“The Ethicist” vs. Citizenship

Anyone who reads Randy Cohen’s New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist” quickly discovers that one of Cohen’s biases is an intense distrust of law enforcement that would be right at home in the Berkeley campus of 1967. The problem with this attitude for an ethicist is that citizenship is a core ethical value, and assisting and cooperating with law enforcement efforts are among the duties of a citizen to society. Thus the Ethicist’s advice tends to become unethical when a correspondent asks about matters involving the police. This week’s column contained a prime example.

A restaurant owner discovered that an employee was stealing from the establishment, and confronted him. The thief offered to pay back what he had stolen, and was fired. The owner asked Cohen if he should report the crime to the police; some of his friends had argues that “losing his job was punishment enough” for the light-fingered ex-worker. Can you guess Randy’s answer? I swear: I composed it in my head before I checked. I was right on the money.

Cohen wrote that the crime shouldn’t be reported because “the criminal justice system is simply too crude an instrument to gently accomplish what you admirably seek to do: protect others from harm.”  He went on to cite the usual objections raised by opponents of state punishment: the hardship to the families, the harshness of the prison experience, the likelihood that the criminal will emerge from prison more damaged than he went in. All true to varying extents, and all among the reasons why rational people don’t want to end up in prison. The threat of prison doesn’t motivate  good conduct in ethical citizens, of course: they already believe in obeying the law. But for unethical citizens, something else is needed to keep them from hurting the rest of us, and the likelihood of punishment, including losing contact with family, is both appropriate and effective. Cohen doesn’t even deny this, but says that “it comes at a high social cost.”

Thus The Ethicist endorses a cultural norm in which criminals are allowed to steal with impunity. If they get caught, they pay back some of their ill-gotten gains and leave the job (why would a thief want to stay once the boss knew he was stealing? Getting fired isn’t “punishment enough,” it’s a benefit.), then go to work and start stealing somewhere else. Maybe they get caught again…but maybe they don’t. To quote Michael Keaton in “Night Shift,” “Is this a great country, or what?” Great for crooks, that is….in The Ethicist’s kinder, gentler, thief-friendly America.

Citizens have an ethical obligation to report crimes. They also have an obligation to work to make the justice system as fair, humane and effective as possible. Cohen’s solution, however, of treating the justice system as the criminal and the criminal as a victim, is irresponsible and an abdication of our duty to each other.  In a jaw-droppingly lame argument, Cohen writes, “Anyway, you can’t be sure that potential victims will be spared [if the thief ends up serving time]: not every employer performs an assiduous criminal-background check on each new employee.” Yes, and calling 911 to report that mugging outside your house won’t necessarily do any good, because it might take the police too long to get there. And there’s no point in building safer cars, because some people won’t wear seat-belts. I wish I could say he was kidding.

In his follow-up addendum, Cohen notes that the owner did report the thief and will be testifying at his trial. In other words, he decided to be a good citizen, act ethically, and completely ignore the advice of “The Ethicist.”

The right thing to do.

2 thoughts on ““The Ethicist” vs. Citizenship

  1. Spot on. The owner is doing the ethical thing to testify at the trial and get a conviction. I think he would continue his ethical streak if he were to find an opportunity to testify at sentencing on the thief’s behalf, if he truly believes that prison isn’t the right punishment.

    I believe the goal is to give society an accurate record of each individual so that they can be handled appropriately with the least amount of surprise.

  2. I read this Cohen column in the Sunday Times Magazine, too. Bravo to the restaurant owner who did NOT take his advice.

    Who IS Randy Cohen? What are his credentials? Did he just arrive at the NY Times and proclaim himself an ethicist? Who vetted him? Who edits his colums? Anybody out there? His advice was not only unethical; it was nonsensical. Add 30 points to Homer Simpson’s IQ but keep the same world view and you get… Randy Cohen!

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