1. The NY Times Has A New Author Of “The Ethicist” And 2., Boy, Did He Ever Botch The Dilemma Of The Closeted College Student

"NEXT!!!"

“NEXT!!!”

The New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist,” long authored competently by non-ethicist Randy Cohen, had lost me due to the biased and often unethical answers to his reader’s queries by his most recent successor, Chuck Klosterman. So repellent was Klosterman’s version of the column that I didn’t even notice when the Times sacked Klosterman late last year after one bizarre response too many.

[The final straw:  An inquirer  went to a Starbuck’s  wanting to buy a regular over-priced cup of coffee, but when the woman in front of the customer  ordered a pumpkin-spice latte  and received a coupon for a free drink because the shop was out of it, “NAME WITHHELD” ordered a pumpkin- spice latte to get the free coupon. Was this ethical, he/she/it asked?” Klosterman’s answer: “No. You’re a liar and a low-rent con artist. And you live in a community where pumpkin-flavored beverages are way too popular.”  Now, “No” is correct, but it’s a great question, and deserving of a serious analysis rather than whatever that was from the ex-Ethicist. The coupon was a nice gesture to someone who had come to the Starbuck’s wanting a specific beverage and was disappointed—a store should not be tantalizing customers with products they don’t have to sell, essentially setting up a bait and switch. The coupon was an ethical “We’re sorry,” but also made the employee vulnerable to anyone who decided to misrepresent his real intent in order to get a free drink later. Yes, taking advantage of this opportunity to the detriment of the store is unethical, because the inquirer took an appropriate gesture clearly intended for a specific situation and exploited it. It was not illegal, however, and was  not a con. I would compare it to the scenario where a computer glitch has resulted in an airline selling tickets online for absurdly small amounts, and travelers rush to take advantage, rationalizing that mistake or not, the opportunity is there and they can legally grab it.]

Now the Times has a new author of “The Ethicist,” after experimenting with a new format in which a podcast including him and some other commentators hashed over ethics hypotheticals and then the podcast was transcribed and published in the Sunday Times magazine. He is Kwame Anthony Appiah, who teaches philosophy at N.Y.U.  This week Appiah’s  first solo, so I would normally say that it’s too early for any fair assessment, but boy, did he ever botch the September 2 podcast. He botched it so badly that I can’t see myself paying much attention to anything else he writes. It was an ethics disaster.

A college student asked if he could ethically lie to his anti-gay father about his sexual orientation so Dad would keep paying the student’s tuition. The father is suspicious based on some clues during his son’s high school days, and has made it very clear to his son that if he is gay, he would not only withdraw all financial support but also reject him entirely. “Questions about my sexuality are inevitable whenever I come home,” the inquirer wrote. “My father has demanded I produce archives of all emails and text messages for him to review, although I have successfully refused these requests on the grounds that he has no claim to my adult communications.”

He asks, Is it ethical for me to continue accepting financial support for my education and my career that will come from it? Could I continue to lie to accept the support and one day disclose my sexuality and pay him back to absolve myself of any ethical wrongdoing?”

The correct answer is “Of course not,” and it amazes me that anyone would think otherwise. The second part of the question is an especially easy ethics lay-up: the steal now, pay back later scheme, also known as “the involuntary loan,” or “I meant to pay it back!”, is pure rationalization, and its existence proves that the writer knows damn well that what he’s doing is wrong, and just wants someone to tell him that it’s OK.

Astoundingly, Appiah and his podcast buddies (Amy Bloom, a novelist and psychotherapist, and  Kenji Yoshino, an  N.Y.U. law professor) tell the inquirer that it is OK, because, it is clear, they are advocates for gay rights and don’t appreciate anti-gay bigots. Thus they amass nothing but rationalizations  and outright unethical arguments to justify the student’s ongoing deception. As a philosopher who knows better, Appiah should have been correcting his colleagues. Instead, he enables them, because gay advocacy trumps honesty and ethics. Continue reading

A Proposed Guide To Spoiler Ethics

"It SINKS??? You spoiled the ending!!!"

“It SINKS??? You spoiled the ending!!!”

I was just admonished on Facebook by a friend (a real friend, not just the Facebook variety), for referencing the end of the last episode of Season One of “Orange is the New Black.”  He hadn’t finished viewing the season yet, and this was a breach of spoiler ethics. Or was it?

Ever since I encountered for real someone who was angry with me for “spoiling” the end of “Thirteen Days,” ( “Yes, World War III started and everybody died”), I have been dubious about spoiler etiquette. The advent of DVDs and Netflix has made this all the more annoying. If I’m in a group of five, and one individual hasn’t kept up with “House of Cards,” are the rest of us obligated to censor our discussion? As a devotee and fanatic devourer of popular culture, I admit that my first instinct is to say, “Keep up, get literate, or pay the price.” If I actually live by that rule, however, I will be a walking, talking, writing, spoiler machine.

Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist” in the world of the New York Times, recently pronounced himself an anti-spoiler absolutist:

“I’m an anti-spoiler fascist. I don’t believe that any conversation, review or sardonic tweet about a given TV show is more valuable than protecting an individual’s opportunity to experience the episode itself (and to watch it within the context for which it was designed). I’ve never heard a pro-spoiler argument that wasn’t fundamentally absurd.”

Even Klosterman, however, excepted sporting events (the question posed involved mentioning World Cup scores to a friend who was annoyed that the game had been “spoiled” for him) from his fascism, writing, reasonably:

“I must concede that live, unrehearsed events are not subject to “spoiler” embargoes A live event is a form of breaking news. It’s not just entertainment; it’s the first imprint of living history. …Because this guy is your buddy, you might want to avoid discussing the games’ outcomes out of common courtesy — but not out of any moral obligation. It’s his own responsibility to keep himself in the dark about current events.”

For once I agree with Chuck. But what are reasonable ethics rules for dealing with the other kind of spoiler, involving literature and entertainment?

Luckily, this is not new territory, though it is evolving territory. The underlying ethical principles include fairness, trust, consideration, compassion, and empathy, which means that the Golden Rule is also involved.

Back in 2010, an erudite blogger calling himself The Reading Ape proposed a draft “Guide to Responsible Spoiling.” That blog is defunct; the promised successor is not around, and so far, I haven’t been able to discover who the Ape is. Whoever he is (Oh Aaaaape! Come back, Ape!) , he did a very good job, though some tweeks might  improve his work, especially in light of the emergence of Netflix.  (I have edited it slightly, not substantively…I hope he doesn’t mind, or if he does, that he’s not a big ape.) His approach is to frame the problem as an ethical conflict, in which two competing ethics principles must be balanced. I think that’s right.

Here is his “draft”—what do you think?

“A Brief Guide to Responsible Spoiling”

by The Reading Ape (2010)

The objective is to balance two ethical principles:

I. The Right to Surprise: The inherent right of any viewer or reader to experience the pleasure of not knowing what’s
going to happen next.

II. The Right to Debate: The inherent right of any viewer or reader to engage in public discourse about the content of
a given work of narrative art.

Part 1: When Spoiling is Fair Game

In the following circumstances, one can discuss crucial plot details and reveal endings with a clear conscience. Continue reading

The Fifth Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Worst of Ethics 2013 (Part Two of Three)

Snowden

The Ethics Alarms review of a truly disheartening year in ethics continues with fallen heroes, ficks, fools and follies with Part Two of the 2013 Worst of Ethics awards….and there’s one last section to come. Be afraid..be very afraid:

Fallen Hero of the Year

Edward Snowden, whose claim to civil disobedience was marred by his unwillingness to accept the consequences of his actions, whose pose as a whistle-blower was ruined by the disclosure that he took his job with the intention of exposing national secrets, and whose status as a freedom-defending patriot lies in ruins as he seeks harbor with not only America’s enemy, but a human rights-crushing enemy at that. The NSA’s over-reach and mismanagement is a scandal, but Snowden proved that he is no hero.

Unmitigated Gall of  The Year

Minnesota divorce lawyer Thomas P. Lowes not only violated the bar’s ethics rules by having sex with his female  client…he also billed her his hourly fee for the time they spent having sex , a breach of the legal profession’s rule against “unreasonable fees.” Yes, he was suspended. But for not long enough…

Jumbo Of The Year

(Awarded To The Most Futile And Obvious Lie)

Jumbo film

“Now, if you had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.”

—–President Obama

2013 Conflicts of Interest of the Year Continue reading

The Fifth Annual Ethics Alarms Awards: The Best of Ethics 2013

Ethics Story 2013

I decided to start with the Best in Ethics this year, in contrast to other years, on the theory that it would get things off to a positive start in 2014. What it did, instead, was make me realize how negative Ethics Alarms was in 2013. Either there wasn’t much positive going on in ethics, or I wasn’t seeing it. My thanks to those of you who send me nominations for Ethics Heroes (and other stories); even when I don’t write about them, they are valuable. Please keep them coming. In the meantime, I pledge to try to keep the jaundice out of my eye in 2014. Things just can’t be as dire as they seemed last year.

Could they?

Here are the 2013 Ethics Alarms Awards for the Best in Ethics:

Most Important Ethical Act of the Year:

The U.S. Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, paving the way for the universal legalization of gay marriage. Yes, it was a legal decision, but it was also based, as all such culturally important decisions are, on a societal recognition that what was once thought to be wrong and immoral was, in fact, not. This is ethics, an ongoing process of enlightenment and wisdom about what is right and wrong, and the U.S. Supreme Court did its part. Continue reading

More Evidence That Word Banning Is Unethical

WHAT did you say?

WHAT did you say?

There is more to discuss, a lot more, regarding what I will now call “The Klosterman Apology,” because it sounds like  a Robert Ludlum novel. For now, however, since it is fresh in my jet-lagged mind, I’d like to focus on the inevitable result of declaring certain words and phrases so objectionable, hurtful, uncivil or politically incorrect that extraordinary means are employed to eliminate them. In the case of The Klosterman Apology, the words were “retard” and “retard,” and a Mom with a blog threatened “The Ethicist” from the New York Times magazine with an onslaught of political correctness bullies if he didn’t immediately express his abject contrition for having used these words in a harsh way a decade ago, in another job that didn’t directly involve ethics. Chuck capitulated, gracefully and well. As I will discuss in another post, I don’t think he had much choice. Still, word-banning is an ugly, and ultimately unethical business. Continue reading

Now THAT’S An Apology: Chuck Klosterman (“The Ethicist”) Shows The Way

Chuck Klosterman, "The Ethicist," stands tall.

Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist,” stands tall.

In the past I have been very critical of  The New York Times’ current writer of  its “The Ethicist” column,  but there is no denying that Chuck Klosterman knows how to make an apology. Indeed, responding to a sensitive situation, he may have offered the most exemplary apology I have ever heard or read.

“A Typical Son” is a perceptive and moving blog that documents the life experiences of a young boy with Down Syndrome and his parents. His mother occasionally  posted an open letter to Mr. Klosterman on the blog, citing his multiple uses of the words “retard” and “retarded” in various published works (Chuck was a film and TV reviewer prior to “The Ethicist” gig) over the past decade. She wrote in part…

“…Today people with cognitive disabilities and their allies are asking members of society to refrain from using the word “retarded” (along with all mutations of the word)… My question to you: Is it ethical to contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable? I am particularly interested because you, Chuck Klosterman, are The Ethicist for the New York Times” and the author of the following [examples of denigrating or mocking references to the mentally handicapped]…. Mr. Klosterman, you appear to be an unrepentant hater of people with cognitive disabilities. You are not using the word in an “I don’t mean it like that way…” sort of ignorance which I think would be much easier to redress. You are using the word in a “Those people are exactly who I am talking about” way.

Please enlighten me: What are the ethics of using the R-word? I am the mother of a seven-year-old son who has Down syndrome.  I believe your response to my question could make all the difference in the world.”

Here is Klosterman’s remarkable response: Continue reading

ARRRGH! Outrageous Ethics Malpractice By “The Ethicist”!!!!

Well, you did it again, Chuck..you made my head explode. But now I have a place to keep my keys...

Well, you did it again, Chuck..you made my head explode. But now I have a place to keep my keys…

It’s time for Chuck Klosterman, the New York Times’ designated amateur who now handles “The Ethicist” advice column, to hang it up, and let some randomly chosen unemployed New Yorker take a shot at the job. Since assuming his post, Chuck has had good moments and bad, but this botch is embarrassing, and signature significance—no one who isn’t a bona fide Ethics Dunce could make such a terrible call.

Get this: Klosterman was asked whether surreptitiously taking cuttings from plants owned by a shopping center was unethical:

“…While walking through our local shopping center, we noticed a particular plant that we both liked and decided to get it for our patio….My wife thought she could grow it from cuttings, so we went back and took about three or four cuttings from one of the many plants that were scattered around the shopping center. The plant was not hurt or damaged in any manner or form, but my gut instinct told me that this was wrong. Was it?”

Does this question really need asking? Apparently, because the fraud masquerading as an ethicist at the Times thinks it’s a “thorny” question (Chuck likes puns…maybe the column should be called “The Punster”) about an “unethical act that has a positive impact.” ( Helpful hint to Chuck: the issue is stealing.Klosterman then embarked on a rationalization orgy: Continue reading

“The Ethicist” Gets Lost: Bad Advice, Worse Defense, In The Case Of The Self-Plagiarizing Student

Oh, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck...

Oh, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck…

Chuck Klosterman,The New York Times’ third “Ethicist,” ruffled ethics feathers last week when he decreed that submitting the same paper to multiple college courses was ethical. (You can read his advice to a guilty-feeling student here.) Essentially, his argument in the column came down to three rationalizations, The Compliance Dodge (No rules were broken!), the Trivial Trap (It’s no big deal, and nobody was hurt ) and my least favorite of all, The Comparative Virtue Excuse ( “You’re not betraying the public’s trust,” Klosterman says—in other words, “At least you didn’t kill someone.”),with nods to several more. On the first, which is a close relative of Marion Barry’s Excuse, so you know what I think of it, Klosterman essentially argues that following formal rules constitutes sufficient ethics, which is the hallmark of the unethical. On the second, he himself cheats: he says no one was harmed, yet he ignores the fact that the student intentionally kept the fact that he used one paper for two assignments from the professors involved. Why was that? The student didn’t tell the professors because he knew they wouldn’t approve. Thus the student withheld information that was material, that would have resulted in negative consequences, and that the professors making the assignment had a right to know. That’s a failure of candor and a breach of the duty of honesty in communications. That’s unethical. Continue reading

“The Ethicist” and the Doctor

It's all Greek to "The Ethicist"!

It’s all Greek to “The Ethicist”!

The third New York Times writer to take over the mantle of “The Ethicist” column, Chuck Klosterman, may be the most reliable yet, but he ended up wandering into the ethical weeds in his recent advice to an ethically-perplexed doctor, and engaging in advice column malpractice.

A physician asked him what was his ethical course when a patient divulged to him that his persistent headaches may have arisen from the stress of keeping a secret: he was responsible for a crime that had been pinned on an innocent man. Before the consultation, the doctor had promised his patient that “whatever he told me would not leave the room.”  Now the physician was having second doubts, and wondered if he was right to keep the confidence to his patient at the expense of an innocent man’s freedom and reputation.

Klosterman’s answer:

“I would advise the following: Call the patient back into your office. Urge him to confess what happened to the authorities and tell him you will assist him in any way possible (helping him find a lawyer before going to the police, etc.). If he balks, you will have to go a step further; you will have to tell him that you were wrong to promise him confidentiality and that your desire for social justice is greater than your personal integrity as a professional confidant.”

First of all, I don’t understand why a doctor is asking this question to a newspaper ethicist unless he doesn’t like what professional and medical ethicists are telling him. Klosterman, in reaching his reasonable-sounding but flat-out wrong reply, simply discards the concept of professionalism, beginning with the Hippocratic Oath…. Continue reading

Ethics Train Wreck Watch: The Petraeus-Broadwell Affair

There is too much information awaiting disclosure to do a thorough ethical analysis at this point, but it is already clear beyond question that the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell scandal is an ethics train wreck, with many more individuals and perhaps institutions involved than the direct participants. Today’s news reports that the adulterous affair prompting the much-respected CIA Director’s sudden resignation was triggered by Broadwell’s  threatening e-mails to another women she suspected of vying for the General’s affections clinches train wreck status. This thing is still rolling.

Other features of the wreck-in-progress: Continue reading