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August 14, 2007

Picking the right ethicist

To quote Dilbert, "90% of happiness is picking the right ethicist." So let's be happy by picking the right ethicist to roll our collective eyes over.

Why do people actually write to Randy Cohen, author of the "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine? Do they actually think he provides useful ethical advice? What about asking him questions that involve politics, or etiquette, or social advice, but not so much ethics?

And more important, why does he answer these letters as if they involved ethics?

As I've said before, when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This Sunday's column answers two questions. The first is written by a man whose wife's sister is recently separated after 15 years of marriage and is now living with a boyfriend. The sister invites the man and his wife to visit and stay overnight. The man doesn't like the idea of seeming to bless the relationship between the sister and this fellow, whom he derides as the sister's "cohabiter du jour." The wife, whose sister it is, says is it not for them to judge.

Before I discuss Cohen's response, I'd like someone to explain why this an ethics question. It's more an "Ann Landers" kind of social advice question. One may take a moral stand here, too, but it's hard to see the decision either way as one involving ethics.

If you've ever read Cohen's column, you'll know what the response is. Whenever anyone is troubled by what we old-fashioned folks think of as an illicit sexual relationship, Cohen shows off his superior, open-minded moral code: anything goes, except perhaps sex with a Republican. (For a wonderful TV anecdote on this subject, see the beginning of this article in the Weekly Standard.)

And he can't possibly miss an opportunity, in obiter dicta, to invoke the horrors of the Bush administration: "A principled refusal can be estimable in the public arena. For example, as a protest against the war in Iraq, the poet Sharon Olds declined an invitation from Laura Bush to attend the fifth National Book Festival and eat breakfast at the White House." In contrast, he says, a protest is typically not appropriate in private life, where understanding and tolerance are required.

The second letter to "The Ethicist" begins: "Two years ago, I lived in Singapore, and my apartment was robbed." OK, technically, his apartment was burglarized, not robbed, but let that pass. The writer discovers, upon returning to Singapore two years later that the robber/burglar was punished with 10 years in the clink and 10 strokes of the cane. "The sentence seems excessive and the caning barbaric." Mind you, this is the letter writer, not Randy Cohen saying this. I guess that's why he'd write to Cohen. "I want to appeal for mercy on his behalf, but must I accept Singaporean justice? When in Asia, do I do as the Asians do?"

Probably the correct answer is "Rob him again!" But that isn't Cohen's answer. The victim should speak up, he says, with proper sensitivity to local values.

That really would not be such a terrible answer, I suppose, if it were concluded there. But that is not the job of "The Ethicist." His job is to reaffirm continually that ethics and liberal pieties are one and the same.

So Cohen concludes thus: "Such appeals cut both ways. One hundred and fifty years ago, Europeans criticized America's slave-owning and, more recently, our treatment of prisoners. It can be instructive to have one's conduct examined from another perspective." Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, anyone?

Of course, this totally undercuts his advice of showing sensitivity to local values. The victim could validly make an appeal in his specific case based on his own sense of appropriate punishment. But Cohen, having advised him thus, now seems to call for the victim to make a global attack on Singaporean justice.

Never mind this. The point of Cohen's column is not so much to guide behavior as to validate how rich, self-satisfied liberals think.