“The Ethicist” Jumps the Rails!

An ethical dilemma is a situation that requires us to choose between an ethical course and one that fulfills a non-ethical want or need, like getting a promotion, winning the love of our soul-mate, or improving our financial status. Choosing the ethical option often has negative consequences, but it is still the ethical option. Thus it is more than a little disheartening to read the advice columnist who calls himself “The Ethicist” supporting the unethical option—the one that rejects an ethical value in favor of self-interest.

In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine column,  Randy Cohen, a.k.a. “The Ethicist”, answered an inquirer who explained that she had advised her son to be truthful on a form applying for insurance when it asked if he had used marijuana in the past year. His son followed the advice, answered “yes,” and was promptly rejected.

“Now he is uninsured while countless pot-smoking liars have coverage,” she wrote. “My husband thinks I gave our son foolish advice. Do you agree?”

Cohen was flummoxed by the question, which really is just this: “Is it all right to lie to get a tangible benefit when lots of other people are doing it and getting away with it?” Is that one really so hard to answer?  Here’s mine: “No!” But The Ethicist thought otherwise. After giving a boilerplate statement about how business relationships are founded on trust, and for the son to lie on the form would erode that trust, Cohen dived into a sea of rationalizations and began doing the backstroke.

“And yet it’s hard to see how he’d harm the insurance company,” Cohen wrote. Well, that’s the insurance company’s decision, isn’t it? Do we have the right to decide whom we wish to trust or not? (Hint for Randy: the answer is “Of course we do.”) It is a per se harm to the insurance company if it is deceived into insuring someone it wouldn’t want to insure if it knew the truth. Is “The Ethicist” seriously proposing a standard of honesty in which lies become acceptable if the liar chooses to conclude that the object of his lie won’t be harmed? That decision is not the liar’s to make.

“Few dire health consequences result from sporadic youthful pot-smoking or even occasional adult pot-smoking,” he continued. Again, this is the insurance company’s call to make, not the son’s and not Cohen’s. The insurance company may have statistics that show that occasional pot smokers engage in other risky activities. Maybe they drive stoned on those “sporadic” occasions. It is also illegal activity. Surprise! A business doesn’t want to trust someone who “sporadically” breaks the law. Well, it has that right, and it is far from unreasonable for the business to exercise it.

“It is impertinent of the insurer to act on information that is medically insignificant,” Cohen concludes. So in Cohen World,  it is ethically acceptable to deceive those who are “impertinent,” is it? What kind of an ethical principle is that?

An absurd one, but one  endorsed by “The Ethicist,” apparently, because Cohen goes on to state that he would personally “lie without remorse”  on the insurance form. And yet, he writes, as a parent he would feel obligated to advise his own son to tell the truth, writing that he “would feel a parental duty to teach integrity and encourage civic engagement.”

Ok, let me get this straight. “The Ethicist” believes that he has an obligation to teach his child the ethical principles of honesty and integrity, but he would personally violate those principles based on the most transparent rationalizations (“Everybody does it;” “They deserve it,” “No harm, no foul”) “without remorse.”

Time to retire, Randy: you’re not making any sense.

What Cohen is admitting is that, using the same logic, he would also use banned steroids “without remorse” if he were a professional baseball player, like Alex Rodriguez. After all, it would be to his benefit,  “everybody” was using them,  if you were careful, they could be safe, and it was “impertinen”t for Major League Baseball to ban them, since the owners obviously encouraged their by-product, more home runs. He is admitting that he would also lie on his resumé, if he thought his potential employer’s requirements were unreasonable, and was sure he was the best person  for the job. (Hey—maybe that’s how he got to be “The Ethicist”!) Would he lie to the F.B.I. on a background check for Federal employment? Presumably so. He just wouldn’t advise his kids to do it.

Needless to say (or I would have thought needless to say, especially to someone called “The Ethicist”), being ethical involves what one does, not what one would tell one’s children to do. Among the many reasons not to break drug laws, plagiarize college papers, drive while intoxicated, commit misdemeanors, contract STD’s while having promiscuous and irresponsible sex or write threatening letters to the President is that these things can have negative consequences when you apply to join a bar association, run for office, apply for a good job, court the love of your life or apply for an insurance policy. Knowing that you will have to tell the truth about these unethical activities, and that it may cause those whose trust you need to decline to enter into relationships with you, are critical to keeping your ethics alarms in working order. If Cohen knows that lying on an insurance form is wrong, and he must, since he says he would advise a child not to do it, then he should not be willing to lie in the same circumstances. As he says he would lie, however, and “without remorse,”  he really must favor unethical conduct over ethical conduct when it is to his personal benefit, as long as he he can assemble enough invalid rationalizations to numb his conscience.

Call him “The Un-Ethicist.” Doing the right thing often has unpleasant consequences. For Randy Cohen to endorse lying to fraudulently induce a business to enter into a relationship of trust amounts to ethics malpractice.

8 thoughts on ““The Ethicist” Jumps the Rails!

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “The Ethicist” Jumps the Rails! « Ethics Alarms -- Topsy.com

  2. What Randy Cohen is really saying is “If they can’t find you out, then lie.” What in the world is this supposed “ethicist” teaching people? Lie when you can, be truthful when you can’t get out of it? Isn’t this what has spawned our general disrespect for politicians, corporate leaders, even the Roman Catholic church? This guy should be pilloried and put out of business.

    Culture is a bottom-up process: teach the average person to be unethical, and then expect those in positions of power to be somehow different? The election in Massachusetts proved that the average person was able to stand up and say “We’re different, and we won’t support the status quo. Here’s our message: we want to live honorable lives, and we expect our leaders to do so, too.”

    As long as there are Randy Cohens out there, then the message of ethical and honest Americans will be muddled. This self-proclaimed “ethicist” should be shut down, or at least ignored. His bundle of rationalizations is only detrimental to the American ethos.

  3. What you have is a case of political correctness. If you want to become a social outcast on a college campus, express the opinion that smoking pot is wrong. The opinion is not really allowed to be expressed. The enforced opinion is that pot is COMPLETELY harmless, no matter how ridiculous that position is. I suspect this is the mindset Randy Cohen has. If the question had been “Have you smoked a cigarette in the past year?” or “Have you skydived in the past year” I doubt he would have offered the same advice. Those question are at least as medically insignificant as “did you smoke marijuana?” (depending on whose study you read), but they don’t invoke the same knee-jerk reaction.

    Marijuana is a very strange topic. People are incredibly defensive about their use of it and will vehemently defend its use. Compare this to tobacco. How many people do you know who are ex-tobacco smokers who would say their tobacco use was a ‘mistake’ or ‘wrong’ versus those who smoked marijuana in high school or college?

    I don’t want to excuse Randy Cohen for his error (because it is an error), but I think you are being a little harsh on him. As far as spin, indoctrination, and brainwashing goes, marijuana use ranks up there with abortion. The abortion issue is the perfect comparison because the spin, indoctrination, and brainwashing occurs on both sides on both issues. It is just a shame “The Ethicist” doesn’t recognize his blindness in this matter.

  4. I’m afraid I’m a knee-jerk liberal, and I think pot SHOULD be legalized, although I have never used it. But we kneejerkers understand that ethics means truth-telling, even when it costs. Nice job, Jack, calling the so-called ethicist on his egregious column.

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