March 03, 2011
Good-bye to The Ethicist
Posted by Christine Hurt

Randy Cohen, the writer behind "The Ethicist" in the NYT Magazine, is calling it quits.  I remember when I first started reading the column, and I was pretty much incensed every week.  The way we use the word "ethics" is a bit slippery, but I would expect someone who purports to be an "ethicist" to resolve dilemmas in some sort of way that adheres to some set of fixed principles.  This, of course, was not the case here. 

The Ethicist was merely an advice column with a fancy name, in which the writer of the column gave advice based on the writer's personal values.  (E.g., hiring nonunion workers instead of unionized workers is unethical (Hard Times, March 16, 2009); working for a tobacco company is unethical (Bad Company, Oct. 27, 2010).  And, like most people around us that we ask for advice, he often had his facts wrong. (Owner of car "totalled" by insurance company always keeps the car (Truth in Suspension, Jan. 25, 2009)  When faced with actual ethical codes, he advised that adherence to them is optional if no one is being negatively affected (Student-Teacher Relations, Dec. 5, 2008).  And, when advising whether to reveal others' unethical behavior, the Ethicist is inconsistent and out of his realm (advising theater intern to tattle on a plagiarist playwright because it might help his job review (Hidden Doings, July 6, 2008)  but advising carpenter not to rat out the sloppy painter because he might lose his job (Painted Into a Corner, March 12, 2009).  In the latter example, the Ethicist reveals that he is using his own intuitions as polestar: 

The threshold for mandatory whistle-blowing is high. My guideline for duty-to-report questions is this: You must come forward when doing so will prevent serious imminent harm to a particular person. That is not the case here. . . . the fate of whistle-blowers is seldom serene, and ethics does not compel you to sacrifice your job over this.

However, the Ethicist's polestars seem to be mutable, as he had earlier stated that ethics required revealing the plagiarist, though I doubt that serious imminent harm was at issue there.

Perhaps if the NYT continues the column, they will hire an actual ethicist, or at least someone educated in ethics, philosophy, theology, or even (gasp) law.  Mr. Cohen, who is exceptionally readable, is a comedy writer, most notable a writer for the David Letterman Show.  I am reading I Think I Love You, an entertaining novel by Allison Pearson (I Don't Know How She Does It) about a 13 year-old Welsh girl who subscribes to a magazine that features a monthly letter written by David Cassidy, her American (even better, Californian) idol.  However, that letter is written every month by a Londoner, who has recently graduated from university and plays in a band that would never, ever be mistaken for the Partridge Family.  Anyone can be David Cassidy; anyone can be the Ethicist!

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