Randy Cohen was the original author of the New York Times Magazine’s column “The Ethicist.” During his tenure he made a name for himself with lively and sometimes witty prose, and on Ethics Alarms, at least, a disturbing tendency to rationalize clearly unethical conduct when it suited his political agenda, which was unapologetically left of center. In one notorious example, he told a student whose wealthy and famous father was paying her college tuition that it would be ethical for her to cash a partial tuition refund check she received from the university to her mother and stepfather, who believed that the father had not paid his fair share of child support. Cash that check, advised Cohen….“You are entitled to this money not because he is successful while you struggle. Such rough justice would also encourage you to sneak into his house, swipe his sofa and sell it on some kind of furniture black market. That would be stealing; this is merely claiming what he owes you.” Of course, this is also stealing: cashing a check not intended for you because you believe it should be used to settle a disputed debt between the owner and someone else is not honest or fair, regardless of the merits of that belief. But Randy is a class warrior: as “The Ethicist,” he routinely took the position that it was “ethical” for people to use dubious means to get an edge on the evil rich, which in his world apparently means anyone richer than him.
I don’t know what Cohen has been doing since the Times sacked him; it isn’t practicing ethics, as he didn’t do this before his tenure, and confessed when he left the job that writing about ethics didn’t make him practice ethics while he was “The Ethicist” either, something I found and still find incomprehensible. Now, he tells us in a recent Times piece, the Ex-Ethicist is riding around New York City on his bicycle, running stop signs and red lights.
He tells us, moreover, that this is ethical, though it is certainly illegal. “I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else, ” Cohen says. “To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”
This is arrogant, fatuous, reckless and wrong. But that’s Randy.
Even Coehn’s reading of Kant is wrong. The categorical imperative says that an action is ethical only if it could be the universal rule without harm, and this, despite Cohen’s rationalizations, could not. Who says the cyclist’s judgment of when it is safe to run a red light or stop sign is correct or reasonable in every instance? Why couldn’t motorists also use this same justification for running red lights at will?
Cohen has an answer for that, virtuous liberal guerrilla that he is: bicycles can play by different rules because they are virtuous, and cars are bad. He writes…
“…It is cars and trucks that menace us. In the last quarter of 2011, bicyclists in New York City killed no pedestrians and injured 26. During the same period, drivers killed 43 pedestrians and injured 3,607. Cars also harm us insidiously, in slow motion. Auto emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, erode the facades of buildings, abet global warming. To keep the oil flowing, we make dubious foreign policy decisions. Cars promote sprawl and discourage walking, contributing to obesity and other health problems. And then there’s the noise.”
I’m convinced: that makes it okay for cyclists to break the law at will. Actually, I’m not, though Cohen has another argument: what he does is legal…in Idaho.
What is really going on here is that Cohen doesn’t like a law, and is just violating it. He’s doing this because 1) he thinks he can get away with it: don’t think that whether or not one of New York’s finest happens to be watching also factors in to his “ethical” decision to be a scofflaw, and 2) he thinks he’s smarter and more virtuous than the duly elected officials who enacted the law. This is no different, however, than the logic employed by those who want to traffic in illegal drugs, those convinced that a bad man “needs killing,” or someone who thinks they have a right to cash their father’s check and give the money to someone else.
Commenting on Cohen’s lawbreaking, attorney Ann Althouse wrote,
“If there’s a system of rules, individuals can always subjectively, flexibly, pragmatically spin out all sorts of applicable exceptions that let them do what they want. Randy Cohen has used his big brain to determine that he’s right about the unnecessary severity of the rule in this case, but he’s promoting a style of thinking, an approach to ethics, that others will use in all sorts of self-serving ways. If we’re not going to follow the rules anymore… then what?”
Easy answer: Then chaos and anarchy. If Cohen was being ethical instead of dishonest, he would recognize that his duty as a citizen is the follow the rules of the community he belongs to, challenging them in court, try to change them through political action, or move to Idaho. His red light conduct and his rationalization for it give the green light to people who will do a lot more harm than run down the occasional pedestrian on their Schwinn.
Pointer: Ann Althouse
Source: New York Times