Tag Archives: Ethics

Redefining “Depreciation”

Isn’t it bizarre that Mad Men, that seemingly-misogynistic, impeccably-conceived AMC series, is written by women, while Sex and the City, home of kitschy, “girl power” Platonic archetypes, was the single-girl fantasy for gay best friends?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m way into Mad Men.  While I’m not a big television person, there’s no better barometer for public culture than popular TV.  Mad Men had me at Don Draper’s first steamy glance.  What could be more decadent than a sexy anti-hero reminiscient of quaint time immemorial, before Americans got Ugly?

Over a girlie evening this summer I enjoyed a recent remake of Clare Booth Luce’s classic film, The Women.  The 1939 original featured a bevy of vacuous women twittering with such rapid fire that even had one among them not been entirely mindless, none could have understood her Mach 3 gossip.  My party hurled insults and popcorn at the screen as the 2008 version ended on a cloying “girl power” note after two hours of mind-numbing gossip and infighting among a group of women calling themselves friends.

Clare Booth Luce wrote the screenplay as a sharp parody of shrill females and their inane relationships.  The 2008 version lost CBL’s facetious edge.  We were left w/ the message that we should kiss and make up, forgive our friends’ gossip and our spouses’ infidelity.

Forgiveness has its place, and its benefits.  When Gov. Mark Sanford admitted that he’d cheated on the lovely Jenny (and then that he’d also cheated on his mistress), she forgave her husband in the manner befitting a politician’s wife.  Marriage is a fortress not limited to love and snuggles, but that protects us from myriad social ills and the pitfalls of living alone.

I do love to trace pop culture through the media.  When I learned that women write Mad Men, I felt a little like I did at the end of the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, when it’s revealed that the protagonist behind all of this artificial perfection was actually Glenn Close, the male lead’s wife.

It’s not men who long for the days of marital security, pot roasts, and time-consuming, glamorous updos.  It’s women.  Can you blame us?  Everyone has seen the notorious Craigslist ad where an “Enterprising Young Woman” asks men what she’s doing wrong and why she can’t nail down a productive man for keeps.  One among her target demographic replies curtly that women are simply a depreciating asset, while men appreciate over time.

It’s true only if you’ll take it.  The reality is that many women will easily accept a “depreciating” label, but we all — men and women alike — benefit from staying monogamous (in case you can’t get the link: “The most consistent predictors of faster declines in cognitive functioning were being old and being single,” the researchers wrote.  “Socioeconomic status was linked to cognition, but only at the first test.  Stop doing those crossword puzzles.  Keep your mate.”).  And honestly, even if the SATC movie was a gay fantasy of single women’s lives, who wasn’t depressed that 50-something Samantha, crude-but-“fabulous” symbol of free love in the 21st century, wound up alone?

The alternative to depreciation is to decide that a relationship — and a marriage — is a contract to “want what you have,” rather than continuing to search for what you want.  Women stand to lose the most at the margins if we allow gerrymandered definitions of “depreciation” to emerge over time.

How wild that we’ve finally taken the reins away from the “girl power” screeches perched atop towering Manolos to redefine “feminine” as something solid rather than fluid, with an extended duration we’d let slip in the ’90’s, and with a new emphasis on trust, faith, and tradition in perennial danger of falling to that wayside irony.

At The New Agenda.


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American Exceptionalism

Link, and part of a journal for my Ethics class:

The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism

The advent of the Obama administration brings this question before the nation: Do we want the United States to be like Europe? President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalent of Europe’s social democrats. There’s nothing sinister about that. They share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system.

I read a great article this week (Charles Murray, “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism,” in The Atlantic) that I’d like to address. I summarize the critical points below, but please find the full text hyperlinked here.

The article argues against adopting the European mentality; not for economic or even demographic reasons, but because the European model does not play to men’s strengths. The author begins by defining the purpose of government as seeking the people’s happiness, then defining happiness as transcendence, i.e., fulfillment and deep satisfaction. Murray goes so far as to say that only four institutions can lend life this transcendence: family, community, vocation, and faith.

Murray argues that social democrats’ agenda mirrors the European method, where the government meddles with human affairs. Murray categorizes democrats’ twin premises as the “Equality Premise” and the “New Man,” adapted from communism’s New Man, an infinitely malleable model of human nature. These premises simply don’t comport with biology. Women react differently to babies than do men. Changing institutions requires changing parts of our nature that biologically are often simply not malleable.

Maybe (hopefully) it’s obvious why this ties in to Ethics, but perhaps less obvious why it’s a personal journal entry. The reason is that a few days ago in my Evidence notes, I wrote: Be Smarter. Be Smarter, Kat. Let me just add that on my To Do list. I had done the reading, and was following in class, but I was struggling with a particularly counterintuitive concept. So c’mon, just be smarter.
Murray concludes by stating that when the government meddles in individuals’ affairs, it makes everything slightly easier to come by, and cheapens these institutions slightly. We are less able to own those things for which we have worked. My writing “Be Smarter” in my notes is like a vote for someone else to implement change. It reeks of fatalism, helplessness, a blurring of the lines drawn in the Serenity Prayer.

For me, that’s the difference between the European model and the American model. The latter I find almost holy in its attention to human nature, its deference to those parts of human nature that are not malleable. Even Alexander Hamilton, my least preferred founding father, argued at the Constitutional Convention that government must pit “ambition against ambition.”

I spent my last year of business school in Toulouse, in southern France, studying economics and finance. Students came from all over, so I found myself one of two Americans in a very small school, where half of my group of about 40 close friends were French, the rest from South America and the rest of Europe. My French friends teased me that the key characteristic to Americans is that we always want more. More education, more sleep, more time with friends, more wine, more cheese.

By contrast, Murray characterizes the European model as viewing humans as a collection of dust and atoms, here one day and gone the next. If life is short and pointless, we might as well enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Cigarette? Yes, please. But some belief in a higher power? What’s the point?

Comparing these two models feels a little like that age when boys and girls have been dating just long enough to understand each other. Boys are always totally, painfully straightforward. Girls are always so full of metaphor and deeper meaning as to border on duplicity. But these two groups do compromise on a wavelength sufficient to communicate. So do the European and American (“More, please!”) models both speak to the same entity, humans, with the same biological structure across the pond as here.

I realize that characterizing politics as ethics is a category error, but certainly there is some articulation between these groups. This note, “Be Smarter,” is exactly the kind of appeal from perceived helplessness that bothers me about those individuals who will not donate an hour of their time to their community, but still vote for mandatory community reform. Murray’s article is tremendous because it speaks precisely to that. If we remove individuals’ choice from the equation (do I prefer to buy stock, or invest in my children’s education? Oh thank you Government, for this gift of GM stock!) then everything is that much more easily achieved, but means that much less.

Murray’s four fulfillment institutions are effectively subject to emotional inflation. Yes, outsourcing personal ethos to politicians is an easy fix and may make us feel virtuous, but it only raises the bar for what we need to feel fulfilled.

Personally, my conclusion is that the crux of ethics requires taking responsibility for our destinies. This conclusion may seem obvious, but I really don’t think that it is. Stephen, my once and future love, is struggling with this concept now as he prepares to leave the Army. For eight years (having gone through ROTC) he has been a soldier. Colleagues salute him because of his rank (Captain) and his bronze medal for valor. America has been the end and the means are just…orders. He is really struggling with leaving all of that, and suddenly having to find his own satisfaction in his own personal choices, absent rank and salutes.

As long as I allow myself to wallow in the things I can’t change, rather than read more or further or better, my admonitions to Stephen to seek personal responsibility for his own fulfillment (rather than through the respect of his peers) are disingenuous. There is a story where a mother asks Gandhi to tell her daughter to stop eating sweets. Gandhi asks them to return in two weeks, and, after telling the daughter two weeks later to stop eating sweets, Gandhi reveals that two weeks prior he was addicted to sweets, and could not earnestly advise anyone against it.

To that end, I’ve embarked on a concerted effort in the interest of being the change I’d like to see, rather than merely outsourcing the change via vote. I’ve started running, to sharpen my brain and “be smarter,” i.e., more efficient at reading, thinking, etc. I’ve been sleeping more, so I’m better equipped to work with my peers—read, more patient in general. Many lawyers find themselves unhappy throughout their careers, and discover too late that they never got it; they never understood that their moral relativism was just wrong.

Coming out of this winter into blessed, welcome Spring, I’m feeling brittle. At some point in the last few months (maybe Election Day), I started growing negative, and gave up faith in a lot of ways. I don’t think my brittle state comes from having missed the point of Ethics, but rather from trying to control so many things that are simply out of my hands. Trying to control politics or other people’s attitudes is like waiting for someone to come endow me with “smarts.” It’s simply not going to happen. As long as my hands are stretched wide trying to grasp the entire world, my fingers are like a sieve and everything important slips through. In other words, if it is “turtles all the way down,” I feel like I’ve reached a new, satisfying, albeit possibly obvious ethical height by addressing one turtle at a time, rather than the totem pole at large.

One last quote saying effectively the same thing:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two “wolves” inside us all.
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

And, since you asked, my once and future love:

Baby blues

Baby blues

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Lawyer disbarred for changing vote solely to return to his busy practice

From Volokh (link to Volokh Conspiracy):

The case is In re Fahy (Cal. Bar Ct.); here’s an excerpt from an affidavit signed by the lawyer to support a motion for a new trial:

I was convinced from the outset [of the medical malpractice trial] that [the defendant] had violated the standard of care in his care and treatment of the [p]laintiff…. During the trial that was supposed to last only 2-3 weeks, I maintained a busy law practice. As the trial continued into its 4th week, problems at work continued to mount as most of the day was devoted to my being a juror. Deliberations were a nightmare…. It was becoming very apparent that even if the other jurors were to vote in favor of the [p]laintiff on the issue of liability, that lengthy discussion would take place on other issues …

As a result, I advised my fellow jurors that I would change my vote if Judge Ballati failed to declare a mistrial after he was advised that the jury was deadlocked because there was no way I could afford to spend another week away from the office …

When I arrived on Monday, I changed my vote to favor [the defendant] even though he was liable for what happened to the [p]laintiff. I changed my vote so that the deliberations would finally come to an end and I could return to the office….

The court’s legal conclusion:

[T]he harm to the parties and to the fair administration of justice is clear and serious when respondent disregarded his duty to vote as the facts and judge’s instructions guided him, and instead voted as the convenience of his law practice swayed. To be sure, jury service for busy citizens of all occupations or with family responsibilities can be difficult, even burdensome, at times. Yet it is the accepted duty of citizens to serve, subject to the statutory provision for excuse for undue hardship. Moreover, the Judicial Council has recognized that jury service is an “important civic responsibility,” requiring court and staff use of all necessary and appropriate means to ensure that citizens fulfill this duty. Surely, respondent, as a practicing attorney at the time, was keenly aware of the role which an effective jury system serves in the fair administration of justice.

Respondent’s violation was not a technical one. As the Court of Appeal and the State Bar Court hearing judge each found, respondent’s vote was decisive in breaking the jury’s deadlock. Patently, his change of vote to avoid continuing to serve as a juror voided the verdict he rendered and required the parties, their counsel and the courts to bear the additional costs, time and burdens of appellate and further trial court proceedings.

Because of this misconduct, because of Fahy’s apparently deceitful responses to the court when questioned about this, and because of Fahy’s recent disciplinary record, and because of Fahy’s lack of acceptance of responsibility, he was disbarred. For more, see this S.F. Recorder article.

Of course, if Fahy had only remained quiet about his true motivation (something he initially revealed to his fellow jurors during deliberation) he would have gotten off scot-free (though that of course does not excuse his behavior).

One of the comments notes — and I think I agree — that the point of a jury is to administer “justice” without consequences. This lawyer made it clear that he thought this was not the “quick and speedy trial” the defendant deserved. I appreciate that the lawyer wasn’t behaving entirely ethically, but if we start holding jurors accountable for their votes, it seems to undermine the process and possibly to eliminate the point.

The problem with the Bar’s action here is that it motivates lawyers to do whatever they possibly can at the front end (at voir dire) to get out of the jury, because once they’re on their entire professional life is on the line.

Effectively Fahy could have used any number of lies to avoid repercussions in this case. He could have twisted the truth at voir dire to avoid his civic duty in the first place. He could have claimed he felt the trial was not speedy enough, and was changing his vote for cause unrelated to his practice. It seems like the Bar disciplinary control over anything tangentially related to the legal profession. But by doing so it sets a precedent that will incentivize any professionals who feel they have an urgent duty to their clients (a more urgent duty than to their city) to avoid jury duty entirely. This undermines the point of having a jury “of our peers.” I think the Bar went too far.

I agree that lawyers should be held to a higher standard, and absolutely, if someone assumes a duty, they should complete it correctly.

But here the two audiences that hold lawyers accountable for our actions (clients, and everyone else) are in direct conflict. By punishing Fahy, the bar says: Lawyers are more accountable to everyone else than we are to clients.

This is fine, and I concede that it’s a just and defensible position. Except that some lawyers charge big money for their services. I remember reading last Spring that someone had broken $1000/hour. That’s more than I pay in rent.

If I were paying that much for someone I trusted to take care of the most important issue in my life, I would be shocked to discover that he was serving on a jury for a month while I was hoping he would settle on my behalf, or otherwise work on my case.

Similarly, if I were paying that much to my lawyer and discovered that she was sitting idly while my opponent’s lawyer was serving on a jury, I would be less than thrilled. Wouldn’t the Bar discipline someone if they discovered that he was wasting everyone’s resources by serving on a jury?

The overall lesson here is this: If you accept a duty, you’re responsible for finishing it.

But a secondary lesson might be about who is our “master.” Lawyers are held to a higher standard. Our higher standard is to finish whatever obligations we accept. But sometimes obligations conflict–even, as here, when the conflict is a consequence of our own negligence. When there is a duty to complete an obligation incurred to one’s client which conflicts with a duty to complete an obligation to one’s society, society wins. The incentive is to avoid accepting obligations to society.

Arguably Frahy could still have completed his obligation to his client, but we don’t know that. I’ve not served jury duty before, but jurors must be restricted from taking phone calls for the duration of the trial. Who knows what was happening with his clients during that time? I also don’t know exactly how voir dire works, but unless someone with clients can say (flat out, no questions asked, and expect to be dismissed immediately): “I can’t serve, I have prior obligations to my clients,” the incentive structure here just seems perverse.

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Does “the Market” encourage practices that are unethical but not illegal?

Yelp is a customer-driven review site based on San Francisco. It’s a great source for a variety of frank opinions about which businesses (restaurants, entertainment, services, even transportation) in your area are best. Yelp is also great for traveling, to catch the best spots in other cities.

Once again Yelp is facing allegations that its management tinkered with reviews to coerce smaller businesses into advertising on the (anonymous) site. This is pretty obviously unethical, but less obvious that there’s a viable legal case. This is a really good example of where “the market” encourages an unethical practice (putting ad pressure on businesses with bad reviews, because it will help the site and help the business) because it doesn’t quite break any laws (it’s probably not quite extortion or slander).

What do all you free market purists think? Should this customer-driven site be allowed to continue until the market decides it’s not worth visiting anymore? Or should “someone” step in to stop them?

Link to Yelp article here

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