Chuck Klosterman: Worst New York Times “Ethicist” Ever

Silhouette of a fraud.

First there was Randy Cohen, the original author of The New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist” column. Randy had some quirks, mostly ideological, that made his supposedly ethical advice unreliable: for example, he advised a tech worker who stumbled upon child porn on an employee’s office computer not to report it, because Cohen believes the legal penalties for child pornography are too severe. Citizens ignoring the law whenever they think the law shouldn’t apply to them is a blind spot for Randy, a rather large one.

Then there was Ariel Kaminer, Cohen’s short-lived replacement. Her advice was dreadful about 20% of the time, as when she said it was acceptable for a law school applicant to draft his own letter of recommendation for a lazy professor who couldn’t be bothered to write a real one to sign.

But the current embodiment of “The Ethicist,” Chuck Klosterman, officially locked up the title of worst Times “Ethicist” yet with his jaw-dropping, ignorant and wildly unethical advice this week to an inquirer who asked whether it was unethical for him to give leftover wine from a party to “the benign ‘drunkards’ who ‘hang out and drink’ at a nearby corner. Klosterman says no! It’s fine! Go ahead! His “reasoning,” if Reasoning will graciously accept my apologies for calling it that, follows. To save time, I will intersperse my commentary throughout, rather than scream, bang my head against the wall, clean up the blood, and then comment. Here’s Chuck:

“The real question is whether it’s morally acceptable to give a person with limited resources a gift that provides a short-term benefit while inflicting a long-term harm.”  Utterly, unforgivably wrong! Giving liquor to an alcoholic, a term that neither Klosterman nor his questioner appear to have ever encountered, causes short-term harm as well as long-term harm. If the alcoholic is trying to get sober, the offer of free alcohol is often just what is needed to set him or her off on a binge. How much damage to himself and others a drunk does while drunk often depends on how much he drinks (duh) and some alcoholics will drink as much as is made available to them. Does Klosterman not see the harm in making twice or three times as much liquor available to someone with little or no control over their urges to drink?

“If the leftover beverage were orange juice, delivering it to a homeless person would be a fine idea; if the beverage were Drano, it would be criminal to do so (this would also indicate you’re partying way too hard).”  Idiot. Dangerous idiot. To an alcoholic, whose metabolism cannot process alcohol properly, wine is poison, literally. It isn’t as fast as Drano, but it is poison nonetheless. It is spectacularly unethical for “The Ethicist” to give advice affecting the health and mortality of an individual without any expertise regarding the health issue involved, or worse, being actively misinformed regarding that issue. Klosterman seemingly has had no alcoholics in his life, and has never watched someone die of cirrhosis.  Lucky him. I have. 

Wine falls somewhere in the middle: it allows these people to temporarily escape from their lives while simultaneously trapping them inside it. I would argue that giving these benign drunks your wine is slightly more positive than negative, assuming you can answer the following three questions in the affirmative…”   “…It allows these people to temporarily escape from their lives”???!!! Klosterman’s ignorance knows no bounds. For an alcoholic, drinking is an ongoing, cumulative, progressive process of wrecking and finally ending a life, not “escaping” from it. And what is a “benign drunk”? Ask his wife and children if he is benign. Ask his employer, if he still has one. Ask the family of the girl he kills as she is crossing the street because he is “benignly” driving drunk after guzzling the wine given to him with Klosterman’s blessing.

“(1) Have you already decided that giving these people free wine is the extent of your investment in their lives? (In other words, is the idea of helping them in a more practical way pretty much off the table?)” That’s right, Chuck—if he can’t help them by getting them treatment, then by all means, he should help them kill themselves and perhaps others as quickly as possible. Did I mention that you are an idiot?

“(2) Are they nonpregnant adults without obvious medical problems?” What???? They are alcoholics, you fool. Look it up. It sure as hell is an obvious medical problem…it’s a deadly disease. It is incurable. It kills countless numbers of Americans every year, and destroys families and businesses.

“(3) Do you strongly believe the drunkards are going to acquire alcohol even if you remain totally uninvolved with the transaction?” Bingo! Eureka! There  it is, the ridiculous unethical rationalization that marks Klosterman as a fraud! So as long as someone else will probably do them harm, or they will harm themselves, then doing it yourself is completely fine, in Chuck’s warped, ignorant, reckless, irresponsible judgment.

Here, for the record, is what’s wrong with that “logic” (and I also apologize to Logic for calling this crap by that name), which is number 14 on the Ethics Alarms Rationalization list:

14. The Futility Illusion:  “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”  It is a famous and time-honored rationalization that sidesteps doing the right thing because the wrong thing is certain to occur anyway. Thus journalists rush to be the first to turn rumors into front page “scoops,” and middle managers go along with corporate shenanigans ordered by their bosses, making the calculation that their refusal will only hurt them without preventing the damage they have been asked to cause. The logic is faulty and self-serving, of course. Sometimes someone else won’t do it. The soldiers asked to fire on their own people when the Iron Curtain governments were crumbling all refused, one after another. Sometimes someone else does it, but the impact of the refusal leads to a good result anyway. When Elliot Richardson was ordered by President Richard Nixon to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, he refused and resigned. Cox ended up being fired anyway, but Richardson’s protest helped turn public opinion against the White House. Even if neither of these are the final result, the individual’s determination to do right is always desirable in itself. The Futility Illusion is just a sad alternative to courage.

Chuck Klosterman, meanwhile, is a sad alternative to an ethicist, and The New York Times should be ashamed of itself.

Now I need a drink.


Pointer: Lou George and Wendy Kenney

Facts and Graphic: New York Times (“The Ethicist”)

7 thoughts on “Chuck Klosterman: Worst New York Times “Ethicist” Ever

  1. OK, I had to look up the article to see if it was a clueless a response as you represented. To my dismay, it was not, it was EVEN WORSE (sorry I doubted you, Jack). In addition to a criminally clueless opinion of alcoholics and a nonjudgemental to a fault attitude (So what if they beat their wives, if that is their culture, who are we to judge?) he doesn’t even seem to know how digestion works!

    “The first thing we need to eliminate is the notion that pouring wine down the drain is any more of a “waste” than pouring it down somebody’s throat. It’s not vital sustenance or medicine; if someone finishes a bottle of wine out of social obligation, his or her body will literally convert it into waste by the following morning”.

    So wine now has no calories? Why does Klosterman think we eat, just to produce waste? Hey, if we all stopped eating, we could reduce waste (landfills and sewage) and those poor farmers wouldn’t have to slave away outside anymore! Or is it the intention that determines wether or not we get any calories out of it? If you just drink it out of social obligation, does your body just shut down and refuse to metabolize the wine the way a rape victim’s body shuts down (maybe Klosterman and Akin can start a foundation to explore this fascinating phenomenon)?

    How does the NYT maintain a reputation for trustworthiness and sophistication when they let such people write columns for them?

    • As to your last, I don’t know, and can’t imagine. How did the paper vet this guy? Surely this isn’t some weird Achilles heel in an otherwise sterling intellect—there must have been other indications that he is not only totally unqualified to be “The Ethicist,” but a certifiable dolt besides. When someone of general sense and competence has an area where they are completely, inexplicably inept (don’t ever, ever, ask me for directions, or expect me to follow a map), he or she not only knows it, but knows it painfully, and avoids that area in every way possible. I do not hire myself out as an Amazon jungle guide, lest we all perish.

  2. I hardly ever consult the NYT on issues of ethics. I believe your commentary confirms an appropriate gut instinct. Having had close encounters with alcoholics I know your observations are spot on.

  3. As one of those “benign drunkards” (31 years sober in AA), I searched for the best way to describe Klosterman. Pitiful ignoramus? Too mild. Criminally stupid asshole? Too kind. In any case I hope the NYT will fire this dangerous so-and-so forthwith.

  4. This is absurd. Nobody forces another person to drink. Giving alcohol to an alcoholic is not a crime. I’m a recovering alcoholic and I often get offered drinks. I don’t get offended and I don’t accuse my host of being unethical. I say no thank you and the offerer moves on. I’ve never had the experience of someone pouring alcohol down my throat after I refused a drink.

    Giving an alcoholic pan handler a drink is the same as giving him money. It all ends up in the same place. Would you call someone handing a homeless person a dollar unethical? Also, the gentleman posing the question to Mr. Klosterman is likely affluent, so he probably has good stuff. The homeless person receiving the gift would be thrilled to drink a high end alcoholic beverage for change. Why not give a little happiness to an otherwise miserable existence?

    Jack Marshall, it seems that no ethicist the NYT hires will please you. Perhaps you should take over the job.

    • That’s a laughable, rationalized argument. Taking a gambling addict to a casino? Responsible! He can walk out! Handing a gun to a furious maniac? Hey, he doesn’t have to shoot it! Giving enough heroin to kill to a junkie? Hey, it’s no different than money! It’s his funeral if it kills him!

      I’ll take Chuck, Ariel or Randy over YOU, in any event.

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