Got Ethics?

A Light Summer Essay on Explosives, Crime, Ethics, and Love!

Charles Taliaferro (St. Olaf College)

When I was arrested for detonating a small bomb on Jupiter Island, a barrier reef island in Florida just north of Palm Beach, with the son of the last ambassador to Cuba (the ambassador –a business man who did not speak Spanish—resigned when the revolution was in its second week and Batista was doomed), I was only eleven years old.  Even though I was just a boy, I knew first-hand what a nightmare it can be to transmit the detonation shock wave through makeshift plastic tubes filled with gunpowder (we did not have access to pentaerythritol tetranitrate or PETN).  It was almost impossible for us to control the impact of our explosives on garage locks or textile walls.  Very few people know that it is due to my past as a delinquent, confused, and unethical kid that when media reports pop up involving explosives I sometimes ask questions that are a little too detailed:  “Were alkali metals involved?  Didn’t the bombers think about the environmental impact of TNT, HMX, and RDX?  What were they possibly thinking?!”

When I was a boy, I am not sure how I would respond if I had been asked: “Do you like ethics?”  Knowing how clueless and lonely I was then (did I forget to mention my proneness to self-pity?), I probably would have responded:  “Before I tell you, let me ask a different question first:  does ethics like me?”  There would be no way to prove that I would have responded that way, but keep in mind that when I was told that a girl “liked” me, I looked up the word “like” in a dictionary to try to find out how she felt.

Ironically, that confused, needy, social mess of a boy in the early 1960s who was arrested as an accomplice to the son of a diplomat who testified at the Senate Committee on the Communist Threat to the United States through the Caribbean, has now become the director and overseer of an ethics requirement offered at a liberal arts institution founded in the Lutheran tradition, St. Olaf College.  As the director of a recent workshop on ethics I was shocked when a colleague announced:  “I don’t like ethics.”  What’s not to like about ethics?  Was this a matter of not liking too much of a good thing?  I happen to like molasses, but if I had been in Boston on January 15, 1919 when a storage tank came undone and a wave of molasses killed over twenty people and several horses, I think I would have said, “Today, I don’t like molasses.”  It turns out that my colleague’s disliking ethics was not a matter of quantity (as an aside, I myself might not care for ethics if it was done so much that it resembled the Boston Molasses Disaster; after all, only a molasses addict with a death-wish could possibly love seeing over two million gallons of molasses rushing down a crowded street at 35 miles per hour).  Adopting a different line of inquiry, I asked whether the source for this lack of love was how ethics can provoke one to be judgmental or accusative (especially when the accuser is probably a hypocrite).  I said (trying to come across as very humble) something like, “Ethics cannot be practiced ethically if it is motivated by vanity or pompous, condescension.”   I believe the colleague agreed and offered this clarification:  it turns out that my colleague actually harbored a dislike not ethics itself, but the ways in which academics practice or teach ethics without proper concern for cultural, historically important contexts, losing themselves in (bloodless) abstractions.

This exchange made me think of my early encounter with the practice of thinking ethically in a courtroom on an island in Florida.  I think I started liking ethics when I was eleven years old and in the very specific historical and cultural context of being caught using explosives illegally. Ethics became quite important to me while waiting to be questioned by a judge.  “I did something wrong.  Can I be forgiven?  Can I make up for my wrong?”  The judge was known as an immensely friendly gentleman and he was well liked by the boys and girls in our community, but he was also a retired rear admiral who commanded the naval blockade of Manila Bay at the outbreak of the second world war; in the capture of Sicily he commanded twenty ships; during the landings in Italy at Anzio he was naval chief of staff, and during three Marine landings he commandeered supporting fire: Iowa Jima, Okinawa, Pasadena.  Maybe the Admiral would have mercy, but maybe he would see himself as a warrior who needed to teach us some unforgettable lessons.  While I was awaiting the verdict on myself and my fellow sixth-grader, there were no abstractions I could think of to provide any useful distraction.  I recall praying that the judge would not learn that on my first “play date” with Jack (I am, using a pseudonym for my accomplice, inspired by the nicely framed photographs of JFK and Jackie that were on display at the ambassador’s home) we filled squirt guns with black dye and then “shot” the dye into laundry vans that were delivering white table clothes for posh parties.

I suppose I love ethics because through the Judge’s reasoning with us I found the vocabulary and the means for saying “I’m sorry” and for understanding why it was important to repair the locks and textile walls that I had damaged on the east coast of Florida.  I actually enjoyed being honest and confessed all to the Admiral who assigned me (us) various social tasks of repair.  For me, liking ethics was a way to emerge from confusion and adolescence.  Moreover: if you are reading this and can recall throwing a party in the early 1960s on the Atlantic coast of Florida which was perfect –perhaps the light was beautiful and the ocean an emerald blue—except for having black ink sprayed over your linen, I would like to pay for the damage.  I will also pay for you to install a burglar alarm to scare off kids who don’t like ethics and who might one day come to know better and to take an ethics course in college.  For maybe the kids will grow up to be more ethical and intelligent than the CIA was in Cuba when it misunderstood Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement eliminating any chance (however remote it was) that Cuba might have moved from a corrupt state to a democracy and we would not have had to face the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when medium-range and intermediate range nuclear ballistic missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) were on that island in the Caribbean threatening to unleash nuclear explosions in population centers killing millions directly and, indirectly, killing billions.