Comment of the Day: “Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called ‘The Ethicist’?”

Reader Lance Jacobs, a New York bicycle instructor, was moved by last month’s Ethics Alarms Post “Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called ‘The Ethicist’?” to write the New York Times about their scofflaw, erstwhile “Ethicist,” who had proudly confessed in a an essay that he routinely broke the law while cycling, and believed that he was right to do so. The Times didn’t print Lance’s letter, an open letter to Randy, and sadly, this blog does not (Yet! Yet!) have the circulation of the Times, but it is an excellent rebuff to Cohen, and a most deserving “Comment of the Day.”

Here it is:

“Dear Mr Cohen, Continue reading

Buzz Bissinger’s Primer on Unethical Reasoning

Sportswriter Buzz Bissinger, already an Ethics Dunce in good standing, has contributed something immensely valuable to the world of ethics: a cover story for Newsweek that can serve as a teaching aid in college ethics classes.

Titled “I Still Believe in Lance Armstrong,” Bissinger lurches from one rationalization to another, contradicting himself repeatedly along the way. This is a professional journalist, writing in his field, for what once was a respected news commentary magazine. Why is so much of the public unable to tell right from wrong? Because they spend a lifetime reading junk like this: Bissinger’s essay could be Exhibit A.

Bissinger begins by talking about the reactions of his son, a cycling enthusiast who worshiped Armstrong, to the recent news that the tarnished athlete would no longer challenge the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts to strip him of his titles:

“Caleb is not blind. He said it was hard not to read the statement and conclude that when Armstrong said, ‘There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say ‘Enough is enough’ ” and that he was finished fighting the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s fanatical attempt to strip him of his victories, what lay below the outrage was an admission that he may well have cheated with performance enhancers in order to win. That bothers my son. It is why he called the stunning announcement a ‘sad day.’ But it is also why he called it a ‘weird day’ emotionally because of the constant effort to make Armstrong into a villain.” Continue reading

The Last of Lance

The Lance Armstrong Fan Club writes to the US Anti-Doping Agency to protest its witch hunt.

Lance Armstrong has announced that he will no longer fight doping allegations, meaning that the Anti-US Doping Agency will effectively ban him from cycling and strip him of his titles. “If I thought for one moment that by participating in USADA’s process, I could confront these allegations in a fair setting and — once and for all — put these charges to rest, I would jump at the chance,” Armstrong said in a statement. “But I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair.”

It’s a shrewd move. Now Armstrong fans and admirers who refuse to acknowledge what is overwhelmingly likely bordering on certain—that he is a cheat, a liar and a fraud—can argue that poor Lance is a victim, and never was “proven guilty.” Of course, poor Lance has made millions of dollars and lived the life of a celebrity and hero for more than a decade, and he not going to forfeit any of that, or his freedom, no matter what rational people think of him. Like Barry Bonds, baseball’s most successful steroid cheat, he pulled it off, exploiting his sport, deceiving the public and taking advantage of a “look the other way” culture that corrupted bicycle racing even more thoroughly than steroids corrupted baseball. Continue reading

Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called “The Ethicist”?

Stop means “stop,’ unless Randy decides it means “yield”—after all, he knows best.

Randy Cohen was the original author of the New York Times Magazine’s column “The Ethicist.” During his tenure he made a name for himself with lively and sometimes witty prose, and on Ethics Alarms, at least, a disturbing tendency to rationalize clearly unethical conduct when it suited his political agenda, which was unapologetically left of center. In one notorious example, he told a student whose wealthy and famous father was paying her college tuition that it would be ethical for her to cash a partial tuition refund check she received from the university to her mother and stepfather, who believed that the father had not paid his fair share of child support. Cash that check, advised Cohen….“You are entitled to this money not because he is successful while you struggle. Such rough justice would also encourage you to sneak into his house, swipe his sofa and sell it on some kind of furniture black market. That would be stealing; this is merely claiming what he owes you.”  Of course, this is also stealing: cashing a check not intended for you because you believe it should be used to settle a disputed debt between the owner and someone else is not honest or fair, regardless of the merits of that belief. But Randy is a class warrior: as “The Ethicist,” he routinely took the position that it was “ethical” for people to use dubious means to get an edge on the evil rich, which in his world apparently means anyone richer than him.

I don’t know what Cohen has been doing since the Times sacked him; it isn’t practicing ethics, as he didn’t do this before his tenure, and confessed when he left the job that writing about ethics didn’t make him practice ethics while he was “The Ethicist” either, something I found and still find incomprehensible. Now, he tells us in a recent Times piece, the Ex-Ethicist is riding around New York City on his bicycle, running stop signs and red lights.

He tells us, moreover, that this is ethical, though it is certainly illegal. “I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else, ” Cohen says. “To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”

This is arrogant, fatuous, reckless and wrong. But that’s Randy.

Even Coehn’s reading of Kant is wrong. The categorical imperative says that an action is ethical only if it could be the universal rule without harm, and this, despite Cohen’s rationalizations, could not. Who says the cyclist’s judgment of when it is safe to run a red light or stop sign is correct or reasonable in every instance? Why couldn’t motorists also use this same justification for running red lights at will? Continue reading

Armstrong’s Unmasking: Better Late Than Never

Don’t worry, Barry; Lance should be joining you soon.

Well, I guess I  have to hand it to Lance Armstrong, a bit like Ozzie Guillen when he praised Fidel Castro for surviving his dictatorship against all odds. The evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, that Armstrong is a  prohibited drug cheater ( like most successful cyclists) has been mounting for over a decade, and yet he has managed to hold on to much of his prestige and iconic status. Meanwhile, retired baseball slugger Barry Bonds has been reviled, condemned, prosecuted and vilified, by me among many others, for presumed illicit performing enhancing drug use in his sport that is backed by very similar kinds of evidence that  incriminate Armstrong. Yet while Bonds faces the humiliation of being rejected for election to baseball’s Hall of Fame next year when he becomes eligible, despite being the sport’s all-time career home run leader, Armstrong was preparing to race again to cheering throngs  in an upcoming iron man triathlon.

Then came the news, yesterday, that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has brought formal doping charges against him.  No one should underestimate Armstrong’s skill in wiggling off the hook, but this really should settle the issue of whether he is a hero or a manipulative charlatan. He is the latter. Whether he was a good but weak man trapped in a lie, or a sociopathic con man and cheat can be investigated by biographers and sportswriter, and psychologists. The harm that will be done when his false heroism is irrefutably exposed, however, will be the same no matter how Armstrong came about causing it.  His sport will be permanently tarnished beyond recovery. Scores of children and teens will be disillusioned, betrayed into a cynicism about role models and human nature that should only descend later in life. Worst of all,. his example will stand for some as proof that cheating pays. Armstrong, whatever happens to him, will be rich, like Barry Bonds, even if he is disgraced. He will, as my father liked to say, cry all the way to the bank. Continue reading

No Excuses and No Mercy For Lance Armstrong

Sorry, Lance…good guys don’t cheat.

Back when Barry Bonds was still playing baseball, a sportswriter mused about why it was that everyone assumed  Bonds was a performance-enhancing drug cheater despite his protestations to the contrary, while most Americans and sports journalists brushed away similar allegations regarding Lance Armstrong. Both competed in sports with acknowledged steroid abuse problems; indeed, the problem in bicycle racing was presumed to be more pervasive than in baseball. (A few years later, with the banning of multiple Tour winners, the presumption became a certainty.) Both athletes had improbable late career improvements in their performance to reach previously unimaginable dominance in their respective sports. Both had to explain or deflect multiple credible accusations of cheating and circumstantial evidence that suggested that they were doping. Both claimed they had never failed drug tests, and there were good reasons to doubt the denials.

So why was Bonds a villain by consensus and Lance an untouchable hero? The sportswriter explored many theories (Apologies: I cannot locate the article. If someone can, please send it), among them the greater popularity of baseball over cycling, Bond’s startling physical transformation into a behemoth while Armstrong remained cyclist-sinewy,  Armstrong’s inspiring story as a cancer survivor, Armstrong’s philanthropic work,and the fact that Bonds, unlike Armstrong, was black. The biggest difference, however, and to the writer the key one, was that Armstrong acted the role of a hero, while Bonds refused to. Armstrong was friendly and accommodating, while Bonds was angry, intimidating and antagonistic. Armstrong seemed like someone who played by the rules, and who lived his ethical values. Bonds seemed like a rebel, one who wouldn’t hesitate to break the rules for his own benefit. In short, the public wanted Armstrong to be the hero he seemed to be, so they ignored the evidence linking him to performance-enhancing drugs.

After last Sunday, the disparate public perception of Bonds and Armstrong, always illogical, became unsustainable. Continue reading

On the Road With “The Biking Vogels”: What the Kids Are Learning

When we last visited the Vogels, they were in the middle of a two and a half-year quest to get their twins the Guinness Record for the youngest boys to spend their childhood on bikes, or something like that. The Vogels are a couple that has taken their twin boys on a biking odyssey (actually two)  through the Americas, requiring them to abandon a normal childhood to be part of their parents’ chosen lifestyle. It is being funded by the presumption that this is a novel and healthy experiment in home-schooling. Fans of the Vogels, including a fawning American media, pronounce the effort a wonderful educational opportunity for Daryl and Davy, now 12, and the adventure of a lifetime. Critics, such as Ethics Alarms, express concern that the boys are being exploited by their parents at the cost of the children’s comfort, safety, health, and socialization.

Our only information about how the boys are faring and what they are learning on their forced march comes from their own journals. This is Daryl Vogel’s entry on September 25: Continue reading

Child Exploitation or Great Adventure: What We Need To Know About “The Biking Vogels”

America was just introduced to the biking Vogel family, as they embark on a charm offensive seemingly with a potential reality show in their sights. They appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Labor Day, and expect to get a boost in publicity thanks to a typical softball interview by a beaming stand-in for George Stephanopoulos. (Video taken and selected by the Vogels themselves accompanied the interview, further allowing them to present their trip in the most favorable light.) It would be have been both responsible and right, however, if the Vogels had been asked more pointed questions, probing the serious issue of whether John and Nancy Vogel may be exploiting and even abusing their children in pursuit of fame, fortune, and  an “Easy Rider” life-style that being parents of young children ought to preclude. Continue reading

The Ethics of Giving Up on Ethics

Paul Daugherty, a sportswriter for the Cincinnati Enquirer,recently wrote a column expressing a theme I hear all too often regarding politics, government, education, and society generally. Motivated by the steroid allegations against yet another hero, Lance Armstrong, Daugherty penned his surrender to a culture that doesn’t seem to care about ethics. Daugherty wrote:

“Everyone wants sports to be equitable. We all desire the level field. No one wants sports to be as drugged up as Woodstock in 1969. But it is. We’ve fought the ethical fight. We’ve lost. It could be time to let it go.
Even the athletes who lose still win. Mark McGwire got his, Barry Bonds got his, Brian Cushing got his. If you wait enough, deny enough, then rationalize believably, you get yours. Disgrace fades. Only Olympic athletes wear the stink of doping longer than the average 5-year-old’s attention span. In one respect, it’s not unlike the fight against legalizing marijuana. It has lasted so long, and now seems so pointless, I can’t even remember what we’ve been arguing about. We’ve become numb to it….It’s only a little outrageous now to suggest that a professional athlete be allowed to use performance-enhancing substances to his (enlarged) heart’s content, as long as he’s doing it legally….So what’s the point?”

“What’s the point?” Continue reading

Armstrong, Bonds, Steroids, and Bias

Barry Bonds was forcibly retired from baseball despite general agreement that he could still hit a ball better than most active players. No team would hire him, because he had become the symbol of baseball’s steroid and performance-enhancing drugs scandal that casts a permanent shadow over the game’s image, statistics, integrity, and current stars. Bonds never has admitted to using P.E.D.’s, but the evidence that his remarkable late-career success was illicitly aided by banned substances is overwhelming, and indeed was overwhelming while he was playing. [I have written about the fairness of judging Bonds a cheater and the tortured rationalizations employed by his defenders here, here, and here.] At the same time, another individual who dominates his sport, cyclist Lance Armstrong, has managed to convince most of the media and his adoring public that accusations that he used steroids are false, even though the circumstantial evidence against him rivals what has condemned Bonds. This has always had the stench of a double standard; now, in the wake of new allegations by a former team mate, the only excuses for not giving Armstrong the Bonds treatment are unethical ones. Continue reading