Friday links! Disintegration of ethics edition

Marcus Aurelius, 121—180 AD

Marcus Aurelius, 121—180 AD

You don’t need ethics to survive. By “you” I mean you personally; a society totally needs ethics to survive, in the same way a body needs hemoglobin. Yet the most materially successful societies are not always the most ethical. When it comes to food and shelter and high-resolution video, our society is kicking ass, but it’s hard to argue that we are individually or collectively more ethical than certain of our forebears. Is that an illusion? Can one age be more ethical than another, the way we think of imperial Rome as generally conniving and WWII America as generally good?*Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 9.09.35 AM Today is Friday, and America is either per capita less concerned with doing the right thing or less uptight about appearing so. Won’t you excuse yourself with me?

Remember three years ago, when two of the world’s richest companies poured millions of dollars of crude oil into the ocean and then assured us they were really, really sorry? While they were apologizing, one of them was also trying to foist blame on the other. Halliburton has pled guilty to destroying evidence that suggested its concrete, not BP’s ring centralizers, was responsible for the blowout at Deepwater Horizons. Props to Jacek for the link. Halliburton destroyed the results of two simulations that contradicted its narrative of the disaster, and now it has to pay the maximum fine allowed by law: $200,000. That’ll learn ’em.

But how will we know how much it learned them? The only answer is rigorous standardized testing. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is considering administering standardized tests in universities across 70 countries. Diane Ravitch points out that this approach is likely to codify what knowledge is and is not worthwhile, which is scary but also kind of boring. Fortuantely, the OECD’s feasibility study has led to the greatest sentence in human history: “Preliminary results indicate that the project is feasible, even though Russians are at ‘high risk of cheating,’ Italians just don’t get standardized testing, and students in nearly every Western country lack motivation.” Props to Miracle Mike for the link.

The American dream used to be about working really hard and buying a house. Now it’s about getting rich early—ideally at birth—so you can have as much leisure time as possible. That’s why Joe Biden has been skipping cabinet meetings, but don’t worry: he’s having his buddy Worm fill in for him. The Onion’s Diamond Joe character has become so nuanced that he’s creating spinoff characters. My favorite moment is when Worm arrives on time, quickly takes his assigned seat, and proceeds to “noisily eat chicken wings from a Styrofoam container.” Props to Ben al-Fowlkes for the link.

Ethics are not limited to cheating on tests and sending Kathleen Sebelius pictures of a pierced nipple. A culture can have aesthetic ethics, too, and they reflect on its character just as truly. I recently read BR Myers’s Reader’s Manifesto, whose central premise is that critics respond to pretension rather than meaning or craft in so-called literary prose. Then I saw this list of hidden gems for summer reading. The description of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots reads like parody, but that’s orthogonal to Myers’s critique. Check out the sentence from another book that Meg Wolitzer singles out for praise, though, describing the process of boarding an airplane:

I’ve always enjoyed the pomp and semaphore of the seat-filling pageant.

I’m willing to accept that the boarding process could be said to be characterized by ceremony and splendid display, although I question just how splendid. “Semaphore,” though? The boarding process is maybe the one time when flight attendants don’t gesture at you, preferring to communicate instructions through that classic alternative to semaphore, speech. People on the tarmac use a kind of semaphore to direct planes, but that’s during landing, not boarding. Boarding is a procession of people, though, so “pageant” is not contradicted so much as just highfalutin. It is an unethical prose that discards clear seeing in favor of what sounds like literature.

Maybe it’s not the author’s fault, though. We’ve all grown up surrounded by the same pretension, and we are all therefore blind to our own mistakes. It’s basically the Dunning-Kruger effect. You could read that Wikipedia entry, or you could just watch this video:


Nailed it.

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