The great thinkers of humanity’s past have devised many ethical systems, all purporting to tell conscientious citizens how to do the right thing. From Islamic law and the Ten Commandments to the Golden Rule and the Yamas and Niyamas of yogic philosophy — from Utilitarianism to liberal humanism to the Categorical Imperative and even Objectivism — these codes seek to answer our deepest questions. Is our greatest responsibility to ourselves, or others? Individuals, or the community? What about animals, and the environment? Are corporations people? Is it permissible to bring your own candy into the movie theater? Is straying from the path of virtue the same as pigging out on pizza and fries?
Yes, the world’s tradition of moral reasoning is indeed diverse. Put it all in a blender with some whimsical self-deprecation, add water, and you’ve got the New York Times Ethicist column. The Ethicist is a person who’s been appointed to solve moral dilemmas, and usually stumbles onto the right answer by sheer dumb luck or understanding of basic common courtesy. The Ethicist has no training any tradition of ethics or philosophy, but figures that stuff has to trickle down, right? Besides, we all understand ethics, like, intuitively! My view of what’s ethical is no better than yours, maaaaaan. As a result of this radical ceding of authority to the collective Weltanschauung, the Ethicist is sometimes phenomenally wrong-headed.
Despite this consistency of outlook, the Ethicist isn’t just one person. Like the unfortunate sufferer whom Jesus cured of demon possession/bath salt-induced psychosis, the Ethicist’s name is Legion. The Times has burned through six of them in the past year. After Randy Cohen left to “pursue other opportunities” (this fascinating podcast, which I’m sure your teenage children can’t stop talking about), there was Ariel Kaminer, a stray reporter from the Metro section who spent a year at the job. Kaminer came as a relief to us all by not cracking endless corny jokes, yet carried on Cohen’s legacy of not knowing anything about ethics, not claiming to be more ethical than anyone else, and not using ethical frameworks to answer people’s questions.
A typical sample of her work is the following: A hotel customer found a bedbug in her room. On her way out, she chatted by the luggage cart with a new arrival, and wants to know whether she should have told him about the bugs. Kaminer responds, “As it turns out…you were right to hold your tongue. According to Michael Potter, a bedbug expert at the University of Kentucky, that lone bug you found doesn’t necessarily indicate any widespread infestation.”
Oh, is that what a “bedbug expert” told you? Well, I’m an expert in “Common Fucking Sense” at the University of Not Being a Total Cocksucker, and I heard that bedbugs are the hideous stuff of nightmares, and they infest your clothes, get into all your furniture, and can live for months without food, heat or moisture, plus if you see one, there’s probably a thousand. The woman who wrote this letter has likely had to burn down her house and start over in a different state by now. Please, fellow hotel guests, tell me if the hotel has bedbugs! I really want to know!
“Usually the bug, or bugs, are confined to a room or two. So assuming you felt the management was taking your complaint seriously, the most you could accurately have told Luggage Cart Guy was ‘Any given room in this hotel might or might not have a bedbug,’ which unfortunately is now true of any lodging anywhere.”
Again, I’m not a “bedbug expert,” but something about this math seems fishy. It seems like a hotel that definitely has bedbugs… is statistically more likely to have bedbugs… than a hotel that may or may not have bedbugs.
“Warning your friend away, or running through the lobby telling people to flee for their lives, would merely have sown panic, hurting the hotel’s business while scattering guests to other accommodations where they’d face the same discomfiting odds.” Or, it might “scatter guests” to “other accommodations” that don’t have bedbugs. Then the infested hotels would go out of business, which is bad for some reason I confess I don’t fully grasp. (I also am curious what would constitute a valid reason to panic, if not the prospect of waking up covered in bites from bloodthirsty hell-lice.) This “don’t hurt the hotel’s business” line of thought is just Pink Slime Redux. How can you call yourself a patriot, if you’re not willing to eat slurry and have your blood sucked by parasites to help American businesses prosper? We don’t need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers, we need more ammonia-laced meat and stinging welts!
But playing favorites with the businesses we patronize is just the beginning of the capitalist consumer’s sins. For Kaminer, the customer is always wrong, whether it’s in our choice of a night’s lodging, or the DNA of our future offspring. In “Donor Agent Provocateur,” a couple had beef with a fertility consultant who wouldn’t help them find an egg donor with the same ethnic background as the Hawaiian wife.
“As a matter of professional ethics,” the consultant screwed up, but who cares. They should focus their scrutiny on their own souls. “For starters, if your fantasy is a child who resembles your wife, be forewarned that choosing a donor who shares your ethnicity might not get you there. Common ethnicity won’t guarantee a close genetic resemblance; given all the unseen variables, two people who have a common heritage might be further apart genetically than two people who do not….Choosing a donor of the same ethnicity wouldn’t guarantee a close physical resemblance, either. As in any other group, one ethnic Hawaiian might look like the world’s most beautiful linebacker; another might look like a homely blade of grass. ”
I know it comes as a surprise to the rest of us that ethnic Hawaiians don’t all look the same. But this ethnically Hawaiian woman was probably aware of that already?
“In any case, less than 6 percent of Hawaii’s population identifies itself as ‘ethnically Hawaiian.'” So… there aren’t that many ethnic Hawaiians around? That is a truly tiny minority. I have an idea for how they can make it up to 7 percent! (Hint… it involves Hawaiian eggs.) I do realize that if even one more of them turns up, Glenn Beck will start demanding they go back to their country and stop stealing our jobs. But I think we’ll survive the Polynesian Peril.
“Lots of parents hope their children will be new and improved versions of themselves, which might include looking either more or less “ethnic” than they do. Meanwhile others dream of children who bear no resemblance to them whatsoever…. Perhaps you feel that it’s better for children to grow up among their own, or that it’s kinder to children not to broadcast the complexities of their conception…. Give some thought to the assumptions that might be shaping your search and to their possible ethical implications.” Well, jeez. Maybe she just likes being ethnically Hawaiian, and thinks her progeny would like it, too. If no Hawaiians wanted Hawaiian eggs, ethnic Hawaiian egg donors would all be out of luck. White people aren’t exactly known for their freewheeling approach to their kids’ ethnicity. “What the hell! I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii, but popping this mystery egg in my uterus will be the next best thing!” — No white person, ever.
But this crusade against the Hawaiian eugenic master plan is not Kaminer’s only foray into hot-button racial issues. In this column, a literature buff has a copy of Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus on their bookshelf, but is afraid it will offend black friends. Actually, what the person wrote was “We have African-American friends, and we would not want to upset them (or anyone else, for that matter).” Very racially sensitive. Not only does the writer acknowledge parenthetically that people who aren’t black might be upset by racial slurs, they even express a willingness to “remove the book from the shelf.”
If I may offer my own piece of advice: Don’t remove the book. If someone sees the complete works of Joseph Conrad on your shelf, they’ll probably be like, “huh,” and forget about it. If they find The Nigger of the Narcissus stashed between the sofa cushions, or in a drawer next to the swizzle sticks, the result will be awkwardness of Larry David proportions.
Kaminer responds: “If you want to be utterly certain your books never offend anyone, you’ll have to remove quite a few more volumes than that. A feminist might be miffed by the notion of a “shrew” being tamed. For that matter, a Trojan could object to the ‘Iliad.’ And pious people everywhere might take offense at the Bible, with its scandalous tales of adultery and murder.” Zing! You really showed those Bible readers out there. Christians, why aren’t you more offended by the existence of the founding text of your faith? In all seriousness, I think my readers can agree that the Bible is whack, and does indeed narrate many outrageous incidents. However, when the Bible is on a shelf, you can’t really see all the adultery and murder stuff. It probably just says “THE BIBLE: Thou Shalt Not Steal This Book!“, or something clever like that. (Biblical scholars, feel free to help me out). If you’re displaying the Bible in such a way that every single page is visible, your friends are probably be more offended by the fact that you’re a serial killer.
As for the analogy with Trojans, Troy hasn’t existed as a city-state or race since the time of the Byzantine empire. And since the Iliad portrays Trojans in a sympathetic and positive light, I can’t see why they would be offended by it, unless these hypothetical spectral Trojans are also Trojan War Revisionists, for some reason. Now that I think of it, Taming of the Shrew isn’t a great example, either. I can’t believe with all the offensively named books she could have mentioned — The Rape of the Lock, The Rape of Lucrece, Christ Killers, Queer, Cunt Coloring Book, Dude You’re a Fag, Transgender Cumslut, Crackers, Chickenheads (actually a song, but still) — the best she could come up with a dusty ol’ Shakespeare play. For shame!
Kaminer mostly agrees with me, arguing that curious guests could just ask about the hosts’ reading material, “assuming your friends aren’t familiar with the book.” I’m not fond of this “assuming that…” gambit. So far, Kaminer has “assumed” that a bedbug-infested hotel takes concerns about bedbugs seriously, and that someone’s black friends have never heard of Joseph Conrad. This sort of thing is why assumptions got a bad reputation. Next time stick to empirical observation.
But the dilemmas raised by this letter transcend storage solutions. Don’t the moral imperatives involved in possessing a racist book have more to do with the mind that reads it than the shelf that houses it? Don’t we have a duty to understand ideas that shock us, that we might better understand the cultures that spawned them? After all, if we ignore the biases of the past, how can we hope to recognize the hatred and bigotry that persists in our present day? Would we not do well to confront morally abhorrent ideas head on? Is it not more truly admirable to grapple with the moral implications of a text like Conrad’s, rather than basking in the factitious comfort of more inoffensive fare?
Or if that’s too much work, there’s always this.
Just as the Iliad and the Bible were the founding myths of their day, the story of the Sensitive White Person Who Had Black Friends And Then Told Everyone About It is truly a tale of our time. But not all Ethicist letters have the same universal resonance. Some readers seem to be competing to top each other in triviality. One letter writer wants to know whether it’s okay for his wife to tear the crossword out of a magazine at the beauty salon. Another person checks out e-books from the library, and sometimes they stay on his device an extra day after the “due date.” People must feel very clever for coming up with such fine-grained dilemmas; we’ll doubtless soon see Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Chabon debating whether you can re-use a stamp if the post office forgot to draw over it with that wavy line.
Perhaps sensing that the format was in danger of growing stale, last month the magazine ran an Ethicist-related contest for the best moral argument in favor of eating meat. This is not a bad idea; a large proportion of Times-reading bobos are going to eat meat whether it’s ethical or not, so asking them to justify their lifestyle is as reasonable as it is maddeningly pointless. Ariel Kaminer introduced the results. She says the entries were great, but some responses were super zany. For instance, some readers complained because all five judges were white men!
“People dismissed the contest as either too elitist or too populist. And then there was the outrage over the demographics of our judges. ‘I would like to propose the next subject for debate in The Ethicist,’ one critic wrote. ‘It can be titled, ‘Defending Misogyny: Why Women Are Not Needed as Experts in the Year 2012.’ ” Yes… that person does sound pretty “outraged,” from the looks of that unintelligible, profanity-laden screed. Jeez, lay off the caps lock, lady! Hysterical feminists strike again.
Nevertheless, these complaints must have rankled with Kaminer. In a later portion of the column devoted to “wacky” debate about the contest (including allegations that it was “anti-pig-ist” and “a conspiracy”), she quotes another exchange. A group of women wrote in to say “the cycle of prejudice continues in which white male elite perspectives dominate the production of social facts.” On the other hand, there’s this rebuttal. “This is a panel of five, for heaven’s sake, for a meaningless contest. How diverse can it be? Why should anyone care how diverse it is? — ETHICSALARMS.COM”
“How diverse can it be”? Well… it could have at least one person who isn’t a white male? There are at least five races and in infinite number of genders that I am aware of, so it could be a maximum of infinity percent more diverse. I also appreciate the “who cares, why is this important” attitude. Facts and opinions in the form of written language are indeed “meaningless.” That is why only 30 million people per month read the New York Times, and why Percy Shelly referred to poets as “the unacknowledged alcoholic hobo drifters of mankind.” You are aware, EthicsAlarms.com, if that is your real name, that people actually pay money to receive this publication?
Anyway, the winner was a white male. Congratulations!
If even New York Times readers are guilty of P.C. liberal fascism, who is innocent? It’s not always easy to lead an ethical life, as Kaminer acknowledges in her farewell piece. A teenager started an ethicist column in the high school paper, but people complained that she was offering advice she herself “wouldn’t be able to follow.”
Kaminer offers comfort: “I’d be extra-suspicious of any ethicist (or baker or harpsichordist, for that matter) who offered himself up as a paragon of virtue for all others to emulate. The title indicates nothing about personal rectitude, just a willingness to think about basic issues like how we should treat one another and what is fair. Those may sound like things that everyone thinks about every day.”
Yes: The most important thing about things we think about every day is that we don’t ever try to practice them. It’s like, I might think all the time about working on my dissertation, or mailing in my rent check, or voting just because it’s “election day.” But if I actually did those things, I’d be setting myself up as some paragon of virtue who actually does those things. I’d be a hypocrite! Don’t you see? It’s thinking about things, in the abstract, forever, that make our intellectual life so varied and stimulating.
“I’ve probably read a hundred letters demanding that I offer less advice and more ethical theory — and an equal number that made the opposite demand.” Someone was demanding Ariel Kaminer offer less ethical theory? Look, I don’t know how the public schools have let students down so grievously, but you can’t have less ethical theory than zero. Stop demanding that Ariel Kaminer do the impossible. “Oooh, I think she should offer ethical theory in the form of the square root of a negative number!” Not going to happen, people.
“I think ethics may be having a moment.”
You spend an entire year giving mediocre advice, and you think I’m going to be impressed just because you quote Immanuel Kant?
The next person to step into the fray was Andrew Light, associate director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. The letter writer’s brother is all messed up in the head after years of drugs, motorcycle accidents, and numerous jail stints. Her aged parents want her to act as his “guardian,” but she’s a single mom and lives seven hours away. Plus, she “[has] no relationship” with him. Is she obligated to do it?
“Are you your brother’s keeper? Now, there’s a question that carries a storied history, and its answer has some weighty implications.” Well, it had weighty implications in that one Bible story, because that one Bible dude had already murdered his brother. This lady hasn’t done anything yet.
“I don’t think you have a moral obligation to become your brother’s guardian.” Phew! That settles that.
“…but it would be good if you could find a way to help him without putting your daughter in jeopardy. Just about any account of obligation to others allows, and sometimes requires, partiality based on family ties, friendship and other relationships….. We might think — and more important, your question betrays that you might suspect — that you have a special obligation to help your brother because he’s your brother.” So, she doesn’t have a “moral obligation,” but everyone “might think” that she has a “special obligation.” Very lucid. You can’t just say no to helping helping this guy — he’s your brother! I mean, you can. You’re not obligated to do anything. But wouldn’t you feel terrible acting that way, little lady?
“You have special ties that bind you….Even though you’re alienated from your brother now, I hope there was something in your past that brought you together…. Now you ought to try to draw on that experience of being a sibling and do the best that you can in a difficult situation.” That’s smart! It’s good idea to draw on your past, and to do the best you can in the future. Does Andrew Light go to the same Tarot reader as me?
“If… you can help him in some way without endangering your daughter, that would be the best course. ” It’s good to do good things, as long as it doesn’t cause anything bad to happen. Right again!
“I agree with philosophers like Samuel Scheffler at New York University who argue that the people we are closest to — those with whom we have valued relationships that aren’t based only on what they can do for us — can make some special claims on us. I also think we’re all better off when we respond to them.” Oh, God. I always said they should hire someone who had studied philosophy, but when it finally happened, it’s like being in David Brooks hell. Next thing he’ll be tying this whole thing in with Hamiltonianism. Anyway, according to Samuel Scheffler, the official philosopher of Precious Moments, sometimes when people are really special to us, they make us have selfless feelings of love and devotion! Thanks for the sound bite. It would be weird to tell a lady she has an “obligation” to sacrifice all her money and free time fixing a man’s mistakes. It’s so much nicer if she just, like, wanted to, because of binds, and ties, and familial warm fuzzy feelings, and nurturing, and the Bible and stuff. Another triumph for philosophy!
Maybe having read philosophy isn’t really that great a qualification. But how about the next guy, Philip Levine? He’s a poet — the poet laureate, no less! He should have a clear, yet forgiving perspective into human frailty.
“I’m married and recently had an emotional affair. As a result of the frequent phone contact with my paramour, I went way over my minute usage allowance. While I freely admit the emotional affair was a breach on a number of levels, am I responsible for reimbursing her? NAME WITHHELD”
Look, I’m not saying “emotional affairs” aren’t a real thing. But I am saying that all of these people’s problems could be solved by getting an unlimited plan. Levine, however, has other ideas. “How long has it been since I heard the word ‘paramour’ used seriously? I’m afraid I do not welcome it back, nor can I imagine why your wife welcomed you back after your ’emotional affair’…. You strike me as someone with a limited capacity for empathy…. I believe you are both linguistically and ethically challenged. Paying back the money… is the least you can do, but since you hesitate to do even that, I fear you are incapable of doing more….. You need much more than advice from an ethicist…. You need to see a shaman who can change who you are, and your wife needs to see a lawyer.”
Wow, that is venomous. I suspect that Levine, who is 83, doesn’t know what an “emotional affair is.” He perhaps thinks it’s just a regular affair, but with more emotions. Thank God no one asked him a question involving FWB’s, flash mobs, sexting, tweeple, jeggings or the pregnant man.
A flier complains that her seatmate spread over into her space and refused to move.
“I know what my mother would have done: she would have used the only weapon she had — her voice…. She would have loudly named this man for what he is, a masher, and thereby called attention to this boorish behavior. Is that word, ‘masher,’ still in use for something other than what you crush potatoes with? If not, it should be.” I mean, I’ve heard of it. As a native speaker of the English language, I am also aware that it is not in common circulation. “I think you should tell this man that you would be gay if he would give you more space. By ‘gay,’ I mean happy and carefree. Is that still the word’s primary meaning? I’m not sure, because I have no access to the contemporary vernacular, except in the thirty-million-reader-a-month newspaper for which I write.”
I don’t recommend that this woman confuse and irritate her fellow fliers by shouting “He’s a masher! He’s a masher!” Also, did Levine just make fun of that one guy for saying “paramour” (a perfectly acceptable, if uncommon, English word), but instruct another letter writer to reinstate 1920’s slang? Jumpin’ Jehosaphat! This guy has some moxie!
Finally, we reach the present day. (There were three other guest columnists — Cheryl Strayed, Betsey Stevenson and Philip B. Corbett — but they never said anything especially risible.) Last week the Times unveiled their new Ethicist: Famous rock ‘n’ roll guy Chuck Klosterman! The bestselling author of such works as Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, he inexplicably claims to have “always wanted this job. ” Klosterman follows the lead of Kaminer et al. by saying he is qualified only because “I’m alive and I’m engaged with the world,” while Hugo Lindgren excitingly tells us that he “isn’t afraid of expressing his opinions.” Now that Klosterman’s maiden column is out, how did he do? I dared to dream he would be the Times‘ least objectionable Ethicist yet, and I was not disappointed. Confronted with a question about someone who doesn’t like his half-sister, he steers clear of Andrew Light “why don’t you loooove them” guilt trips. He doesn’t use any jazz-age slang or imply that black people don’t know who Joseph Conrad is. Are the days of mocking the Ethicist over?
Maybe. But then, there’s this. Some people’s cat had a tumor, and the vet said it was too frail to survive surgery. Their neighbor kidnapped the cat and had it operated on anyway. Was their action justified?
“Let’s imagine this 12-year-old cat is actually a 12-year-old boy and that you’re committed to a religion that does not permit medical procedures involving surgery.”
I don’t think that’s how thought experiments are supposed to work. How about this: Maybe the neighbor is dying of cancer… and instead of a cat, it’s a 12-year-old motorcycle that the letter-writer won’t ride for environmental reasons…the neighbor has 12 days to live, and he wants to borrow it for one last ride? No wait wait, I’ve got a better one. Let’s imagine the cat is a 12-pound wheel of Gouda, and the owners are lactose-intolerant vegans who received it as a housewarming gift, and the neighbor needs the Gouda for the big fondue contest that’s coming up tomorrow… and if they win the fondue contest, they get a million dollars and use the money to found an organization that helps elderly cats? No, that’s stupid. Okay, check this out. It’s not a neighbor, it’s her half-brother! This guy has a collection of 12 offensive books on his shelf, including Hitler!, Lolita, The Jew of Malta, The Merchant of Venice, the Bible, the Iliad and the Kama Sutra. He refuses to take them down, even though his boss is coming over tomorrow, and she’s a half-Jewish, half-Trojan celibate feminist, and he’s in line for a big promotion. If he gets the promotion, he’ll give his sister the money to buy 12 human eggs of her choice and clear up a bedbug infestation in the hotel she operates. Then is it okay to steal the cheese/motorcycle/books? I have no idea.
Postscript: Props to Tumblr blog A Better Ethicist from providing philosophically credible commentary! Ethics fans, please check it out!