“The Ethicist” Strikes Out Again

I’ll make a deal with Randy Cohen,”The Ethicist” of The New York Times Magazine: I’ll stop criticizing his column when he stops justifying dishonesty. Lately, Cohen has not only been advising his correspondents to avoid telling the truth but headlining the questions where he does so.

Lie proud, Randy!

This week’s endorsement of forked tongues surrounded the sensitive issue of designating a guardian for one’s child. Parents had asked their good friends, another married couple, if they would agree to care for their daughter in the event that the parents perished while she was a child. After the couple enthusiastically agreed, the parents learned that their friends were not sufficiently responsible with their finances, and liked to “live large.” They no longer trust the couple with their daughter’s welfare, and want to re-assign the responsibility of being emergency guardians to relatives. This will require the parents to change their wills.

Their question to “The Ethicist”: Do they have to tell their friends? They are convinced that their friends will be hurt or insulted when they learn that they have been removed as guardians, and they don’t want to jeopardize the friendship. On the other hand, the parents don’t want the changed terms of the will to come as a shock, if the worst should happen. “Do we have to tell them now?” they ask.

Well, of course they do.

It is unfortunate that their friends will be hurt, but that is far preferable to their remaining uninformed about their own obligations. People do not take this kind of commitment casually, nor should they. In many religious denominations, the couple who agree to take over responsibilities for an orphaned child in the event of the death of both parents are called “Godparents.” It is a an honor to be asked to take on this role, and a great favor to accept it. What does one call a couple who thinks they have this obligation but really don’t? Fake Godparents? Stunt Godparents? Unlikely as the contingency may be, agreeing to raise a child under any scenario, no matter how remote, is a burden. If the child’s parents have canceled that obligation, the prospective guardians have a right to know as soon as possible. The question is easily answered by a simple application to the Golden Rule. Would you want to be know you were no longer responsible for the welfare of a child? Yes; anyone would.

None of which seems to occur to “The Ethicist.”

“Announcing your new will would not lead your friends to act differently,” he reasons. “It’s not as if they’re about to build a new wing on their house to accommodate your daughter. Thus, silence is acceptable.”

As usual,  Cohen only requires the truth when dishonesty will cause tangible hardship. If withholding the truth and keeping the friends in the dark about their obligations makes it easier to retain them as dinner companions, hey, where’s the harm?

The harm is not having sufficient respect for your friends to tell them the truth about a matter in which they have a legitimate interest. The harm is manipulating their regard by not informing them that, upon reflection, they won’t be designated as guardians after all. The harm is basing a friendship on a continuing misrepresentation.

Cohen tempers his answer with the suggestion that there may be ways to tell the rejected couple about the change without hurting their feelings, but that’s irrelevant to the ethical issue. The questioners are responsible for this mess. They assigned a critical responsibility without doing their research and due diligence as parents, and now they don’t want to accept the consequences of their carelessness—with their child’s welfare, with their friends’ lives. They have no right to resort to long-term deception to avoid the consequences of their error.

In another typical reaction, Cohen endorses the coward’s way out.  He writes:

“Don’t assume that a message appended to your final testament need be devastating. If you write with tact and affection, omit any discussion of their lush life, praise your friends’ magnanimity and emphasize your devotion to family, such a note could mollify your friends.”

And if it doesn’t and they feel deceived? Hey, you’re dead; what can they do to you then—spit on your grave? Meanwhile, you will have had all those fun doubles tennis matches, bridge nights and theater excursions while they thought you held them in such high regard that you’d entrust your child to them! Maybe you should tell all your friends that they’re guardians!

Randy left out this part, but it would have been consistent with the rest. At the end of his answer, Cohen’s “Update” notes that the couple opted not to tell their friends about the change. Another triumph of expediency over honesty, brought to you by The New York Times!

To be fair to “The Ethicist,” he nails the second issue addressed in his column, giving him a .500 batting average for the week. That’s not good enough in the Ethics League, however; Randy’s got to do something about the hole in his swing.

It’s called “honesty.”


Filed under Daily Life, Family, Journalism & Media, Religion and Philosophy, U.S. Society

4 responses to ““The Ethicist” Strikes Out Again

  1. Michael

    Is this the new ethics, where the highest ethical standard is ‘don’t hurt anyone’s feelings or make anyone upset’? This would appear to be the case with Randy Cohen. Yes, you are lying and deceiving people, but your only other option is to hurt their feelings and appear judgemental about their private life (their spending). We must keep our priorities.

    • Well, it certainly appears to be Randy’s ethics. I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t prefer to know that they’d been dinged. Maybe they are changing their whole spending patterns and lifestyle, knowing that they may have a young child to support. Unlikely, but who knows? This advice completely baffled me.

  2. Tim LeVier

    I’m with you Jack, but I also have to quote you. You always say: “What’s really going on here?”

    The parents seem to be going from one knee-jerk to the next knee-jerk. It’s only a matter of time before the parents find something wrong with their relatives and decide to reinstate their friends.

    At any rate, I think Randy was advising them that it would be unethical to fling allegations of fiscal irresponsibility at the couple, so silence about their reasons would be acceptable. On that point, I could agree. But I whole-heartedly agree with you that silence about their decision is unethical. People should know what their obligations are when it comes to these affairs.

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