This one comes in from the fresh coast:

Dear AP,

Is it unethical for a nonprofit organization that serves women and children to pursue a donation from the Robert Blake Foundation, rumored to be a tax shelter set up by the celebrity recently acquitted of murdering his wife? Does it make a difference if the organization is in Los Angeles?


Not a Hypothetical Questioner


A little background first:

Robert Blake, the star actor of 70s television detective series Baretta (he also made it in some movie called The Greatest Story Ever Told, but most likely not that great), was charged in 2002 for murdering his wife (who was herself on her ninth and last — marriage) in 2001 outside an Italian restaurant in Studio City while, so claims Robert Blake, he was retrieving his gun he left in the restaurant. They should make a movie out of that and call it The Greatest Alibi Ever Told. About a year ago he was acquitted of all criminal charges but then was brought back to court shortly after by a civil charge brought by his dead ex-wife's four children for the wrongful death of their mother. This time he was found guilty and ordered to pay $30 million in restitution. Only a couple weeks ago Robert Blake filed for bankruptcy but the prosecution claims to have documents verifying that Blake has some $20 million in assets stashed away and unaccounted for. It is this Robert Blake Foundation that may be acting as a front for the rumored $20 mill.

Now onto NaHQ'a question. I assume your organization has no special knowledge beyond the man on the street and certainly less than any person involved in the civil case. From that stance of ignorance you can ethically accept money from someone who may or may not be withholding funds due by court mandate. The Foundation is only rumored to be hiding something instead of it being an established fact. Your organization's job is not to be detectives and so there is no onus to investigate the source of its donations. Nor is it expected to hold off on money that possibly could have touched dirty hands several transactions back; because of its fluidity, most money has.

However, there are two possible harms that could result from your organization pursuing money from the Robert Blake Foundation. Whether the foundation is discovered to be dubious or not, its character is already tainted in the public imagination and that taint could bleed over into your organization and hurt its mission in the future. You have to ask yourself how you view other organizations sponsored by the Blake Foundation. Would you never donate money or volunteer your time with them? Or, if you are extraordinarily forgiving, ask what the average person who would help, in some capacity, one of these organizations think. I imagine you'll find that people would think it slightly distasteful but nothing too base to change their over-all opinion. And no one said ethics had to be clean and elegant (except Kant who was an asshole on these sorts of things).


The second harm could directly violate your organization's mission — to help women and children. What kind of lifestyle do the children of Bonnie Lee Bakley (Blake's murdered wife) lead? A lavish one? Or an impoverished one? Do they need the money more than the people you serve do? I'm pretty certain the lawyers and the plaintiffs could do without a good many thousand (probably even a few million) dollars and hardly notice. If they are in fact just as philanthropic as your organization then they get the slight lead considering the money was civil restitution for their mother's death and what they do with that money, although perhaps skewed in a different direction, should result in relatively the same amount of good. It's like donating to Medicine sans Frontiers or the Humane Society — what's the diff?

Unable, though, to know if the money is tainted you should go ahead and pursue some donations no matter if Bonnie's kids are better people than their step-father. There are just too many unknowns to account for and, NaHQ, you've got other work to do.

Sincerely, Michael "the ethicist" Goldman


One Organ of Admittance

March 27, 2006

Urban Legend

Randy Cohen's column yesterday took on two questions. One as dull as Dallas and the other a most troubling problem. Unlike Randy we don't waste your time with the nitpickeries of roommate solidarity. At AEthix Plexis only the tough ones make it through our selective screening process. You've read real bruisers about the question of evil, the question of abortion, and the question of dirty dishes. Not even Spring Break can hold us back, so throughout this week look for answers on fraud in cyberspace that could very well bring down the most valued media company in the world and personal charities that may or may not be handing out money to cover a trail of incrimanting blood that leads to a guarded Malibu mansion. Perhaps the inevitable debauchery of the coming days will offer Randy Cohen enough fresh and scantily-clad material to pull together more than one meaningful response next week. Here's hoping.

On to the only question that matters: Anonymous tells the story of his father who arranged for a foreign man to come into the country (we're assuming America here) to donate his kidney on the operating table in exachange for money to his father who would have died without it. He had been on donation lists but to no success and family members were "either unable or unwilling to donate."

First, let me say what jerks about the unwilling family members. Kidneys will only become more available as the causes of kidney disease and malfunction are relieved by advancing medicine and the supply remains the same. The likelihood of drawing a poor lot in the future is less than it is now. The odds are in the family members' favor and someone should have taken the gamble.


Randy doesn't even touch this but instead immediately places irredeemable guilt on the father. "[I]f you were unable to dissuade him or to donate yourself or to persuade other family members to do so, then there is little you can do now." He goes on to tell us about the inequalities of the black-market organ trade and the exploitation of the poor in poor countries, which is all very well and true but will never persuade a dieing person, with the means, from participating in unethical activities to delay death.

It takes some distance to realize that the environment in which the unethical decision was forced is a contingent one. Thankfully we have the option to pursue an environment of drastically increased kidney supplies and a vanished organ-trade. At the end of his response Randy suggests the father and son volunteer time with a kidney donor organization to atone for the father's sins. This doesn't go far enough. In fact the father could produce a net ethically positive result with some pressure and money put in the right places. He would be sinless like a mother stealing bread to feed her hungry children. The mother is not sinful upon the taking of the loaf and then redeemed upon her children feeding. The two events are inseparable and anon's father can approximate this link if he, now healthy, able, and enlightened, devotes his time and money where it counts.

Where it counts is in the environment. And by environment I don't mean the number of people on a donor list. I mean structural change. It is fairly certain that the ability to treat diseased kidneys will improve with time but the possibility of a near-limitless supply of ethically obtained kidneys is being stymied at the federal level. So the father, able to afford to fly in a foreign donor, pay his medical bills, pay for his kidney, and fly him out, can certainly donate a good chunk of money to University of California system researchers where the effort is seriously underway to pursue produced-in-the-lab human kidneys and other vital organs by way of stem cells.

Another option, if the father in fact finds himself strapped for cash and, if successful, would have a much greater impact than paying a month's wage of a Berkeley lab technician, would be to organize a very large book signing every first Tueday in November on even numbered years featuring Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the rock star authors of every Christian Fundamentalists favorite book series — the Left Behind series.

By surreptitiously turning back the clocks of every Christian Fundamentalist in Ohio 24 hours, anon and his father can make this happen and turn the spigot on again for stem-cell research at a national level so that in future kidneys may be bountiful.


March 26, 2006


That’s right the ‘Plex is on break, that means ethics goes on holiday! The ethicist
will be spending this next week drinking Chilean wine picked by workers
living in indentured servitude; accepting donations from charities
incorporated to whitewash the sins of deplorable crooks (real question,
we’ll be getting to that one soon); trafficking in human organs to save
the lives of loved ones, and other ethically questionable activities.
He will be back to his upstanding — and regularly posting — self next

Abortion… it’s here!

March 22, 2006

doll.jpgJ.S. writes,

I am the mother of a fifteen year old child who is now pregnant. My child is a high-school student with no partner, and no ability to raise a child. I am not in a position to adequately care for this child while continuing to support my family. Despite my daughter’s inability to have this child without ending her highschool career, doing damage to her body, psyche and family she has stated that she wishes to keep the child. My position is that the her having this child is akin to drugs. While ultimately it is her body and her decision, I am obligated to let her know that I cannot abide by behavior that will be destructive to her future. Is it ethically wrong for me to view the situation this way? Do I have any ethical obligation to the unborn child?


You say, JS, your daughter, let’s just call her JSJr, can ultimately make the decision herself about whether to abort the fetus yet you say you cannot abide by her decision. I wonder to what degree you cannot “abide” by your daughters deicision. Does not abiding mean kicking her and your grandchild out of the house? Does it mean an extended silent treatment and back-handed remarks about her soon-to-be-enlarged thighs?

If it is none of these nastier forms of disabiding and rather just a registered disapproval of her willingness to give birth when she obviously is not prepared to do so, then you may not be putting enough lean on her. There is a balance here that needs to be achieved. Lean too hard and you risk alienating her from her family (what does her father think?) which may or may not result in her having an abortion — depending on how truly dedicated she is. Pat her on the back and she doesn’t abort the fetus. Or, and this is probably the best case scenario, she isn’t even pregnant and has just lied to you to leverage some other teen-angsty agenda… maybe she just wants you to let her to go to the Slipknot concert showing at the Kansas Superdome.

As for your ethical obligation to the “unborn child,” you have none. First it’s not an unborn child, it’s a fetus. And second, as a fetus, it has no conception of itself in a different state (i.e. some time in the future). It may become conscious sometime during the latter part of the second trimester but that does not mean it sees itself as anything but a solid-state object of the world (if it can conceive of a world, or even its own perceptual universe, which it probably can’t) unable to imagine itself as a living being with desires or fears. It is not a moral agent and therefore ethically indistinguishable from a rock or a small reptile. A salamander may be said to have the same value as a fetus as they both act according to mechanical instincts without conception of themselves in a future improved position (the point of life: to improve one’s position/happiness/whatever), and so, in a vacuum, the extent to which it is unethical to kill a salamander it is unethical to abort a fetus. Other consideration, of course, apply but you asked exclusively about your obligation to the “unborn child.”
Sincerely, Michael “never-holding-public-office” Goldman

An oldie but a goodie

March 21, 2006

God Almighty

Johnson McCleod sends the Ethicist an old chestnut:
If God exists, why is there evil in the world?

If, IF? Well, first off, God doesn’t exist. If we are to engage your fantasy
world then what conclusion can be drawn? I assume you mean the Western unigod
known as Jahweh or Allah who is all powerful and all seeing and has only the
best intentions for humanity and the universe. In which case we come to the
paradox Homer Simpson once asked, “Can God microwave a burrito so hot he
couldn’t eat it?” There really is no answer to that question or yours, which is
why we must assume God does not exist or settle to live in a world that
naturally produces paradoxes… an untenable postion in logic, and therefore an
untenable position all around.

A fellow ethicist has proposed to me that the evil in the world may be a product
of God’s divine plan or God’s divine plan to allow humanity to fuck itself up.
If that is so and humanity is supposed to learn a lesson or develop from its
mistakes and evilness then their are much better ways of doing this than just a
sort of laissex-faire, do-as-you-please ethical free market. In a divine
welfare-state we could have an interventionist God to educate people without all
the bloodshed just like nearly all Western democracies have a universal health
system. Is it better that we fend for our own health or that a structure is put
in place to provide health-care fairly and evenly? I would say the latter. And
the fact that the 20th Century was the bloodiest in many centuries shows that
God’s plan, or plan to give us free will and come to terms with our better
natures, has failed horrificly.

Sincerely, Michael “the ethicist” Goldman

Any more questions?

Ethics Vacation

March 20, 2006

Ethics Vacation: by Jim Houghtaling. A film with important lessons, stellar special effects (walking backwards!!!), a pair of comical disembodied faces representing man’s dual nature and one seriously thick accent: What’s not to love?

Well… It is four and a half minutes long, and it begins to lag at the 20-second mark. Also, the protagonist clearly misleads the audience when he blames for his lapse on an “ethics vacation”. His ethical avatar is clearly present, dude’s just a pushover.

The real question Ethics Holiday raises is: why do these disembodied ethical spirits stick around at all? If I was an unapreciated conscience living in that snowy stretch of drab, and I had the ability to cut off for a holiday, I’d be out of there without a second thought.

The implications of “ethics vacations” could be truly far-reaching. North Dakota would be a rank den of licentiousness. Conversely, the tropical beaches favored by righteous spirit projections would see their debauchery levels plummet with all those prudish spirits bopping around. Co-eds looking to get wasted on spring break would head up to Saskatchewan, and freeze to death en masse.

Lucky for us, this remains only the fantasy of an amateur YouTube auteur. But, rest assured, if this outlandish scenario does come to pass, you’ll hear on Aethix Plexis first.

Dirty Dishes

Dear Ethicist,

I am in a moral quandry. I was under the impression that making a name
for oneself by insulting and slandering another individual was
unethical. However, you, a self-proclaimed ethicist, seem to be doing
just that. Would you care to defend your actions with an ethical line of


Guy Who Thinks You’re An Unethical Ethicist

p.s. My housemates don’t clean up after themselves, and I used to do all
of the house cleaning until I silently stopped recently. Is it fair of
me to believe they will catch the hint and start pitching in, or am I
just dreaming? Is my action unethical, or should the blame lay with my
lazy housemates? What can I do?


annlanders2.JPGThanks for interrupting the writing of my Kant paper. I’m sure this is a much more pressing matter, anyway.

Apparently you haven’t been to grad school, kid. Libel (slander is spoken defamation and in grad school no one can hear you talking) and insult are the meat and potatoes of intellectual careers. All condescention aside, I don’t think I’ve been particularly unfair to Randy Cohen, ho-hum ethicist extraordinaire. When he’s right he’s boring and when he’s wrong he deserves a verbal lashing in just proportion to his mediocrity.

As for your next question you ask is it fair of you to assume your housemates will pick up their load of the cleaning, but whether you make the assumption or not has nothing to do with fairness. Instead, it’s about the facts on the ground and the history that got you there. Although (the late? can anybody tell me?) Ann Landers is the noted professional of two paragraph inter-personal solutions, I wouldn’t mind taking over her job as well as Randy’s.

Continuing to ignore your household duties would be ineffective. It’s plain by your letter that your living companions have a much higher tolerance for filth than you. What will happen is the cleanliness of the house will come to some sort of natural filth rhythm congruent with the sanitary will of your housemates. Don’t expect them to all of a sudden wake up and realize GWTYAUE isn’t doing the dishes anymore and if they want to live in a clean house they’re going to have to clean them themselves. They probably don’t even notice the difference, and if they do they wouldn’t want to expend the effort to bring things up to your standards. Such is the tragedy of the commons, which is why Communism is a superior system of living to Anarchism.

So here’s what you do GWTYAUE. What you need is some outside authority to compel each member to work in rotating eight hour shifts (according to his or her abilities, of course) until cleanliness is restored… perhaps a landlord?

Sincerely, Michael “the ethicist” Goldman