“The Ethicist” and His Definition of “Unethical”

Eureka! Bingo! At last!

While explaining in this week’s column why he hesitates to label a manifestly unethical practice unethical, The New York Times Magazine’s ethicist, Randy Cohen, clarified a couple of questions that have been bothering me for quite a while. Why do so many people react so violently to my conclusion that they have done something unethical? And why does Randy Cohen, a.k.a. “The Ethicist” so frequently endorse unethical conduct, especially dishonesty, when he believes it is motivated by virtuous motives?

The answer, from the keyboard of Cohen himself: many people, including Cohen, don’t understand what”unethical” means!

Cohen was responding to a query about a high school creative writing contest judged by English teachers whose own students’ entries were in the competition. Isn’t this unethical, the questioner asked?  This should have been a breeze for Cohen. Of course it is unethical. The situation creates a conflict of interest for the teachers, who are subject to favoritism and bias, as well as undermining the credibility and integrity of the contest by creating an appearance of impropriety. The arrangement is irresponsible and incompetent. This isn’t a close call. Is it unethical? Yes.

But “The Ethicist” doesn’t think so. He prefers the description “imperfect.”

He writes:

‘”Unethical’ is too caustic a word, carrying connotations of evil intent, envelopes filled with cash discreetly left on a teacher’s desk, shadowy meetings in a parking garage — follow the metaphors.”

When did “unethical” start carrying a connotation of “evil intent”?  It didn’t, except to Randy Cohen, the confused, the ill-informed, and the cynically manipulative. Unethical means no more and no less than conduct that violates ethical principles and values. There are many ways of measuring this, and many theoretical systems for assessing when conduct is unethical, but no ethical  system is so narrow that it requires “evil intent” before an action can be identified as breaching ethical norms, which is “unethical.”

Not that it isn’t to the advantage of politicians, journalists, business executives, researchers, doctors, accountants and the rest of us to adopt such an exclusive definition of “unethical.” Then conflicts of interest, lies, bias, incompetence, betrayal, vengeance, exploitation, incivility, unfairness and many other forms of bad conduct become excusable and even acceptable, because they were spawned by good intentions, or perhaps were just careless. Making “unethical” a more serious condemnation than it is, ironically, makes it easier to be unethical. When a description of conduct as unethical is viewed as “caustic,” it gives genuinely unethical people an opportunity to describe their conduct as “mistakes,” though the acts may have been undertaken with complete knowledge that they were wrong—or “poor judgment,” though the only poor judgment may have been that they believed they could get away with their unethical conduct undetected.  It allows those who violated basic ethical principles to accomplish an arguably worthy objective to escape under the shield of multiple rationalizations, such as “It’s for a good cause,” and “No harm, no foul.” Worst of all, Cohen’s excessively pejorative definition makes the most common rationalization of all, “Everybody does it!”, more effective than ever. After all, conduct can’t be “evil” if everybody does it; we all know everybody isn’t evil. So if everybody does it, it can’t be unethical. Right?

Wrong. Being responsible for unethical conduct doesn’t make us evil. We all do things that are unethical; the point in determining whether we have been unethical or not isn’t to condemn each other, but to set our ethics alarms and learn, so we can be more ethical in the future. Far from proving that conduct isn’t unethical, good intentions are among the most persuasive inducements to unethical conduct. Cohen’s limitation on the use of “unethical” would allow us to stop thinking about ethics once we believed we trying to do good, by some measure or another. If evil intent is the measure, the Bush administration’s torture policy wasn’t unethical: the intent was to save American lives, and there’s nothing evil about that. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s nepotism wasn’t unethical—she was just being good to her own grandchildren by giving them scholarships, in violation of the rules. How can it be evil to pamper one’s grandkids? D.C.’s former mayor, the incorrigible Marion Barry, wasn’t being unethical using government funds to pay for a phony job for his girlfriend—he was just helping his girlfriend make ends meet. Being a good boyfriend isn’t evil, right?

And Mark McGwire…Barry Bonds…Roger Clemens: true, they may have cheated by using steroids, but that wasn’t unethical—they were trying to give the fans a good show and win games for their teams. That’s not evil. And of course it’s not evil for Al Gore or other climate change advocates to fudge the scientific evidence in trying to persuade the public to back climate change legislation; after all, they are trying to avert a catastrophe. So their dishonesty isn’t unethical, either.

It’s just… “imperfect.”

Now I finally understand why “The Ethicist” has so often has endorsed various forms of deceit and dishonesty when he deems lies useful to advance us towards the liberal utopia he favors. And I now understand why those whose conduct I criticize here so frequently get incensed. They think I’m calling them “evil.”

Thanks, Randy, for the clarification, and I apologize to those who believed I have been consigning them to Hellfire by pointing out that they missed an ethical connection or ten. When I say that conduct is unethical, I’m not (well, most of the time) suggesting that the one responsible for the conduct is habitually unethical, without ethics, or evil. I am only saying that he or she did the wrong thing.

Like we all do. But when we do it, we ought to be told about it, so we don’t do it again.

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