Randy Cohen,”The Ethicist,” really doesn’t apply ethics to the intriguing questions sent to him in his long-running column in the New York Times Magazine. What he applies is Randy’s customized social justice agenda, which has a strong class bias (Rich people deserve to be brought down a peg whenever feasible), endorses redistribution of income (stealing from rich people is different from stealing from poor people) and a belief that if a rationalization can provide a green light to allow a deserving person to stick it to a company or wealthy citizen, by all means, embrace it. Because Cohen is a smart and instinctively ethical guy, he still get the answers right the vast majority of the time, as he has done for quite a few weeks now. Eventually, however he’ll reveal the Real Randy in a column like today’s, in which “The Ethicist” endorses vigilante justice.
The question comes from a financially-stressed college student living with her equally broke divorced mother, who recently lost her job. The student’s father and the mother’s ex-husband is a “famous entertainer” who, despite being rich, owes the mother “thousands of dollars” in back child support, at least according to the daughter. Famous Dad has “reluctantly agreed to pay the daughter’s tuition.” She writes, “Recently the university sent me a check for $2,700…My mother and I want to use it to pay our rent and other bills, but this feels like stealing from my father. May I cash that check?”
“It depends on how you spend the money. You may not squander it on riotous living — madder music, shinier diamonds, winier wine — but you may apply it to your education, even broadly, even to your living expenses while you attend school. You can’t study in the dark. That is something your dad has an ethical (and, apparently, a legal) duty to support.
“You are entitled to this money not because he is successful while you struggle. Such rough justice would also encourage you to sneak into his house, swipe his sofa and sell it on some kind of furniture black market. That would be stealing; this is merely claiming what he owes you. He agreed to contribute to your education and paid the school. That the money will now be redirected to another sort of educational assistance — something he also agreed to cover in the form of child support — is neither here nor there. You need not target this cash so narrowly.
“You should be transparent, perhaps sending your father an accounting that deducts this $2,700 from the back payments he still owes. If he wishes to contest the facts you have presented or this calculation of his debt or my moral reasoning, he’s free to take the matter to court or to a local philosopher.”
“The Ethicist” has just given an unethical answer, using multiple ethical violations to support it.
To be specific:
1. The father may well owe “thousands” of dollars, but all we (and Cohen) know is that the mother and daughter believe or claim that. The father may have a different story, and the law, on his side, and our society provides a forum for resolving such disputes: courts. If he is truly a famous entertainer, a legal decree that he is stiffing his wife and daughter would not be a smart PR move. My guess is that the obligation the daughter refers to is a matter of dispute that has either been resolved in the father’s favor, or that is far less clear than she lets on in her brief description. In either case, Cohen has no business approving the appropriation of the money based on what little he has been told. That is irresponsible, unfair, and reckless. But the father is a rich guy, and in Cohen’s world view, he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt, or the law.
2. This is stunning: “The Ethicist” really argues that whether or not it is ethical to take money you know was intended for another depends on how you spend the money! Actually, it isn’t so surprising, as Cohen has frequently endorsed “Robin Hood ethics.” This is pure rationalization, because Cohen intentionally ignores the fungibility of cash. Spending the illicit money on the lighting bill will still free up cash for “riotous living— madder music, shinier diamonds, winier wine.” Randy cleverly exaggerates here to throw us off the track; taking the money will make their lives easier and more pleasant, one way or another. The misappropriation of the money is unethical regardless of how it is spent, because the money should be spent as its rightful owner decides, not as the person whose name was erroneously placed on the check wants. There is an ethical breach the moment the money is taken. What is done with the money after that unethical act is a separate ethical choice. Think about it: if someone steals your money, does it really matter to you how the thief spends it? Should it? Cohen’s argument is illogical and disingenuous. He is appealing to one of the 0ldest and most corrupting rationalizations for unethical acts: “It’s for a good cause.”
3. Cohen is directing the daughter to unilaterally violate the agreement between the father and his family. I presume that the father’s willingness to pay for tuition is a negotiated resolution of the disputed child support, or at least that he believes it to be. The average tuition for four years of a private college is $104,000; it is about $28,000 for the average public institution. Whatever the tuition is where she’s enrolled, Dad’s contribution is certainly “thousands,” and it is voluntary. Cohen doesn’t even know if the total tuition to be paid by the father will equal, or even exceed, what he allegedly owes in child support. Her taking the money not only breaches her agreement with her father, but quite possibly jeopardizes it.
4. Finally, this is just bad, indeed dumb, advice. Randy says the daughter has a duty to inform her father that she’s taking the check intended for him, perhaps sending him “an accounting that deducts this $2,700 from the back payments he still owes,” and daring the father to take her to court. Really? Two can play at that game: what is stopping the father from sending in the next tuition check for $2,700 less than the bill, and directing the college to contact his daughter for the balance? Worse yet, how does Cohen know that the father won’t write back, “Keep the $2,700, and good luck paying the rest of your tuition. Our agreement is ended, because you breached the terms. I agreed to pay in good faith, and you tried to cheat me. Oh…say ‘hi’ to Mom for me!”
Cohen’s response to the questioner is worse than his typical periodic gaffes. In this case, he has misappropriated the role of the courts, instigated the breach of an agreement, rationalized theft, and endorsed a course of action that has the potential to put the daughter and her mother in a worse position than they are already in, with the father cutting off his tuition checks—all without Cohen having enough facts to make such a risky recommendation. This is more than just bad ethical advice. This is incompetent advice.