Friday, November 18, 2005

I Condemn Randy Cohen and "The Ethicist"

Let me start by saying that I do not have a problem with Randy Cohen's advice for the most part. He often discusses some relevant concerns and then give reasonable, if debatable, advice. But lo! Notice how I write "advice." For he writes and advice column, not a column on ethics. He is no ethicist. And certainly he is not "The Ethicist."

What makes him different from the Ann Landers or even Dan Savage advice columnist? Not much. He just has a different NYT audience that enjoys affirmation in column having a upper-middle-class moderate-liberal sensibility with a few quips thrown in. Now Mr. Cohen, Quips are ok, but don't get too clever; this isn't McSweeny's.

Let us look at his latest piece of work revealing modern ethical cannons from life's daily dilemmas:

Q: I lent a friend a car while her husband was away on a fishing trip. Coincidently, a neighbor's wife was away that week. My car was seen in the neighbor's driveway overnight, easily recognizable because of my kid's college decals plastered on it. A few people have inquired about my car's being there overnight. How do I explain without ratting out my friend? C.W., Atlanta

After a failure at humor lasting sixty-six words, Cohen writes,
The best way to protect your own reputation without either lying or betraying your friend is to say nothing.

He sees the true issue: how to protect one's reputation. How ethical! Note, there is no discussion of the ethics of lying, betraying a friend, saying nothing, or how saying nothing might be construed as something akin to a lie.
Just mumble vaguely and change the subject; these things have a way of blowing over. It's impressive how quickly most of us return to thinking only about ourselves.

This mumble vaguely strategy would appear to be more effectively deployed in answering letters that in person. "What did you just say?" "No, really, why was the car there?" "What do you mean mumble vaguely? What am I to mumble?" How ethical is it to call yourself "the ethicist," then dodge questions and get paid for it?

Moving on,
Next time your friend borrows your car...

The person did not ask about "next time." Or how to discuss the matter the the "friend." He moves the ethical discussion to another, more easily answered, issue: when can a friend borrow a car and what limits can be imposed? His answer: you don't have to let someone borrow your car. Ok, can we get back to the question?

Then, the concluding paragraph,
While it is not within the purview of my column to suggest better tactics for assisting adultery...
The paragraph suggests a lie that would explain the car being in the driveway: to say she let the neighbor borrow it. He judges his advice, "questionable ethics, but fine craftsmanship." Very good, dear Mr. Cohen! How cleaver you are. Of these questionable schemes, quite a craftsman you are! Perhaps not? Why did she let him borrow the car? What if the neighbor's car was also there? What if they don't know each other well? "His car was not working." C.W. might say. But this is just the start of a tangled web: Imagine the wife comes home and someone asks her if the family was having car trouble.

Furthermore, Mr. Cohen could show a little more skepticism of the writers motives. "Yeah, so I have this, uh, friend, and, uh, she wets the bed... She was wondering..." Note that the person requesting advice is "C.W." While other questioners give a full name.

Now I have mocked Mr. Cohen for his incomplete advice and self-admiration, but my condemnation does not rest on the limited usefulness of his advice. He simply did not discuss the ethics of the situation. You could say that there were two sentences that implicitly carried ethical assumptions. The first, “The best way to protect your own reputation without either lying or betraying your friend is to say nothing." Indicates that "lying" is wrong, and possibly answering a question honestly in a way that would harm a friend. And later the "questionable ethics, but fine craftsmanship" line. Here it is implied that conspiring with a suspected adulterer in order to create a believable lie might be wrong.

You could forgive a less than full analysis -- given the word limitations of a column -- if he didn't waste so much time on attempts at humor, or in addressing questions that were not asked.

I am not here saying what should be done in this situation, but that Mr. Cohen ignores all of the major ethical questions raised: What duty to we have to tell the truth? How does our relationship with who we are speaking affect this duty? When is lying or hiding information to protect the interest of a friend acceptable? Do we have a duty to protect members of our community (neighbors) as much as we do our friends? When is reporting adulterous behavior appropriate? When might reporting cause more harm than good? Does it matter if it was a one- night affair or continuous? Even if it causes more harm to report, is this utilitarian perspective correct? All we get is: mumble and change the subject.

Of course, I run a fools errand in addressing the inadequacies of "The Ethicist" column. The NYTimes, will run column as long as people will see the advertisements running next to it. Opinion page editors believe it is there job to stir up debate rather than present good arguments. Honest reasonable, balanced views are simply not entertaining on the op-ed page; and thoughtful essays on troubling ethical quandaries are not popular Sunday morning reading.

Pretentiously-named advice columnist!

So, damn Mr. Cohen. I shall not read the column again.

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