harmful to local farmers. Pointing out that the writer’s desires have no impact on the weather, Klosterman advised, “What happens solely inside your mind is not cause for ethical alarm.”

By contrast, our conduct can and does have an impact on climate – and the ethical implications are profound.


Ethics and Weddings

I was contacted yesterday afternoon by a local television reporter about La Renaissance, a local banquet hall that is facing foreclosure but has allegedly continued to take deposits from its customers.  Some of these customers have weddings scheduled to take place after the hall is scheduled to be sold at auction.  The auction was supposed to take place a few weeks ago but was postponed due to the blizzard.  

Was it unfair for a banquet hall facing foreclosure to continue to accept deposits from customers?  I was interviewed on camera [here’s a link to the story] and was asked that question.  I am shown saying that it is unfair and deceptive for a business to take deposits from unknowing customers on the eve of foreclosure and that this conduct violates consumer protection laws.  That was a fair representation of my answer to the question, but I did have more to say on the subject than depicted.

As someone who started a small business, I understand the pressures that businesses can face.  The only chance that a struggling business has to survive is to get more customers and to bring in more money.  An ethical business should be concerned with multiple constituencies.  Yes, its customers are important, perhaps even paramount.  But, businesses should also be concerned about employees who depend upon a paycheck. Many of those employees have families, and a business should be concerned about them as well.  A struggling banquet hall probably has creditors that are owed money, and these creditors likely include other small businesses such as food vendors, cleaning companies, and landscapers.  Those companies also have employees with families.  So, there is nothing unethical about a small business struggling to keep things afloat.

But, there comes a point when a rational business owner must acknowledge that the situation is not salvageable.  There is something seriously wrong with continuing to take deposits from customers when there is no reasonable hope that a business can deliver what has been promised.   The situation with La Renaissance is particularly sad, because some of these customers are young couples planning their weddings.  I do not know the details of these transactions, but I fear that the outcome will not be good.

Buy Local/Fair Trade Speaker – Dan Finn

Local Fair Trade

The Buy Local and Fair Trade movements help local businesses, improve local economies, and promote economic justice and sustainability.  Anyone interested in learning more is invited to to the Humanist Association of CT’s monthly dinner series event tomorrow, Feb. 26. Our guest speaker will be Dan Finn, Director of Pioneer Valley Local First.   We will be at the Wood-N-Tap in Rocky Hill.  All are welcome, and attendees are encouraged (but not required) to respond via Meetup.

Leave Brittney Alone!

Griner blocks UConn guard Bria Hartley

( John Woike, Hartford Courant / November 16, 2010 )

UConn fans have been waiting for tonight’s game against Baylor – the last time that dominant center Brittney Griner will be coming to Connecticut.  Today’s article by John Altavilla in the Hartford Courant touches upon something that has been bothering me for some time.  There have been more than a few cruel comments on social media about Ms. Griner, and I wish the assholes doing this would knock it off.  I came across an excellent blog post in Fit and Feminist: The Misgendering of Brittney Griner.  The blogger, who is identified as “Caitlin”, writes:

I’m not going to repeat the things I saw about Brittney Griner; I’ll leave that to your imagination.  I will say that I find our culture’s ongoing obsession with policing gender completely baffling, and the misgendering of Griner is no exception.

In case you are not familiar with Griner, she’s the totally sensational junior who plays for the Baylor Bears.  She’s 6’8″, has a wingspan that is wider than most people are tall, she dunks hard and blocks like a wall, and has been noted for her androgynous looks.  She also happens to have a pretty deep voice.

Thus, her detractors say, she must be a man!

Of course, you don’t have to have a long memory to recall just how many times a similar criticism – that a woman is a man, is a lesbian or is a doper or is just a plain freak – has been leveled at a woman who dominates her sport.

It is a shame that society scores masculinity and femininity by how far an individual’s physical traits differ from the typical traits of the opposite sex.  Most women athletes don’t look to be judged for their femininity, and no civil society should countenance this crap.  Griner is a spectacular athlete who is changing the way the woman’s game is played.

I just hope she doesn’t change it too much tonight!

Why I am not watching the Super Bowl

Before explaining why I will not watch this year’s Super Bowl, I will first dismiss some of the more obvious possibilities.  I do enjoy football.  I was born in Pittsburgh, where the sport is a religion, complete with high priests, saints, tradition, and ritual.  Love of the game runs deep in my family.  My mother once dated Saint Myron, who bestowed upon us the holiest of relics, the Terrible Towel.  I enjoy the athleticism, the excitement, and everything about the game.  I don’t have anything against the teams playing this year.  This has the potential to be a great game.  And, I’ll be around.  Nothing on my calendar prevents me from tuning-in.

I will not be watching the Super Bowl this year because I am now convinced that football is immoral and should not be supported.

Two thousand years ago, the dominant Western culture was the Roman Empire, and a popular form of entertainment involved gladiatorial contests, where combatants fought to the death.  In more recent times, well into the 18th century, a popular form of entertainment in Paris France was “cat burning,” where about a dozen cats were wrapped into a net that was bobbed in and out of a bonfire.   Bear-baiting continued in England until well into the 19th century.  Dog fighting and cock fighting remain popular forms of entertainment in some cultures, although most of our society condemns these acts of barbarity.

It is noteworthy, however, that these earlier forms of entertainment were not deemed barbaric in their time.  Barbarism is, by definition, conduct that is deemed offensive by contemporary standards.  Gladiatorial contests were deemed acceptable by Roman society, largely because their attitudes concerning death differed from contemporary standards.  Additionally, most of the combatants were slaves or convicts, whose lives were valued differently.  Cruel treatment of animals can be largely ascribed to Cartesian beliefs that animals lacked a soul and therefore did not experience suffering, a viewpoint now easily debunked by any neuroscientist or anyone who has lived with an animal.

Morality is not a fixed concept; it evolves based upon changes in knowledge, and it is continuously re-examined in light of changes in knowledge and experience.  Just within the past two centuries, we have seen society’s standards in the Western world change with respect to slavery, child labor, racial equality, and gender equality.    In just the past few decades, we have reached a tipping point where a majority of the population now favors marriage equality, something unthinkable just a short time ago.

So, what does any of this have to do with football, a sport played by athletes who are voluntary participants of the sport, many of whom are highly compensated?  I’ll answer that first by asking the question, “what is morality?”  Dictionary definitions are not useful, as they rely on tautologies or circular definitions.  In a recent book, Sam Harris argues that questions of morality are primarily concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures, and moral actions and positions are ones that generally seek to maximize that well-being.  I generally accept that definition, which is entirely consistent with my highest value, i.e., to live an ethical life of personal fulfillment that aspires to the greater good of humanity.

So, the question in my mind is whether football enhances or detracts from the greater good of humanity.

Football is not, of course, completely devoid of positive values.  It facilitates the cohesiveness of groups and unites communities.  It provides economic and employment opportunities that extend well beyond the direct participants.  The players exercise important rights of personal liberty when they voluntarily participate.  And, football is an integral part of American culture that provides entertainment to millions. At the recreational and school levels, it provides important opportunities for youth and it provides academic opportunities for those who play in college.  The revenues generated at the college level support athletes in many other sports, providing educational opportunities that otherwise would not exist.  All of these factors contribute to the greater good of humanity, and the argument that football is therefore moral is a strong one – I do respect the opinions of the majority that disagree with me.

Yet, I fervently believe that centuries from now (assuming that we’re able to address certain long-term environmental, energy, population, and economic challenges), society will view football as barbaric, and I believe that the harm that it causes to participants outweighs the positive values.  I reached the tipping point on May 2, 2012, the day that Junior Seau’s girlfriend found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.  He was 43.  The National Institute of Health has confirmed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain pathology that has been found in many former NFL players.  Mike Webster, perhaps the best center to have played the game, also suffered from CTE.  He died ten years earlier at age 50; he was homeless and suffering from dementia at the time.  It has been estimated that Webster’s brain had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 automobile crashes during the 25 years that he played football at the high school, college, and professional level.

Although the NFL has made progress in reducing the damage from violent hits, the fact remains that a primary objective of the game is to knock opposing players down.  This inevitably will cause injuries, and it has resulted in paralysis, death, and repeated hits to the head.   It is now beyond reasonable dispute that football causes grievous harm to its players.

For those who believe that the positive values of the game outweigh the harm that is caused, here is a thought experiment.  Would a professional Russian Roulette League be moral?  Even if the “players” voluntarily participated and had economic opportunities that they otherwise would not, would you watch it?  Are the deaths of Junior Seau, Mike Webster, and others any less the consequence of their sport?   When you understand why you would not watch the Professional Russian Roulette League, then you will understand why I will not be watching the Super Bowl.