The Ethicist Who Isn't

What's wrong with The New York Times Magazine's answer to Ann Landers.

In February, The New York Times Magazine created a new section, "The Way We Live Now," to deal with "day-to-day living--work, family, sour milk in the fridge--all that stuff that occupies most of our actual time." One of the new features was an advice column called "The Ethicist." Randy Cohen, an essayist best known until then for writing Slate's clever "News Quiz," would help the magazine's readers with the tricky moral problems of their family, social, and professional lives. Or at least, that was the idea.

The column doesn't seem to have made a great impression. The published letters to the editor have been mostly negative, and they aren't even of the "I disagree, but you really made me think" variety that a column about ethics ought to attract. Cohen just seems to rub these readers the wrong way.

His responses to questions about family life and social life are usually inoffensive, though they're not very different from the answers Ann Landers might give. Not, mind you, that there's anything wrong with coming up with the same answers as Landers. It's just that when The New York Times Magazine created an ethics feature rather than a generic advice column, the editors presumably wanted more sophistication and rigor than most advice columnists provide. Unless they just wanted their readers to feel more highbrow than they would reading Dear Abby.

But there is something chronically strange about Cohen's items on the ethics of the workplace and commercial life. He has told readers that giving to or raising funds for charity isn't worthwhile, because the more charitable activity there is, the more easily the state abandons public projects. He has told a supervisor that it's unethical to fire or report a temp worker whose shoddy performance makes everyone look bad.

He has even gone out of his way to take swipes at the country's political economy when by his own admission it is irrelevant to the advice he gives, as in this reply to a question about not reporting income to the Internal Revenue Service: "When New York City offers corporations multi-million-dollar tax breaks to do nothing and the Federal tax code is the least progressive it has been in decades (making it ever more possible for a housekeeper and Bill Gates to pay the same rate), it would be churlish to chide someone so hard-working and modestly paid. However, while working off the books might be justified ethically, working on the books is actually a better policy financially, thanks to the Earned Income Credit and the Child Tax Credit."

Sometimes the advice he offers is merely wrong, as when he defends providing a deceptively favorable recommendation for a fired apartment building superintendent: "Were he applying to pilot a plane while performing heart surgery for the United Nations, you'd have to be more scrupulous, but in this job, as in most, the consequences of your hyperbole are easily borne. If Freddy is inept, the worst that happens is someone's shower breaks--a minor problem easily remedied by whoever replaces Freddy when he gets fired." Actually, sometimes when a shower is broken the bather suffers burns. (This was the situation in the trial for which New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani recently served as jury foreman.) The consequences of a heating system breaking down in the middle of winter, or of the power going out in the heat of the summer, can also be much more serious than Cohen allows.

But as I said, in that case Cohen was merely wrong. More often, what he has to say defeats the purpose of having an ethics column at all.

A code of ethics does not propose a foundation for morality; nor does it offer a comprehensive theory of social justice. Ethics is the moral philosophy of practice, of decisions faced in quotidian and--especially--professional life.

So it made sense to include an ethics column in "The Way We Live Now." One of the things people do in their day-to-day lives is make morally important decisions, and often it's hard to identify the right choice. It's difficult even in those professions, such as law, that have specialized and explicitly codified rules of ethics. And for people who aren't in such professions, guidance is often hard to come by.

The word "unethical" refers to only some of the acts that are "immoral" or "wrong," and ethics is not always the most important part of morality. Indeed, in situations of deep injustice, ethics can become morally insignificant. To debate the fine points of legal ethics in a Soviet show trial, or whether employees can swipe office supplies from SS headquarters, is to engage in triviality--and, arguably, incoherent triviality, since the limited domain of ethics is justified in terms of larger moral purposes.

Cohen alluded to this when he told a convict in Florida who insisted on his own innocence that "if you are caught in a system that is not just slightly dishonest but egregiously unjust, your obligation changes. You need not have testified truthfully at the Salem witch trials or before the Spanish Inquisition, for example; those tribunals were not pursuing truth. To lie in such situations is to commit, at worst, a small wrong to counter a great wrong."

The Salem case is not apposite, since there it was the lies of the accusing witnesses that were the problem: A witness did not usually have to fear that telling the truth would aid the wrong side. But he's right about the Inquisition, and the point applies to the legal systems of modern totalitarian and terror-wielding states as well. The radically unjust is more important than the merely unethical.

This does not make ethics irrelevant or useless. For one thing, some agreement about ethical behavior is usually necessary to let us peaceably disagree about larger questions of morality and justice. Consider a legal proceeding of great moral importance--say, a constitutional case raising significant questions of justice. The two parties will no doubt disagree on those questions. But they have agreed to a process of adjudication that has ethical and procedural rules. They do not, or should not, consider themselves at liberty to (for example) commit perjury or bribe judges just because ethics seems somehow smaller and less important than justice. If they did, and if everyone in a similar situation did likewise, there couldn't be any legal resolution of such moral disputes. The existence of such a system has importance in its own right, even though it may sometimes reach what we consider the wrong outcome.

On a more mundane level, we typically need to know that the people with whom we do business will behave ethically even though we do not know their deeper views about morality. Sacrificing ethics to morality and justice entirely would mean that we would have to know someone's entire set of moral commitments before deciding whether he was likely to cheat us. A common sense of ethics is part of what allows us to share a society with those with whom we don't share a complete moral vision.

Of course, in situations of really radical injustice, all bets are off and ethics does become irrelevant. At that point an ethicist is a silly thing to be. What's really strange about Cohen is that--at least as far as commerce is concerned--he seems to think that we're in a situation of radical injustice, yet he still holds himself out as providing help for people who face difficult ethical decisions.

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