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: Continue reading

Diversity Ethics: “The Ethicist” vs. The Diversity Bullies

Here you are, Ariel—the perfect, diverse, five-person panel!

Ariel Kaminer, the New York Times’ author of “The Ethicist” column, is being pummeled by criticism by people other than me, for a change. Her offense? Let one of the critics, Kathleen Geier of the Washington Monthly, speak for herself:

“Ethicist columnist Ariel Kaminer has announced a contest inviting omnivores to write essays about why it is ethical to eat meat. The problem? The panel of luminaries she’s selected to judge the contest are ethicists Peter Singer and Andrew Light, food writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, and novelist Jonathan Safer Foer. All, as you may notice, white dudes…for heaven’s sake, by now it should be second nature for every single person who’s in the position of hiring someone, or putting together a panel or committee, to make an effort to include women and people of color whenever possible. That’s just basic human decency.”

Then we have bioethicist Francis Keisling, who weighed in with an indignant protest to the Times ombudsman, writing in part,

“…Finally, what would we expect from the Times and its columnists and editors when a mistake is pointed out in plenty of time for it to be corrected? Does having a column in the Times mean never having to say you are sorry? Ms Kaminer knew no women of comparable stature to the men she chose. She has been clearly shown she was wrong and names provided. All she needed to do was to say woops, let me add three of four women, people of color etc. It would also seem something editors should step in and make happen.”

Welcome, Ariel, to the world of the diversity bullies! Continue reading

The Ethics Question That Is Driving Me Crazy

I don’t like to poach advice columnist questions unless the columnist makes a mess of the answer. This is an exception, however. It is an ethics question like no other I have ever encountered, the ethics equivalent of Monty Python’s “killer joke.” It is driving me crazy.

The question came to Ariel Kaminer, the writer of the New York Times ethics advice column, “The Ethicist.” Kaminer is typically all over the map, and often makes simple ethics problems more complicated than they are, when she isn’t getting them wrong entirely. “The Ethicist” didn’t get this question wrong entirely, but she did write a long explanation that missed what was really remarkable about the question. The only answer that was absolutely required would have been, “WHAT???

Here’s the jaw-dropping question, from a student:

“My school charged a dollar for students to bet, or “predict,” which team would win the Super Bowl. It was $1 for one team, and if you won, you would get a candy bar. If you bet $3, you could choose both teams and guarantee your candy bar. Is this legal or even morally right?”


The school (Where is this school?) is not only promoting gambling, it is promoting crooked gambling, or, if you prefer, attempting outright theft. It is encouraging students to spend a dollar on a 50% chance to win something that costs about a dollar! In addition to being a scam, the school is either… Continue reading

Please Kill My Dog

“The Ethicist,” whom I have not harassed for a while, a.k.a Ariel Kaminer, handles this week an odd query from a woman who has been asked by an elderly friend to pledge to euthanize her dog after she dies. Kaminer, as she often does, makes the issue more complicated than it is and muddles things by implying some kind of inconsistency on the part of pet owners who find the request unethical but who will dine on cooked animal flesh this evening. She even had to consult Peter Singer, the controversial Princeton ethicist, about whether an animal has a “right to life.”

Every living thing has a right to life, and also a right to live, which is why eating other animals as humans have evolved to do is not incontrovertibly  unethical. Killing an animal just because you can, or because it makes you happy, or because you have convinced yourself that it wants to die when in fact it doesn’t, however, is incontrovertibly unethical. Continue reading

Unemployment Check Ethics: “The Ethicist” Gets It Right

I regularly check the competition, and “The Ethicist,” Ariel Kaminer, has been solid lately. This past week, she avoided falling into a trap that I am certain her predecessor, Randy Cohen, would have charged into.

The questioner asked Kaminer whether it was unethical “for a relatively wealthy person” to receive unemployment checks, even if he or she met  the requirements. Moreover, “Is the answer different in times like the present, when government resources are extremely strained?” Continue reading

The Ethicist, the Farkel Family, and the Perils of “Maybe”

This photo is completely relevant to this post, but if you are under 50, you probably haven't a clue why. Pity. See below for an explanation.*

One of the reasons I started the Ethics Scoreboard, and continued with Ethics Alarms, was my frustration with the ethics profession’s reluctance to render useful opinions on complex ethical problems…unless, of course, the ethicist was being paid for them. Instead, ethicists are prone to issue obtuse and jargon-filled discussions allowing for every possible eventuality and interpretation, usually concluding with vague, equivocal pablum that allows the ethicist to avoid criticism and accountability. The result of this craven preference for “maybe” as the answer to every dilemma is that ethics are rarely included in public discourse or media coverage, as it solidifies its reputation for being technical, ambiguous, and pointless.

A perfect example of the reticence to make a clear choice occurs in this week’s installment of “The Ethicist,” the New York Times Magazine’s ethics column. An understandably anonymous inquirer writes that he unknowingly fathered a child with a married woman in his neighborhood, who raised the child as the offspring of her and her husband.  The mother asked the biological dad to have no contact with the girl, and he has complied. Now he asks, “Does she have a right to know her true parentage upon reaching adulthood? Sooner? Over the objection of the mother? Only when the husband dies? Who can make these decisions and when?” Continue reading

Loop-Hole Ethics and The New York Times

The NYT’s website paywall plan floats in a sea of holes.

Ariel Kaminer, author of “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times Magazine, made an interesting assertion in her answer to a reader who asked about whether he could exploit several loop-holes in the Times’ new paywall plan for its website.

Noting that he was a struggling freelance journalist who visits the Times website often, he asked if it was unethical for him to use his parents’ free access to the content, since they are subscribers.  Then he Mused about other scenarios. “If I buy online access, can I share the password with my live-in girlfriend, even if I move to New York for the summer? What about our other housemates?” Continue reading

The Times’ New Ethicist Commits Malpractice

The new Times "Ethicst" shows her dark side.

Randy Cohen’s replacement as “The Ethicist” in the New York Times Magazine, Ariel Kaminer, had a flawless maiden flight last week, but crashes and burns on her first question this week. As was too often true of Cohen, she messes up in the area of honesty and legal ethics.

The inquirer, an applicant for law school, had asked a former professor to write a recommendation.  The professor, an apparent creep, said she was too busy—Honestly: writing recommendations for students applying to graduate students is part of her job, and how long does it take?—but if that if the student would write it, she would gladly “edit as needed” and submit it under her own name. Ariel’s inquirer felt uncomfortable writing her own letter of recommendation, but did not “wish to jeopardize my chances of being accepted into my top-choice school by being overly conscientious.” Ariel’s question to answer: is it ethical to draft the letter? Continue reading

“The Ethicist” is Dead; Long Live “The Ethicist”!

Boy, I got my post being nice to Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” of the New York Times Magazine,  up just under the wire. Monday, new Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren fired him, and announced that the NEW “Ethicist”—the identity is a little like “the dread pirate Roberts”—will be Ariel Kaminer, most recently the Times City Critic.

She, like Cohen when he was hired, has no professional or scholarly ethics background. If I was in a cynical mood, I might suggest that the New York Times doesn’t take ethics seriously enough.

I didn’t always agree with Cohen, who sometimes let his politics get in the way of his ethics advice, but I never missed his column, and often got a kick out of his wit. It is said that he’s trying to land an ethics program on NPR, another media organization that needs all the ethics it can get.

Good luck, Randy.