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November 13, 2005

Martha's Vineyard morality

I sometimes check out a column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine called "The Ethicist" just to see what Randy Cohen is up to. I call his brand of ethics "Martha's Vineyard morality," because it's the morality of the upper-class set, the rich, northeastern liberals who devour the Sunday NY Times over catered brunch.

Today's column is a truly superior example of the genre. Here is the question posed:

Last week 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
Start with the final line of the question. The questioner's goal is to find a way to disentangle herself (the context suggesting that the questioner is a woman) from a presumably adulterous situation involving the "friend," undertaken in such a way as to cast suspicion on the questioner.

Despite the grotesque behavior of the "friend" and the thoughtless, not to say horribly inconsiderate, behavior of that friend, the questioner wants to know how to avoid "ratting out" the friend. If I were in that situation, and I realized a friend was involved in an adulterous affair, I would have serious difficulty remaining friends with the person. I know I wouldn't want to be friends with an embezzler or a shoplifter, and to me, cheating on your spouse with a married person is about as serious a transgression I can think of, short of violent crime. What would make this even worse for me is that the adulterer friend misused my car and potentially implicated me in the affair. I wouldn't treat taking action to protect myself as ratting out my probably former friend.

But back to MVM. Here, the questioner doesn't seem upset with the friend. She just wants advice on, one assumes, how to lie to people to protect herself and her friend.

And "The Ethicist" doesn't disappoint. After first advising the questioner to say nothing, Cohen goes on to suggest this tactic:
Next time your friend borrows your car, tell her not to use it for anything that would put you in an awkward position - sloppily conducted illicit liaisons, liquor-store robberies. It is not your obligation to demand that she end her affair, nor is it in your power to enforce such a ukase, but you can decline to abet actions that offend your principles (if indeed hers do). You would not feel compelled to offer her your apartment as a trysting place; you need not lend her your car to drive to one.
Notice two things about this response. First, the joking way in which Cohen deliberately lumps together adulterous affairs and armed robberies. No suggestion that the former is bad; to the contrary, by mentioning them together in a light-hearted way, he suggests that affairs are obviously at the far end of the spectrum from street crime. They may in fact be different, but the prose here makes light of a serious transgression. Second, he writes that the questioner may "decline to abet actions that offend [her] principles" and feels the need to add "if indeed hers do." True, the questioner suggests that these actions don't offend her principles, but there is an air about the parenthetical phrase that conveys the idea that, of course, right-thinking liberals like Cohen wouldn't object to a friend's adultery.

And then, to end his response, Cohen turns into what he jokingly calls the "Adulterer's Adviser," which he pretends not to be ("it is not within the purview of my column to suggest better tactics for assisting adultery"). As the Adulterer's Adviser, he offers this suggestion:
[T]o people curious about your parking: tell them you lent your car not to the friend but to the neighbor in whose driveway it sat overnight. You would need to enlist him as a conspirator, and you would be telling a lie, but a clever lie, an effective lie and one that impugned nobody's conduct -- questionable ethics, but fine craftsmanship.
So not only does he not suggest for a minute that anything is wrong with the friend's adultery -- it's more a matter of the questioner's personal taste -- but he goes so far as to offer "just in case" advice about lying to cover up the affair.

Please remember this the next time the New York Times waxes moralistic about matters of public concern.