Ethicist's Dilemma

Is Reason virulent? Are we vituperative? YOU DECIDE!


In the April 8 issue of The Nation, Randy Cohen, who writes the "Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine, levels two harsh and strangely unsubstantiated charges against Reason.

First, he asserts not only that Reason is "right wing," but only a few steps away from the John Birch Society. He writes that his column was "denounced by four periodicals, each more right-wing than the last–the weekend Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator, Reason (the presumably ironically named magazine of the Libertarians) and the online version of National Review."

That our publication, which in recent issues has praised vulgar culture as liberatory, argued that illegal drugs can be used responsibly, and raised serious civil liberties concerns regarding the war on terrorism, is "right wing" in any conventional sense of that term is news to us. And, we're sure, to National Review, which recently slagged us in Cohenesque language for helping to create the American Taliban John Walker Lindh and for our stance on cloning. It's probably news as well to the Wall Street Journal's, which has hectored us on the drug issue. And we know for a fact that Bill Bennett, whom Cohen dissects at length in The Nation, was none too happy with a Reason Online column which pointed out that the self-proclaimed morals maven doesn't even write his own badly argued material. (We'll leave aside for the moment pieces we've run arguing for gay marriage, liberalized immigration, and a wide-open approach to human biotech, none of which was particularly popular on the right the last time we checked.)

To be sure, we're not left-wing, either; authoritarianism, whether wearing a Che beret or a bishop's mitre, leaves us as cold as Lenin's corpse. But we'd expect a professional ethicist trained in nuanced thought, of all people, to understand that American politics is not simply the bipolar, manic-depressive spectacle it often seems to be.

Second, Cohen claims Reason's critique of his column was nasty and brutish, a Hobbesian prose nightmare. "There was something particularly vituperative about these screeds," writes Cohen of his detractors en masse. He further confesses that he "should not have been startled by the virulence of these attacks."

Make no mistake: In a 1999 column for Reason, Jacob T. Levy panned the "Ethicist" column as trivial on its own terms, noting that what Cohen "has to say defeats the purpose of having an ethics column at all." But his critique is made in measured tones, and with ample evidence. Unless Cohen believes that to criticize him is inherently virulent and vituperative–alas, a position held by pompous windbags across the political spectrum–we'd say he's mistaken. In fact, we're tempted to say he's willfully mistaken–the alternative is that he's simply delusional, and that's a conclusion we're slow to draw about anyone. But far be it from us to pronounce ex cathedra on such an ethical issue. Readers can judge for themselves by reading the Reason column here.