Marathons and Moral Boundaries

Categories: Uncategorized

“Up” in the Air with Nail Houses

After a beautiful life and marriage cut short by his wife’s premature passing, Up (2009) depicts an elderly gentleman’s quest to fulfill his childhood “cross-my-heart” sweetheart promise to move to Paradise Falls in South America. Enter Russell: a young boy who is one “be kind to the elderly” act away from earning his final badge toward becoming a Wilderness Explorer. Karl Frederickson has to continually choose between fulfilling personal desires and including Russell on his quest. Frederickson winds up discovering that in the process lies the adventure.

Frederickson’s nail house, which was so important to him at the beginning of the movie primarily because of its memories, gets appropriately left behind in his finding that life is never too late for new adventures.

The fifth amendment of the United States Constitution generally protects private property from governmental seizure without “just compensation.” However, eminent domain (compulsory seizure for civil use, public safety, or economic development) allows the transfer of private property for the public interest in exchange for fair market value.

Eminent domain represents a skirmish between property rights, public property, the common good, and private economic development.

Categories: Uncategorized

Nail Houses (Part I)

Categories: Uncategorized

Racial Slurs are a Matter of Ethical Context

ESPN’s use of the headline “Chink in the Armor” (describing the New York Knicks’ first loss with Asian-American, NBA point guard Jeremy Lin in the starting lineup) illustrates that ethics, while not relative, is certainly contextual. The cliché represents a weakness or flaw, but the term “Chink” is also a racial slur for Chinese-Americans (cf. a “niggardly” reference for a selfish African-American basketball player). In the wake of “Linsanity,” puns were proliferating without regulation until a moral mishap forced corporate backpedaling and new industry standards. Former network sports editor Anthony Federico appeared to lack malicious intent with this Medieval phrase. However, the context of his oversight and implicit association of his “incite” shows that bad etymological choices can result in unemployment. The bottom line is that Federico was not fired for racism, but for making a poor editorial decision that potentially cost huge amounts of goodwill with key audiences in the United States and Asia for ESPN and parent company Walt Disney .

Consider Saturday Night Live’s sublime parody on our nation’s double standard on race and political correctness and the Daily Show’s satire on a “Lingrown toenail . . . during Black History Month.” While both sketches contained jokes and insults against Asian-Americans throughout their segments, purer purposes and comedic context provided the needed justified protection for administering racial smears.

Granted many find it unjust when minorities freely use these pejorative terms among members of their own race. Is there a double standard when a Caucasian cannot mention the word Nigga(er) and/or Chink when so many African-Americans do in greetings and in popular music, or when a younger Jeremy Lin identifies himself as ChiNkBaLLa88 on his Xanga account? It isn’t that ethics is relative (right for one group but wrong for another), but rather contextual. Minorities use these monikers with a mutual understanding that the words are not historically loaded or racially charged but accepted with affection and respect as opposed to their original meanings. For some, the co-opting of these derogatory words and phrases represent a way to master what was formerly enslaved. For others, it represents a way to deal with past pain. Whatever the solution, ethical context matters.

LINtellectual Property Rights

While Jeremy Lin continues to weave a fast break around the world and generally inspire anyone who champions an underdog (particularly arousing Asian-Americans, Asian nationals, Ivy-Leaguers, and those of Christian faith), the NBA sensation has recently attempted to register a trademark for one of his monikers, “Linsanity.”

A trademark is typically a distinctive symbol or, in this case, phrase used by a legal entity to identify and distinguish itself. As a prospective owner of “Linsanity”, Jeremy may initiate legal proceedings to prevent its unauthorized use. However, it appears two California individuals have already also paid the $1,625 filing fee to use this phrase on apparel: An importer/exporter who “wanted to be a part of the excitement;” and a former volunteer basketball coach of Lin (see www.linsanity.com) who is currently selling “LINsanity” t-shirts featuring number 17 in the Knicks’ blue and orange colors.

Per complicated federal trademark laws, the first person to use a given mark like “Linsanity” has exclusive common-law rights in a given state, while a registered trademark offers legal protection nationwide. When deciding on a trademark application, the Trademark Office considers who first used the mark, whether the mark is unique or merely descriptive, and whether the mark creates confusion. Those three factors don’t appear to favor the apparently opportunistic “fan” who was “very proud of Jeremy.” Lin’s ex-coach also could run into a problem with California’s “right to publicity” law which protects celebrities’ names from commercial use without their permission not to mention Madison Square Garden and New York’s basketball brand.

Don’t try to explain it, dissect it. We’re just in the middle of it and enjoy it. Especially if you are a Knick fan… It’s a great American story. A great American story.

– Spike Lee, when asked about Linsanity on MSNBC

Yes! I have a raging case of Linsanity. I have been declared legally Linsane. My symptoms.. linsomnia, restless linsyndrome and lintestinal blockage!

– Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report

Lin’s legal representative says that “We’re prepared to protect his intellectual property rights.” The U.S. Trademark and Patent Office reports it has not granted “Linsanity” to anyone yet pending a review of all who have applied. The application process starts with the examining attorney’s review and approval. The lawyer publishes the mark for 30 days and any parties who believe they may be harmed can file opposition. Gary Krugman, a partner at the Washington-based firm Sughrue Mion, said that he would tell Lin to file his own application and contest whichever of the others gets published, “I have a feeling both of these guys are small operators,” he said. “If Jeremy comes in with a big law firm they won’t be able to hang with him.”

While many people may look to capitalize financially on the phenomenon, there are additional legal, aesthetic and ethical implications in protecting Lin’s name. Copyright law looks disapprovingly on what amounts to identity theft. Surely, controlling the merchandise would reign in images fostering racial stereotypes and also restrict Jeremy’s associations to products and services that he endorses.

Postscripts:

On Sunday, Lin led the Knicks to another improbable win over last year’s NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks (Vince “Vinsanity” Carter—who plays for the Mavericks—should check whether his own trademark rights have expired).

Speaking of common-law rights, the term “cognitive renaissance” shall be used in describing member(s) of marginalized groups establishing renewed concepts of self from unexpected sources (as opposed to reducing any tension arising from cognitive dissonance).

Honor and Redemption in Corporate Espionage

Contributing Author – Monday Morning Business Ethicist

Can Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) find honor and redemption as an industrial infiltrator? In the 11th chapter of a newly published book, Inception and Philosophy, I argue that he can . . . though only in his dreams.

Perhaps Dom has no choice in being a corporate spy and is not responsible for his actions. He may be considered honorable because of his professional expertise, or admirable devotion to family. I root for the “hero” too, but find Dom both unethically and recklessly irresponsible for violating principles of freedom.

Are we not all morally flawed and in need of redemption?

If you enjoy thinking about Inception, you’ll like this collection of 22 edited essays covering the various ethical, metaphysical, and religious themes of the film.  You can find Inception and Philosophy at Barnes and Noble, and sneak a peak at Amazon.com.

The Maquiladora Option [Part I]

Our guest for Monday Morning is Ms. Jennifer Walton—President of uniform and apparel maker GOT Mfg. The current post highlights a recent interview on international labor courtesy of Skype; a future post consists of Ms. Walton’s responses to subsequent student questions during a business ethics course.

Monday Morning Business Ethicist [MMBE]: You operate Mexican maquiladora(s) for major U.S. sporting good brands. What are maquiladoras? Can you compare and contrast these factories with their Asian and South American counterparts.

Ms. Jennifer Walton [JW]: Mexican Maquiladoras are factories exclusively owned by foreign companies. Mexico does not own any part of these ‘shells’ or possess any fixed assets. While products technically could be sold in the host nation, everything produced at the plant naturally returns to the original country; otherwise duties and taxes are assessed. These arrangements are distinct from the partnerships and subcontractors one finds in the East and other manufacturing countries.

MMBE: How has the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] affected your business?

JW: NAFTA is beneficial for employees and our suppliers. Those against NAFTA do not (or refuse to) understand that many American companies compete in a low-margin market. Not only would we need to move our operations from Mexico to Asia, we would no longer be able to buy our American materials and pay the high union wages in the United States without NAFTA.

MMBE: How is international business done in Mexico?

JW: Foreign firms are highly regulated, constantly audited and fined, and are seen as cash cows for the government. Although Mexican companies are subject to the same laws, they emphasize ‘loyalty’ relationships and are less regulated with the Peso.

MMBE: Is the actual threat of drug cartel violence analogous to the stereotypical image of Californians always experiencing earthquakes and Midwesterners constantly dealing with tornadoes?

JW: The threat is definitely real. The violence heard on the news is usually a battle over territory between cartels. Kidnapping Mexican executives (as a business) is a billion dollar industry. Two years ago, I hired Israeli guards due to the cartel’s infiltration of the security industry. I still keep them currently on the payroll; the workers expect them around—whether in the Mexican factory or Maquiladora.

MMBE: Why choose Mexico (with the significant higher costs) over other places in the world?

JW: Maquiladora workers are backed by the Mexican government and embrace a family-oriented working environment. This stability brings efficiency and lower costs in the long run. Also, if something goes wrong, Mexico is a short drive and the country poses less of a communication barrier. You have more control.

MMBE: Is the disparity between laborer wages and the price of an NFL jersey justified?

JW: Everyone in the supply chain wants their piece of the profit pie. The negotiation process with big companies is brutal, and sometimes we sacrifice a run as a loss leader. Honestly, I would not tell the workers the price of an NFL jersey. Americans are willing to pay that price; it’s simple supply and demand.

MMBE: Any final reflections on business ethics?

JW: Reality doesn’t tend to be ethical and you need to hold your ground. If you belong to an unethical company, that black mark will follow you.

Say it isn’t, Joe.

Ten years after the Enron Corporation was exposed for its massively systemic and cleverly-planned ongoing accounting fraud, the moral structure of college football is being shaken to its core at Penn State University.

Prospective institutional cover-up for act(s) of sexual abuse allegedly committed by head football coach Joe Paterno’s former defensive coordinator and charges of multiple subsequent infractions have already brought down Penn’s State organizational leadership and storied football program. Will the Nittany Lion’s devotion to a winning culture and Paterno’s subscription to resilience and ‘enduring adversity’ eventually parallel Enron’s obsession with profit at any cost and adherence to their former CEO’s ‘survival of the fittest’ principles?

The developing scandal emits conflicting emotions: I am torn by the outpouring of support for an 84-year-old legend who has earnestly dedicated himself to building a long tradition of winning with integrity without the infamous scandals often associated with a major college program. I am sad for these young, innocent boys who would not have experienced further horrors if someone in power had pushed the issue. Properly evaluating a rapidly developing news story is difficult; determining the relevant ethical considerations may represent the best next step i.e., the distinction between law and ethics, and the connection of responsibility to leadership.

Corporations like Enron were familiar with the law; they knew how to exploit and profit from it. University President Graham Spanier and Head Football Coach Joe Paterno met all legal requirements and will not be tried in a criminal court. The ethical question is whether they failed to meet their moral duties and obligations as human persons. Even more so—in their de facto roles as leaders, figureheads, and guardians in their community—greater responsibility is often associated with greater privilege. What personal responsibilities do individuals have beyond their specific job descriptions? Is an act of omission as heinous as the sin of commission?

The university has decided in the best interest of ‘business’ to relieve Spanier and Paterno of their responsibilities. Further clarity is needed before passing judgment on whether Penn State shares a similar aura of hubris with Enron. Even without the pride, their indecision produces greater consequences than even the dissolution of a major corporation.

In the business of uncovering the truth in the digital age, this game will have no winners. Prayers, comfort, and support to the victims and their families.

Steven Jobs (1955-2011), former Apple Chief Ethics Officer

A repeated criticism of Steve Jobs focused on Apple’s lack of philanthropy in relation to his contemporaries. While the question of whether corporations must give away part of their profits follows naturally from a stakeholder view, let us set aside the larger business ethics concern for a more personal question.

Jobs’ lack of what Aristotle called liberality (generosity) provoked the continued accusation that he was less moral or ethical than his peers. Public generosity is praiseworthy but, as a sole moral criterion, represents a limited view of morality. By broadening the Greek notion of ethics [from ethikos toward ethos], we find character, moral structure, a harmonious relationship between parts, and an accustomed place. Jobs was a private individual and we may never know the amount or lack of financial giving behind the scenes. However, we do know the public impact he made on our collective ethos:

He structured the way we relate to music and each other, helped organize the relationship between information and the disparate parts of our lives, and offered us a shared, accustomed place to express ourselves within the confines of his technology.

Those who have followed Jobs over the years will make no claims of sainthood; in fact, his leadership style was often reported as ruthless and borderline abusive. This “artist” certainly is not an ethical archetype in the traditional sense. But one thing he has done is help modify the ethos for how we live life (whether we own an iProduct, an Android OS device, or “refuse to participate”) in this revolution of time and space. The way our world is structured is no longer the same, and for this grand contribution to ethics, Jobs may be considered (per Aristotle) a magnanimous albeit morally-complicated man.

Structurally Unlucky

 

During a lecture hosted by our university’s engineering department, I was introduced to the Paradox of Design:

The lessons learned—from historically massive engineering failures such as steamships (Titanic) and suspensions bridges (Tacoma Narrows Bridge)—lead to success in future innovations; however, successful designs can evolve into eventual failures.

Dr. Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University

If the Titanic had not struck an iceberg, bigger ships with fewer lifeboats would have been built. If the Narrows Bridge’s retrofitted cables had not snapped, thinner and lighter bridges without trusses and stays would have spanned the world’s waters. According to Petroski, “When something just works, we may not know how close we stand next to failure.”

I see clear parallels between these engineering disasters and the collapse of the financial sector. Economic institutions incrementally moved from investing in sound traditional strategies toward speculations in creative derivatives; initial success invited additional risk exposure. Philosopher Bernard Williams coined a notion of ‘Moral Luck,’ where the same act can produce wildly different outcomes, and praise and blame are assigned for partially uncontrolled circumstances. In this lucky or unlucky world, the Titanic does not hit the iceberg; Tacoma still has their bridge; the housing bubble has not burst . . . disaster is momentarily delayed for a much larger breakdown.

Yet while continued success can pave the way for larger failures, I’m not a Luddite who opposes progress. Engineers and economists need to take creative and innovative steps in design and application. Of course, ethical foundations are often found lacking. Increased regulation always follows tragedy and failure, resulting in a better artifact, community, or corporate structure for the short term. Ultimately, a well-established prior corporate ethos (structure/character) frames the proper boundaries and appropriate risks in future decision making—especially in times of success.

Thanks to Professor Petroski for connecting the history of suspension arches to design theory; and to my father for showing his son the buildings and bridge(s) he helped design as a structural engineer.