Fick Sighting In Advice Column Land


Leroy Fick died in June, but not before gaining a small measure of ethics immortality by giving his name to an Ethics Alarms term of art. In 2011, Leroy happily admitted that he had continued to collect public assistance after winning $2 million dollars in the Michigan lottery because a loophole in the law allowed him to do so. Thus his name was originally attached to those guilty of especially despicable, anti-social conduct. Eventually, the definition was refined to mean “unethical people who openly and blatantly violates social norms of responsibility, honesty or fairness without shame or remorse.”

That’s Leroy in the photo above. Ficks lack ethics alarms, so it will not surprise you to learn that many of them end up in jail. Leroy did.

Now comes Bennett Madison, writing on the repeatedly ethically inert site Gawker, boasting about deceiving advice columnists and their trusting reader in an article titled, “Help! I Couldn’t Stop Writing Fake Dear Prudence Letters That Got Published.” Fick.

He writes,

“Writing fake letters to advice columns could not be considered a good career move; after all, it was unpaid and I wouldn’t even get a byline out of it. On the other hand, it was easy and creatively fulfilling.”

On yet another hand, the ethical one, it was lying, and deceiving untold numbers of people because Madison thought, and thinks, it was funny.

His deceived advice columnist of choice was “Prudence,” an imaginary woman whom Slate has assigned several writers, including a man, to impersonate while providing advice on provocative, often sexually-charged dilemmas. Prudence frequently swallowed Madison’s nonsense whole, or used his fake dilemmas offered under fake names knowing they were probably fake but knowing also that they would spice up the “Dear Prudence” column. Madison show no compunction or regret for his serial deceptions, except that he could have made some letters better. He writes,

“After a few false starts, I learned that a good letter is defined by two opposing values: it must be plausible, but it must also be ridiculous. This is a delicate equilibrium to manage, and one that I botched frequently. Help! My Friend Thinks I Am Stealing Vaccines From African-American Grandmothers To Attend Sex Resorts ran, but was a disappointment; it needed another flourish of insanity to justify its existence.”

No, you fick, nothing justifies presenting lies as truth to gull the gullible. Oh, there are lots of rationalizations one can employ—36B. The Patsy’s Rebuke, or “It’s not my fault that you’re stupid!” comes immediately to mind—but these are all dodges to avoid accepting the unethical reality.

This is not to say that a hypothetical situation cannot generate a useful discussion. I have encountered this several times on Ethics Alarms, when a post has turned out to be based on a hoax or a news report later discredited. However, it is unethical to present a hypothetical as fact. Bennett Madison doesn’t understand that, apparently, and thus happily celebrates his own cleverness in breaching every ethical system there is. Does he like being lied to? No? There goes the Golden Rule! Does he feel abused when others use him without his consent to pursue their own agendas? He does? That’s because it’s a violation of Kantian Ethics and the categorical imperative. Does the ends justify the means here? Of course not: he’s deceiving thousands of people for no greater purpose than his own amusement and to feel superior. That flunks all utilitarianism standards.

Writing fake letters to fool advice columnists isn’t a crime, nor a particularly harmful ethics breach. It is still signature significance for someone with malfunctioning ethics alarms, because an ethical, trustworthy person wouldn’t do this even once, and if he or she did in a moment of weakness, they certainly wouldn’t boast about it.


10 thoughts on “Fick Sighting In Advice Column Land

  1. I have two thoughts on this one. First, I would consider Mr. Madison guilty of Fickism in the 2nd degree, as his benefit from the deception was not financial nor was anyone hurt in a tangible way; Fickism in the 1st degree would require at least one or the other. Other than his moment of glee at successfully fooling the advice columnist and perhaps other readers, he gains nothing, nor did anyone suffer from his deception, except perhaps for a minor dent to their pride at allowing themselves to be misled (if indeed they were).
    Which brings me to the second point: I’d guess that a substantial number of readers already suspected that the letters were made up. No one gets upset at learning that Moby Dick wasn’t really written by some guy named Ishmael. I do think it changes things when the source is already deemed suspect. I was reminded today of the defamation lawsuit against Fox and Tucker Carlson that was dismissed because “no reasonable viewer” would believe in his veracity. But I’d suggest that we ought raise the eyebrow of skepticism even more at these “advice-seeking letters.”
    Years ago, I volunteered for an organization dedicated to providing “the written word” to the blind and visually impaired in the area. I had a weekly gig reading from the Kansas City Star. My particular assignment varied from semester to semester, but at one time or another I did front page, nation and world (the entire news section except the front page), columns and editorials, and sports. I even did the classified ads a couple of times when the regular reader was ill or out of town.
    But I also had a monthly gig on the “Adult Magazine Hour,” reading from Penthouse. (Let it not be said that everyone was interested only in the pictures!) Unlike the newspaper shows, which were accessed via telephone whenever the listener called in (there were enough of us that the entire paper was available by 9:00 a.m. every day), the AMH was broadcast on closed-circuit radio at a particular time. Apparently there was another show immediately following, or something. Anyway, our tapes had to be between 56 and 58 minutes.
    That meant that I almost always closed with letters, which were shorter and therefore easier to fit into the time-frame. They no doubt bore considerable resemblance to those written by Mr. Madison. I strongly suspected that few if any were actual descriptions of real-life occurrences, and I’m pretty sure that my listeners had their doubts, too. I remember reading a little later that some fairly significant writer got his start crafting such “letters”… I can’t remember who, and I can’t be bothered to look it up.
    The point is that the reader of Madison’s (ahem) literary efforts probably had such suspicions, as well. If so, then we’re dealing with a variation on aesthetic distance. Plato would still disapprove, but most everyone from Aristotle onwards would just shrug.

  2. I always thought that these advice columnists wrote a good chunk of their own letters to spice up the typical disputes over inheritances, too strict/too permissive parenting, annoying neighbors, and the perennial shoes in the house question. How many permutations on work it out/don’t get involved/ignore it unless the law is getting broken/you don’t get to undress your guests can you write?

  3. Is there a jester’s privilege here?

    I am reminded of a book by Don Novello (better known as Father Guido Sarducci): The Lazlo Letters. In it, he wrote letters to various public figures and companies with outrageous claims or complaints and published the responses he received. Most people, particularly businesses, responded politely.

    I don’t know if he secured permission to reprint the responses. So, that could be problematic; they were not in on the joke.


      • Father Guido Sarducci. One of the great characters of American literature. And surely one of the great character names.

        “I’va justa been promoteda to monsignor. I getta de nice pinka stripe ona my collar anda downa my pantsa leg. It looks real sharpa. Plus, now, I getta the best table atta alla da restaurantsa.”

  4. I’ve seen a couple times where an advice communist ends the column with a note that many readers had pointed out a previous column had clearly been inspired by some scenario from one or another sitcom.

    I’m rather divided. The purpose of an advice column isn’t really subverted since it is 99% entertainment of the audience and 1% guidance for any reader who might find themselves in whatever implausible scenario is depicted.

    That being said the fick’s psychological thrill he gets from deceiving thousands isn’t something to be celebrated.

    Even his title is a lie. He doesn’t need help stopping the behavior. His unethical conduct lost it’s appeal when he realized a conservative commentator had also commented on the scenario in one of his lies. This is Escher’s world in mental gymnastics… It’s thrilling to slip lies past people like you, but damn… It’s nothing but evil if the lie is believed by and repeated among a conservative audience! Can’t have that!

  5. Speaking of gullible, currently the media is running a seemingly tragic story about a man who allegedly couldn’t get a hospital ICU bed during a “cardiac emergency.”

    From NPR:

    “NPR was unable to reach the DeMonia family. A spokesperson for Cullman Regional Medical Center, who declined to give specifics of Ray DeMonia’s case, citing privacy concerns, confirmed to NPR that he was transferred from the hospital but said the reason was that he required “a higher level of specialized care not available” there.”

    The story is from the family, but the hospital’s explanation doesn’t seem to mesh. Why was the care not available? Was it a bed issue? Did he need some sort of specialized surgery because he had a particular condition? If the media is going to report this story, I want the facts vetted. Even though the story sounds tragic, journalists can’t just assume things like this and report them without doing some investigative work. I know the story fits a narrative though, so maybe they don’t care.

    The family may be right, but something about the story is off to me. I haven’t been able to pinpoint it necessarily, but the hospital’s statement does make me wonder. All the “facts” here are from the obituary. I don’t like being so skeptical of a person, but many people have shown themselves to exaggerate COVID issues for the sake of what they perceive to be the greater good.

    Maybe reading an article about a person submitting false stories to a questionable advice columnist biased me a little.

  6. Okay, hardly on point, but…

    A college classmate wrote a really well done short story which was probably better than anything I’ve ever done. The story follows a frantic, nearly manic guy traveling erratically across the United States, Herzog like, in all forms of transportation, writing and posting letters to an Ann Landers-type newspaper advice columnist. Remember, this was 1972 so steps had to be taken to cover his tracks. I think the protagonist even acquired and disposed of any number of different typewriters and stationary as he moved. The reader has no idea what he’s up to but the texts of the letters are included in the story and they are uniformly both plausible and hilarious. The protagonist’s letters are almost all published, as he determines by buying her paper every day. Not content for some unknown reason, he keeps moving and posting more letters while getting more frantic. Finally, one morning, he opens up the columnist’s paper and finds instead of giving advise, she’s issued a retirement letter to her faithful readers in which she states she’d always told herself she’d retire on the day she began to feel as if all the letters she received “had been written by a single person.” The protagonist celebrates and the story ends.

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