NOOOOOO! “The Ethicist” Just Endorsed The Golden Rationalization As Justification For Deception.

It isn’t quite head-exploding, because the New York Times “The Ethicist” column has seen its columnist—there have been five of them, I think—promote unethical conduct all too frequently over the years. But the current ethics advice maven, Kwame Anthony Appiah, is a real ethicist, unlike the others, and I expect better of him. Because of his credentials and assumed authority, his unethical advice this week is particularly damaging. And to clarify my statement I quote one of many memorable exchanges during the testimony of Miss Mona Lisa Vitto (Marissa Tomei) in the climax of “My Cousin Vinny”:

D.A. Jim Trotter (Lane Smith): Objection, Your Honor! Can we clarify to the court whether the witness is stating opinion or fact?

Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) : [to Lisa] This is your opinion?

Mona Lisa Vito: It’s a fact.

The inquirer asked whether it was unethical for him to list a fake publisher on the title page of his self-published book that he created on Amazon, apparently a common practice that Amazon permits. He also asked whether it would be unethical to tell a bookstore owner who agreed to sell the book on consignment that the book was published by his made-up book company.

“The Ethicst” answers the first query this way:

Vast numbers of self-published books appear each year, often ornamented with the names of fanciful presses. The practice isn’t really troubling. Had you chosen a vanity publisher instead, they would have decorated your book with a grand name that, while referring to an actual commercial enterprise, would have been no more or less misleading. We can easily imagine invented names that would be deliberately deceptive: Random Home, Farrah Strauss. But you’re not appropriating the cachet of an existing publishing house.

That’s the most insidious rationalization of them all, Numero Uno, The Golden Rationalization, the excuse that children begin using almost as soon as they can talk: “Everybody does it!” Why isn’t the practice “troubling”? It’s a lie. It is a lie designed to make a purchaser believe that the book passed the standards of a a professional publisher and not merely the unknown standards, if any, of the author. Appiah is comforted by the fact that vanity publishers also permit this deception: so what? It is deception, intentional deception, and unequivocally wrong whether its Amazon or a vanity house that permits it. How about a fake biography of the author? Fake degrees? Fake awards? Maybe fake endorsements by people who haven’t read the book? “Everybody” uses those devices too.

The last part of his answer makes it worse by introducing, to go with the most common rationalization on the list, the most outrageous: # 22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse, or “There are worse things.” Yes, Appiah really says that the lie is okay because the deception isn’t as bad as deliberately using a name that evokes a famous publishing house, because that’s “not appropriating the cachet of an existing publishing house.” No, it’s just appropriating the cashet of real publishing houses generally, and books that are good enough that the publishers pay the authors to publish it, not the other way around.

Having disgraced himself with his first answer, “The Ethicist” botches the response to the inquirer’s second question as well, beginning his analysis with,

As for your exchange with the bookstore owner: Had he typed your putative publisher into a search engine (as I’ve just done), he would have immediately seen that it wasn’t a real entity.

Unethical conduct is only unethical if you are likely to get caught, you see.

Thus spake “The Ethicist.”


6 thoughts on “NOOOOOO! “The Ethicist” Just Endorsed The Golden Rationalization As Justification For Deception.

  1. Does this rise to the level of “Signature Significance”? I would say that it does. Specifically, the latter part that suggests that it is incumbent upon the buyer to evaluate the veracity of the claimant and if they don’t then any unethical act is ok.

  2. It really isn’t surprising, though. It is the culmination of situational ethics and moral relativity. Appiah concludes that the publisher should do the homework. While I agree that the new publisher should do its due diligence it should be able to rely, at least at the outset, in the author’s statements.


  3. When the guy who very ably helped me self-publish my collection of not so short stories, as we got to the end, he asked me what I wanted inserted as the “publisher.” I think he said, “It’s not required, and you can make up your own entity name.” It was clear we were talking about the book being SELF-published. Harkening back to my high school basketball days (’60s when “pressing” was a thing delivered from on high by John Wooden, I believe) I settled on “Full Court Press.” I had no idea you could just insert “Harpers,” “Random House” or “Harcourt Brace and Jovonovich.” Amazing.

  4. … Yes, Appiah really says that the lie is okay because the deception isn’t as bad as deliberately using a name that evokes a famous publishing house, because that’s “not appropriating the cachet of an existing publishing house.”…

    I dont think he’s saying that, but rather that there isn’t also a further and distinct wrong thing, that could arise from appropriating somebody else’s good name. He’s not qualifying the original deception in the light of that element being missing, he’s pointing out that that further aspect does not obtain.

  5. At what point does it make sense to have that. I’m friends with a couple of self-publishing authors and they spend a lot of time coordinating with editors, cover artists, layout contractors, running ad campaigns, etc. At the end of the day they have done most everything a publisher would do. They are essentially a one-man publishing company. Is it ok to use that of a brand in their first book? How about when they have published a half dozen? I understand this is the reason Amazon allows for that field, or at least a valid reason for it.

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