Ethics Hero: Kwame Anthony Appiah, a.k.a. “The Ethicist”

In the past, I mostly visited the New York Times Magazine “The Ethicist” column to take issue with the succession of ethics amateurs and ethicist wannabes the Times employed as its ethics advice columnist. Once Kwame Anthony Appiah took over, this wasn’t as much fun, and I admit I don’t even check the column that often. Appiah is a real ethicist, and knows what he’s doing. I sometimes disagree with his conclusions, but he reaches them using valid ethical analysis, and seldom employs bias or rationalizations.

A recent column, however, deserves special praise. The inquirer asked what the ethical course would be to handle historical artifacts that reflected racist attitudes and artwork, like the card pictured above. The writer concluded her question…

I offered it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. I never heard from them, so it moved with us. My husband thinks I should throw it away, but that feels wrong. I feel it is history that we should acknowledge, however painful and wrong. Your thoughts?

“The Ethicist’s” response is note-perfect, even with my intentional omission of its best and most surprising section. I’m doing this so you will hit the link and read the full column. Appiah wrote in part,

I am not a fan of the intentional destruction of historical artifacts….It’s a familiar thought that we need to understand our past, not least in order to help us avoid repeating the worst aspects of it. So your impulse to offer this souvenir card to a museum seems right. Of course, the sort of document you describe is well represented in collections already, and this may be why you didn’t hear back. But who knows whether there isn’t something about it that a historian might find useful in unpacking some detail of the history of American racial attitudes?

So if you think this card does have historical value, and you can’t readily find an interested archive or scholar, you could just put it up for sale on eBay, say, where it will join a large assemblage of racist artifacts. You can’t guarantee that you’ll approve of the motives of the buyer, but someone who is willing to pay for it is most likely to preserve it.

Given that your motives are honorable, I don’t share your worry about profiting from the sale. Selling an image isn’t endorsing its message. And my guess is that most contemporary collectors of such items aren’t motivated by racism. Still, if you want to avoid profiting, there’s an easy solution. Just send the proceeds to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. That’s an offer they won’t turn down. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/20/18: Life, Death, Fairness, Dissonance And Sanity

1 Let’s see more of such Ethics Heroes, please… In Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania,  John Orsini, has gone to court to stop his ex-wife from allowing their son, 17-year-old Antonio, from playing high school football in his senior year. Antonio has already suffered at least three concussions. Antonio’s mother and John’s ex-wife, Janice, says that her son understands the risks, and that doctors have OK’d his continued play.

But he doesn’t understand the risks—apparently neither do those doctors—and he is considered a minor under the law because teenagers are prone to poor reasoning and impulsive decisions…especially when they have incipient brain damage.

CNN is eager to hear his position on gun control though. But I digress..

Says the CBS news story: “John contends that after these concussions and sub-concussive hits, medical research shows that Antonio would be in grave danger if he continues to play football.” He contends? There is no contention: that is fact.

“I’m trying to save his future. I’m trying to save his life,” he said of his son.

Janice and her attorney issued a statement, saying in part,

“The mother and her 17-year-old son have reasonably relied upon the input and opinions of his treating physicians and medical providers, and have considered the state mandated safety and concussion protocols followed by the school district, in deciding whether it was appropriate for him to continue to participate in football.”

John believes the court will side with him.  “If you have a significant indication that the child is being placed in harm’s way, and it’s brought to court to protect the child, it’s the court obligation to do so,” he says. I wouldn’t be so sure. This is football country, and football fanatics are in denial. They’ll get thousands of children’s brains injured before they are through.

“I’m hopeful that my son will just go on, get a good education and lead a healthy life. That’s all I want,” said John, whose other two sons no longer speak to him over this conflict.

Good luck.

Let’s hope Anthony is given then chance to grow smarter than his mother.

2. Let’s see, which Trump Derangement news media story should I post today? Every day, every single day, I have literally dozens of biased, vicious, stupid, unprofessional and blatantly partisan mainstream media news reports and pundit excesses to flag as unethical. Here, for example, is a New York Times columnists advocating for Rex Tillerson to betray all professional ethics, confidentiality, trust and responsibility by revealing everything he heard or saw as Secretary of State that could undermine Trump’s administration. It’s called, “Burn it down, Rex.”

Let me repeat: for journalists to set out to intentionally poison public opinion against the elected President of the United States by manipulation and hostile reporting is unethical and dangerous. This conduct has been the single largest ethics breach in the culture for more than a year, and one of the worst in U.S. history. In strenuously condemning journalism’s abdication of its duty to support democratic institutions and to remain objective and responsible, I am not defending Donald Trump. I am attempting to defend the Presidency itself.

Today I pick…this: Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 2/20/18: Cheaters And Useful Idiots

Good Morning!

1. A Whistle-blowing dilemma.The Ethicist in the New York Times Magazine is no fun anymore, now that a competent, real ethicist is answering queries rather than the previous motley assortment of Hollywood screenwriters and others of dubious qualifications. Even when I disagree with

  • “Given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay.” Ugh! A Barry Bonds excuse! So because all guilty parties aren’t apprehended, everyone should get away with wrongdoing?
  • “Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.” That’s their problem. The attitude the Ethicist identifies is 39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?” He’s correct that this will be the likely attitude of the busted cheaters, but since when did how wrongdoers rationalize their wrongdoing become mitigation?
  • “The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you.” Yes, doing the right thing often is.
  • “The burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you.” Boy, I really hate this one. It’s #18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”

This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Carried to it worst extreme, Hamm’s Excuse would eliminate all charity and much heroism, since it stands for the proposition that human beings are only responsible for alleviating problems that they were personally responsible for. In fact, the opposite is the case: human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. When those who have caused injustice or calamity either cannot, will not or do not step up to address the wrongs their actions have caused (as is too often the case), the responsibility passes to whichever of us has the opportunity and the means to make things right, or at least better.

This rationalization is named after American gymnast Paul Hamm, who adamantly refused to voluntarily surrender the Olympic gold metal he admittedly had been awarded because of an official scoring error. His justification for this consisted of repeating that it was the erring officials, not him, who were responsible for the fact that the real winner of the competition was relegated to a bronze medal when he really deserved the gold. The ethical rule to counter Hamm’s Excuse is a simple one: if there is a wrong and you are in a position to fix it, fix it.

Appiah doesn’t feel the full force of my fury because the case involves middle-school, and the questioner is a child. This is what makes it a toss-up. If this were college or grad school, I think reporting cheaters is mandatory. Appiah also says that he doesn’t care for honor codes because they are usually not followed.

Maybe I was wrong about him… Continue reading

Nazi Memorabilia Ethics?

“ARRRGHHH!!!!”

I haven’t checked in on The Ethicist column in the New York Time Magazine in a while: the current resident, Kwame Anthony Appiah, is the real McCoy, unlike all of his predecessors, and his analysis of various queries from readers is usually valid and properly reasoned. This week’s featured issue is a strange one, however.

A Peter Hulit of Los Angeles wrote to ask what was the “ethical way” to deal with  a belt buckle from a Nazi uniform that was stored in his late father’s box of World War II memorabilia, collected during his service overseas. Hulit explained,

“I have kept it stashed in my desk. I’m now in my 60s and really don’t want it in my house..I have checked resale sites, and it does have some monetary value, but I do not want it to fall into hands that may use it symbolically for what my father fought against.”

I rate this question as more evidence of Nazi hysteria, one of the side-effect of the 2016 post election Ethics Train Wreck that includes the effort by the Left to slander opposition to Democrats, Clinton and Obama as nascent fascism. It is also a continuation of the historical air-brushing that Orwellian progressives seem to think will magically eliminate all evils from modern society.

World War II artifacts are history and are tools of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is what those seeing German Nazi motivations in President Trump and his supporters sorely lack. There is no such thing as dangerous history. What is dangerous is to forget history, or to try to pretend that what happened did not.

Nor are objects cursed, or evil. People are evil, and history leaves evidence of evil deeds.  “I don’t want it in my house” smacks of superstition. It’s a belt buckle.

Hulit’s question seems to suck The Ethicist down some unethical holes that he should avoid, and usually does. For example, he writes, Continue reading

“The Ethicist” Endorses Vigilantism

No, you can't scam the scammers....

No, you can’t scam the scammers….

I haven’t been monitoring the New York Times’ “The Ethicist” column as much as I once did. After the original author of the feature, Randy Cohen, was jettisoned, the various ethicists, pseudo-ethicists and imaginary ethicists the Times recruited to fill his  slot have ranged from inconsistent to incompetent, and I stopped checking regularly until recently. Now the column has a real ethicist, for once: Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U., and wrote “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.”  He seems to be thorough and explains his analysis using valid ethical systems. He’s a vast improvement over his immediate predecessors, but he goofs too.

A questioner asked about how he should handle scammers who tricked his father out a check. He wrote offering a threat and a settlement. They were to  return half the money, or he would report them to the consumer-affairs division of their state’s attorney general’s office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, register complaints on websites and generally see that they suffered for their fraud.  His demand: send  a certified check, made out to his father, by the deadline. It worked; he got the amount requested, and the check cleared.

“But it was not certified, and it arrived after the due date,” he wrote. “Do I have an obligation to uphold my end of the deal, by not registering complaints about an outfit that is clearly scamming elderly people?”  Continue reading

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