Democrats’ Tricky Ethical Issue: Is It Okay to Hope Trump Fails?

Ethics is about doing the right thing. It’s primarily about actions, about how we behave when we interact with others. But it also involves how we think about others. Having racist thoughts, for example—believing someone else is inferior just because of skin color—is clearly unethical. That’s because such thoughts end up influencing our behavior, whether we realize it or not, and because they likely make us more tolerant when others act with prejudice.

But what about hopes, especially when politics is involved? Can a hope be unethical?  If you’re a Democrat or Independent who pines for President Trump’s defeat, is it okay to hope that he’ll fail in dealing with the coronavirus, the economy, or anything else because you know that will hurt his re-election prospects?

That kind of question has always been in play, but the Covid-19 crisis raises the stakes considerably. As red states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas reopen their economies, Republicans and Democrats disagree in almost every poll. Republicans are far more likely to support a relaxation of restrictions, usually arguing that the economic damage is just as bad or worse than the health risks. Democrats tend to be more cautious about reopening, fearing a spike in deaths that would outweigh the harm from a deep economic recession. The divide has the awful effect of building on pre-existing polarization to turn the pandemic into a blue vs. red phenomenon.

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Can I Refuse to Wear a Mask?

No, you can’t.

I usually write about complex ethical problems for which there is no clear answer, with the aim of promoting thought and discussion to help you make a decision you feel comfortable with.

But when it comes to wearing a face mask in public to fight the pandemic, there is no gray area. Just wear the damn mask!

The author shows his colors.

Opponents, including a few who have reacted with violence when told to put on a mask, often question the legal authority behind mask rules or cite the First Amendment or some other patriotic sounding tripe about the supposed “right” to do what you want. I’m not going to bother with the legalities here because ethics is about doing the right thing, not the legally required minimum, and there is no doubt that you are ethically required to do what you easily can do to keep the rest of us safe. How this ever became a political issue is beyond my comprehension.

Let’s be clear. You wear a mask not to protect yourself, which is arguably our choice, but to protect others, which shouldn’t be your choice. The problem is you can have the virus and spread it without knowing it, so it’s not about your own safety, it’s about everyone else’s, and it is ethically wrong to endanger others unnecessarily. Period. End stop.

Viral Ethics: How Will You Help?

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

20200501_135333That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.

Despite our political divisions, a significant majority of Americans have come together in this time of crisis to help our neighbors. You see this when you take a walk and more people are friendly, or when young healthy people on a grocery run ask their elderly acquaintances if they need anything, and in a growing willingness to keep a safe distance and wear a mask to protect against contagion.

That’s all well and good, but surely ethics demands a lot more from those of us who remain healthy and able. Whatever particular theory of ethics you follow,  the overwhelming aim is to do good for others, to do the right thing, follow the golden rule, and to minimize harm. So how does this apply right now?

The coronavirus has made the economic divisions in our society clear. Essential jobs are overwhelmingly performed by minorities and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Our health workers, who are most at risk, are filled with the ranks of immigrants, as are meat plant workers and those in the gig economy. It’s the well-off who still have jobs and can do them at home, and while balancing our-of-school kids and jobs at home may be a challenge, it is not the same as struggling to file for unemployment, losing a business you created, or standing in food lines that stretch for miles.

So the question is, what can those of us who are not suffering physically or economically do to help. More specifically, what is our obligation to help?

Let’s start with the money the federal government distributed last month. The need to move quickly meant that beyond very crude means testing, the checks had to go to everyone. But many of us hadn’t been hurt economically and didn’t “need’ these checks.

I’m one of those people. I’m retired, have a steady income from Social Security and pensions, and while my IRAs and investments were hurt, I don’t live off those and expect they’ll recover in time. I didn’t need or deserve the money I received, and the same is true of many others who have not suffered harm. To be sure, paying a debt or back rent is a legitimate use of the money because it helps those on the receiving end. It also helps to order deliveries or pick up from struggling restaurants or other stores, but I’m guessing you would have spent money on those restaurants in normal times anyway – in other words,  you didn’t need the stimulus money for that.

Ethically, the obligation is to use the money as it was intended: to help those really hurting. That means donating your check and as much more as you can to the charities doing the heavy lifting: Food banks, shelters for the homeless, those providing health care for the uninsured, a friend or relative in need, and so many more. I would argue that the obligation is to help worldwide, but obviously that’s a personal decision. Harder to decide may be whether to also help theaters, symphony companies, public TV and radio, and other cultural organizations that are hurting. Again, that’s up to the individual.

What about household help? I started a debate on Facebook when I posted an article from a home health care worker who was locked out of her job when the family decided they’d take care of their aging parent because they were home anyway. Should we continue to pay those who have cleaned our homes even if they are no longer doing that work? What about nannies, childcare workers, or those helping the aging? Does it matter if the decision to cancel work is yours or if the worker is the one who thinks it’s too risky?

If your answer is yes, what about the beautician who has done your hair for the last several years if you have a long-standing relationship and she counts on your income?

If your answer is yes to any of the above, how long are you ethically obliged to keep it up? If you answer no, do you feel that small businesses that have had to close their doors should continue paying employees? If not, what’s the difference?

I’m interested in your thoughts so here is a small survey to see how you feel. It is completely anonymous – neither I nor anyone else will ever know who replied. And remember, I am not applying these questions to people who need the government payments – only to those for whom it represents the equivalent of found money. You can also comment below or send your thoughts to mark@markwillen.com.  We’ll report on the survey next week.

Viral Ethics: The Value of a Life

Today, we’re happy to lend this space to Tom Galvin, a former journalist who has worked at the intersection of technology, policy, and the economy for the past two decades.11219646_10206707969871603_4201137767317298659_nTom used those experiences to write his debut novel, The Auction, due for release later this year.

The following guest blog grew out of one of Tom’s  recent Facebook posts:

The hesitant steps to reopen the economy are spurring a collective ethics test for us as citizens. Today, many of us may view the demands to end the lockdown as reckless and selfish. In eight weeks, however, if the lockdown is still in place, we may share the belief that the damage to the economy outweighs the health risks.  So, who and what is right? And is there such a thing?

To explore it, I posed a question to my Facebook friends: “Imagine there’s about 500nyc people in your neighborhood. Would you stay in lockdown if it meant one of them wouldn’t die? Or would you say that the life saved (maybe your own) isn’t worth 500 people being out of work?”

I choose that scenario because at that moment the ratio of deaths to jobless claims was roughly 500 to 1. I didn’t reveal that at the time; I wanted to provoke thought about the difficult choices we face.

The responses mirrored the public debate. Initially, most echoed this comment, “That’s a tough one. I can’t imagine that I could live with myself if there was a chance that I had something to do with someone dying.”

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Viral Ethics: Let the Needy Go First

I serve as treasurer of a small nonprofit organization for writers in Maryland, and because of the Covid-19 stay-at-home order, we had to cancel our annual conference. That cost us about $2,000.  At a recent board meeting, someone suggested we apply for money being made available by the local government to assist nonprofits in sudden need. We talked about it and decided not to apply. We have a big enough rainy day fund to cover the loss, we have no employees to worry about, and we’re in no danger of slowing, let alone ceasing, operations. Other organizations clearly need it more.

None of us had to think hard about this; it was clearly the ethical thing to do.

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Viral Ethics: Covid-19 Questions

I stopped writing the TalkingEthics blog shortly after the 2016 election. I didn’t see any way to continue without getting mired in the nastiness and hatred that characterized any discussion involving politics, and I wanted to avoid that (and still do). It was also true that the media started paying a lot more attention to ethics as the new administration pushed what were already questionable boundaries. Plus, I started writing novels, which gave me a different kind of opportunity to explore ethical questions.photo-1586065390014-a796af790da7

All of that is still true today, but the Covid-19 crisis raises some serious new issues, and I’m starting to see neighbors and friends discuss them, so I decided to jump back in. I’ll start with a few thoughts on a handful of issues and ask you to join in the discussion with your own views (details on how to participate below). Let’s start with wearing masks.

Is it ethical to leave your mask at home? Here in Maryland, masks are now required in grocery stores, pharmacies, and other places of business where it’s Continue reading

The Ethics of Charitable Giving

Most of us would agree that sharing our good fortune in the form of charitable giving is an ethical thing to do, maybe even an ethical requirement. If we’re blessed with more money than we need, whether by hard work, good luck, or a combination of both, we ought to lend a helping hand to those who need it. Right?

But what does it mean to have more money than we need?

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Book Review: The Good Ones by Bruce Weinstein

Good onesThis is a book that anyone concerned with ethics in the workplace—and we all should be—needs to read for a number of reasons and on a number of levels. It’s packed with practical information and telling anecdotes that together provide an easy, informative and enjoyable read. Most important, it explains not only what “the good ones” do to earn the title, but also how we can learn from their success and why we ought to try to emulate it. That will help us become better people and, yes, will  help create a better and more profitable business. Continue reading

Greed Trumps Ethics Again–And Again

Can business ethics get any worse?  Later this summer, the Justice Department is expected to announce charges of criminal wrongdoing in GM’s handling of faulty ignition switches that led to a series of fatal accidents. The New York Times says GM will likely agree to a record settlement—more than the $1.2 billion that Toyota paid for a sudden acceleration problem. And Tanaka has finally admitted after years of denial that its explosive airbag problem justifies the largest recall in auto history (and that’s saying a lot). Continue reading

Family Values: Not What You Think

family valuesI wish Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift hadn’t called their new book Family Values. The title makes it too easy to pass over this important examination of the ethics and morality of family relationships in the mistaken assumption that it’s just another empty contribution to what passes for political debate. I hope the subtitle, The Ethics of the Parent-child Relationship, will catch enough eyes to bring the book to the fore because this work has something important to say, and whether you agree or not, it’s worth a healthy debate.
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In Defense of Lying

On more than one occasion, Talking Ethics has looked at the ethics of telling so-called white lies that may seem like they’re not doing much harm—“Dinner was delicious.” “I like your new haircut.” In doing so, we found that our readers (a self-selected group who take their ethics seriously) generally frown on lying of any kind, though most reject the absolutist view of Immanuel Kant and others who insist lying is always wrong because it undermines trust and constructive discourse. Now comes a new study suggesting that not only is lying sometimes okay, but it actually can be the right thing to do.
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The Redskins Need a New Name

The NFL season is still more than a month away, but here in football-crazed Washington, the Redskins already dominate the sports pages. And with that kind of coverage staring me in the face every morning, I can’t help thinking anew about the team’s controversial name—specifically, whether its continued use constitutes unethical behavior.
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