The New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist,” long authored competently by non-ethicist Randy Cohen, had lost me due to the biased and often unethical answers to his reader’s queries by his most recent successor, Chuck Klosterman. So repellent was Klosterman’s version of the column that I didn’t even notice when the Times sacked Klosterman late last year after one bizarre response too many.
[The final straw: An inquirer went to a Starbuck’s wanting to buy a regular over-priced cup of coffee, but when the woman in front of the customer ordered a pumpkin-spice latte and received a coupon for a free drink because the shop was out of it, “NAME WITHHELD” ordered a pumpkin- spice latte to get the free coupon. Was this ethical, he/she/it asked?” Klosterman’s answer: “No. You’re a liar and a low-rent con artist. And you live in a community where pumpkin-flavored beverages are way too popular.” Now, “No” is correct, but it’s a great question, and deserving of a serious analysis rather than whatever that was from the ex-Ethicist. The coupon was a nice gesture to someone who had come to the Starbuck’s wanting a specific beverage and was disappointed—a store should not be tantalizing customers with products they don’t have to sell, essentially setting up a bait and switch. The coupon was an ethical “We’re sorry,” but also made the employee vulnerable to anyone who decided to misrepresent his real intent in order to get a free drink later. Yes, taking advantage of this opportunity to the detriment of the store is unethical, because the inquirer took an appropriate gesture clearly intended for a specific situation and exploited it. It was not illegal, however, and was not a con. I would compare it to the scenario where a computer glitch has resulted in an airline selling tickets online for absurdly small amounts, and travelers rush to take advantage, rationalizing that mistake or not, the opportunity is there and they can legally grab it.]
Now the Times has a new author of “The Ethicist,” after experimenting with a new format in which a podcast including him and some other commentators hashed over ethics hypotheticals and then the podcast was transcribed and published in the Sunday Times magazine. He is Kwame Anthony Appiah, who teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. This week Appiah’s first solo, so I would normally say that it’s too early for any fair assessment, but boy, did he ever botch the September 2 podcast. He botched it so badly that I can’t see myself paying much attention to anything else he writes. It was an ethics disaster.
A college student asked if he could ethically lie to his anti-gay father about his sexual orientation so Dad would keep paying the student’s tuition. The father is suspicious based on some clues during his son’s high school days, and has made it very clear to his son that if he is gay, he would not only withdraw all financial support but also reject him entirely. “Questions about my sexuality are inevitable whenever I come home,” the inquirer wrote. “My father has demanded I produce archives of all emails and text messages for him to review, although I have successfully refused these requests on the grounds that he has no claim to my adult communications.”
He asks, “Is it ethical for me to continue accepting financial support for my education and my career that will come from it? Could I continue to lie to accept the support and one day disclose my sexuality and pay him back to absolve myself of any ethical wrongdoing?”
The correct answer is “Of course not,” and it amazes me that anyone would think otherwise. The second part of the question is an especially easy ethics lay-up: the steal now, pay back later scheme, also known as “the involuntary loan,” or “I meant to pay it back!”, is pure rationalization, and its existence proves that the writer knows damn well that what he’s doing is wrong, and just wants someone to tell him that it’s OK.
Astoundingly, Appiah and his podcast buddies (Amy Bloom, a novelist and psychotherapist, and Kenji Yoshino, an N.Y.U. law professor) tell the inquirer that it is OK, because, it is clear, they are advocates for gay rights and don’t appreciate anti-gay bigots. Thus they amass nothing but rationalizations and outright unethical arguments to justify the student’s ongoing deception. As a philosopher who knows better, Appiah should have been correcting his colleagues. Instead, he enables them, because gay advocacy trumps honesty and ethics. Continue reading