"Ethical misconduct"?

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"Another Trump appointee provides a lesson in ethical misconduct", WaPo 11/5/2022:

The Office of the Inspector General issued a report last month identifying a series of “administrative, ethical and policy violations” by J. Brett Blanton, appointed by President Donald Trump and sworn in in early 2020.

The headline briefly sent me down a sort of semantic garden path, based on interpreting ethical in the sense "Morally approvable; good" (Wiktionary) or "conforming to accepted standards of conduct" (Merriam-Webster). In other words, I was expecting to read about some misconduct that was, paradoxically, ethical — which of course is the premise of a thousand novels and movies.

My misperception might perhaps also have been based on a structural ambiguity in the interpretation of mis-, vaguely analogous to the treatment of un- in the infamous expression "Antarctica is uninhabited by man". In support of that (unlikely) view, the phrase "administrative, ethical and policy violations" immediately set me straight.

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Sven said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 8:29 am

    I could imagine that this is not necessarily related to negation but could be just about the meaning of "ethical". The German word "ethisch" does not alway mean "morally approvable", but can also mean "related to questions of ethics". Perhaps this ambiguity is also present in English?

  2. unekdoud said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 8:54 am

    In the same way, logical fallacies aren't.

  3. Cervantes said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 9:26 am

    Actually it seems redundant. If "ethical" means "conforming to accepted standards of conduct", then misconduct means acting unethically. There isn't any other kind of misconduct, at least not in this context.

  4. David Kidd said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 9:43 am

    "Misconduct of an ethical nature" as opposed to misconduct of some other nature…

  5. DF said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 10:21 am

    Like “civil disobedience.” Maybe the recent meme of “quiet quitting” has also primed the mind for reading a norm-breaking action with a preceding modifier.

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 10:39 am

    I agree with Sven here — if a doctor were to refuse to see a patient because (for example) that patient was sleeping with the doctor's wife, the doctor's refusal would be unethical but not immoral.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 10:42 am

    The OIG report the article references includes the sentence "The OIG identified a significant amount of administrative, ethical and policy violations as well as evidence of criminal violations throughout the investigation." In the sequence, it's hard to misparse "ethical … violations" as "conduct that violates some rule but is nonetheless ethical," although I guess that misparse might still be available for "ethical violations" on a standalone basis if it wasn't jargon you were previously familiar with? (Which it is for me, so I have no good intuition here.)


  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 1:39 pm

    I wonder if this particular headline has a greater risk of leading the reader to misconstrue "ethical misconduct" because of its snarky/sarcastic use of the phrase "provides a lesson in." Typically lessons are provided, intentionally, in things that have a positive or at least neutral valence, whereas here the "lesson" being provided is the implicit/unintended one "don't imitate this guy if you want to stay out of trouble." Not a lesson in what to do, but a lesson in what not to do.
    That snarky usage is fairly common, but should perhaps be avoided if the phrasing of what follows the "in" is itself potentially ambiguous as to whether it's positive or negative.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 1:56 pm

    Sorry, one last post: the "conforming to accepted standards of conduct" sense is itself a bit potentially ambiguous, because sometimes it refers to a somewhat informal/fuzzy-but-still identiable community sense (for some relevant "community") of what is and is not appropriate in such-and-such circumstance, but other times it refers to the existence of a very specific set of written rules governing the conduct of people in a given profession or employees of a given company or government agency. As a lawyer licensed to practice in New York I am required to abide by the Rules of Professional Conduct (often informally called the ethics rules) the same way any U.S. taxpayer is required to abide by the Internal Revenue Code and associated IRS regulations, whether or not I or others think a particular rule is ill-advised and contrary to what "ethical" in a looser sense would either permit or forbid.

    An additional small note on the subject matter of what Mr. Blanton is being criticized for: I once had a conversation with a federal judge who earlier in his career had been a mid-level Justice Department official. For a while one of his job responsibilities was being the final authority within DOJ about what cabinet and sub-cabinet level officials could and couldn't do with their government-provided cars (and, sometimes, chauffeurs). This was a thankless and time-consuming task, precisely because the official rules were very convoluted and smart and professionally accomplished public officials who were not the least bit "unethical" as to their general moral character often turned out to have incorrect intuitions or gut instincts as to what was or wasn't permissible under those rules.

  10. DaveK said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 3:06 pm

    If Blanton is a member of a profession that has a specific code of ethics (e.g. lawyers) “ethical misconduct” would likely be meant in the narrow sense of violations of this code. Apart from any other penalties, he’d also be exposed to being sanctioned by the bar association or other professional organization

  11. Tim said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 6:25 pm

    I'm not sure I entirely follow the last paragraph. I certainly understand the two interpretations of the original headline, but I'm failing to grasp what's behind the "infamy" of "Antarctica is uninhabited by man".

  12. Viseguy said,

    November 7, 2022 @ 7:22 pm

    A moment of editorial reflection might have suggested "unethical conduct" as more apt and less ambiguous than "ethical misconduct". But then a "lesson in unethical conduct" would be awkward and call for further rewriting. "Another Trump appointee provides an example of unethical conduct" falls flat, but "Another Trump appointee, another example of unethical conduct" might have added a bit of aphoristic oomph — although "Another Trump appointee, another ethics violator" would have preserved parallelism. None of which would have provided fodder for LL's endless (and endlessly fascinating) exploration of misnegation and its (mis)uses, so I'll stop here.

  13. Graeme said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 12:11 am

    Headlinese, for efficiency, would be Ethics Misconduct.

    Bit ugly to my eyes and ears.

    But rational, along lines of England football team, cf English football league.

  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 1:54 am


    "Antarctica is uninhabited by man" is infamous because it looks like the passive version of "Man uninhabits Antarctica", but the latter isn't good English.

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 4:40 pm

    @Andreas Johansson
    That reminds me of the old lady whose response to “Unmarried? was “Oh no, I’ve never even been married.”
    Although “unmarry” does exist, with past participle “unmarried”.

  16. VVOV said,

    November 8, 2022 @ 5:57 pm

    "Ethical misconduct" immediately struck me as an awkward parallel coinage to "sexual misconduct". A brief Google Books search appears to confirm that "sexual misconduct" comprises by far the most instances of "[adjective] misconduct" in contemporary English writing.

    I agree with DaveK that "ethical misconduct" sounds more cromulent in a hypothetical narrow/jargon-y context (rather than a headline), where conduct that violates a profession-specific code of ethics is under discussion.

  17. MarkB said,

    November 9, 2022 @ 3:14 pm

    Seems more like 'give the other side a good swift kick' than anything else. More a signal to loyal readers than an effort to impart information.

  18. Philip. Anderson said,

    November 9, 2022 @ 5:21 pm

    Why do you say that? It certainly imparted information to me.
    The choice of words makes the writer’s politics clear, but it’s factual.

  19. Tim said,

    November 9, 2022 @ 7:56 pm

    @Andreas Johansson

    Thanks. It didn't even cross my mind to interpret "uninhabited" as "uninhabit + ed", rather than "un + inhabited".

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