From The Signature Significance Files: A Question For “The Ethicist” That Proves The Questioner Is Ethically Obtuse

GoFundMe for car

When I read the headlined question in an April installment of “The Ethicist” advice column in the New York Times Magazine, I would have done a spit-take if I had just taken a sip of something. It was “Is It OK to Use Money Raised for a Child’s Cancer Care on a Car?” What? No it’s not “OK,” you idiot! The questioner has to write to a professor of philosophy like Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is the current version of the Times’ ethics expert, to puzzle out that query? Why not ask a neighbor, a minister, a friend who isn’t in jail, a reasonably socialized junior in high school?

Then I started wondering what percentage of American think that question is a really tough one, and I got depressed.

Here was the whole question:

My grandchild is being treated for leukemia. A friend of the child’s parents set up a GoFundMe page for them. They’re both well loved and have siblings who know a ton of people. So the goal was surpassed in three hours, and donations totaled more than double that amount. They plan to donate anything over and above direct hospital-related expenses to leukemia research organizations.This couple have some needs that aren’t strictly related to the child’s care, like a new car. Am I rationalizing by saying they need to drive the child to the hospital and should use some of this money for a dependable car? Is there a strict line you would not cross? And is it germane that they’re not extravagant and extremely honest?

I don’t need to discuss Appiah’s answer; he got it right. If he hadn’t, he would need to have his column, his teaching position at NYU and his degree in philosophy taken away. My concern is how hopelessly inept our culture must be at installing the most basic ethical principles if someone grows to adulthood unable to figure out in a snap that if one receives charity to pay for a child’s medical expenses, it is unethical, indeed criminal, to use the money to buy a car.

This isn’t hard, or shouldn’t be. Why is it? If the GoFundMe raised more money than is needed for the purpose donors contributed, the ethical response is to send the now un-needed fund back, with a note of thanks. (Appiah, after far more explanation and analysis than should be necessary—but he does have a column to fill—-eventually points this out.) No, you do not give the extra contributions to “leukemia research organizations,” because the donors could have contributed to those on their own, and didn’t give the money after a general appeal for all leukemia sufferers. They gave money for this particular child’s treatment. Doing as the family plans is a classic bait-and-switch. The questioner doesn’t comprehend that, either.

Then the rationalizations for theft start. “This couple have some needs that aren’t strictly related to the child’s care, like a new car.” “Strictly” is such a wonderful weasel word; it greases slippery slopes so well. Again, “The Ethicist” is forced to explain the obvious: the donors weren’t contributing to a needed car, they were giving to support leukemia treatment. If the family wants a new car, let’s see what that GoFundMe will bring in.

Which of the family’s needs couldn’t be sufficiently linked to the child’s welfare to support a rationalization for using the funds? “Am I rationalizing…?” Of course you’re rationalizing; in fact, I think even this ethically illiterate correspondent knows this is rationalizing, and is just hoping that an ethics authority will validate an unethical calculation. The tell is that she feels it necessary to add that they are only seeking a reliable car, not a Lexus. But come on. “Think of the children!”(Rationalization #58) Isn’t this desperately ill child worth, not just a reliable car, but the most reliable car?

As if any further evidence was needed that this reader of “The Ethicist”—and wouldn’t you think that if she did read the column, she might have picked up just a teeny smidgen of ethical thinking over time?—has no clue at all, we get, “[I]s it germane that they’re not extravagant and extremely honest?”

What is that, some kind of cut-rate version of the King’s Pass? Actually, it is: this is a blatant Rationalization #11A, ”I deserve this! or “Just this once!” (The King’s Pass is #11.) The theory is that ordinary, greedy, sneaky people shouldn’t use money intended to save the life of a child to get a new set of wheels, but thrifty, honest, good people deserve a little leeway.

What percentage of the population thinks like this? 25% 50%? 90%?

In his answer, “The Ethicist” does provide an unintended hint regarding how Americans end up thinking this way. Like most academics, he’s a socialist, so he writes, “It is immoral that anyone here has to borrow large sums of money for essential medical treatment, especially for a child….we need to expand the pinpoints of empathy to … light the way toward a country where health care is treated not as a privilege but as a right.” Bad Ethicist. Bad! That’s a false dichotomy, and he knows it, but he’s spouting progressive cant now. Health care is like many other human needs that we have to work and plan for as individuals, and recognize that the vicissitudes of fate sometimes turn against us. If health care is a right, surely a home, sufficient food, an education—heck, why not a graduate-level education?—a satisfying job, guaranteed income, having as many children as one’s fertility allows, child care and transportation also should be “rights.”

Why shouldn’t it be ethical to use other people’s money to get a reliable “reliable” car?

The Ethics Conflict Of The Untrustworthy Housecleaners Is An Easy Call

house theft

…but for some reason. “The Ethicist” couldn’t figure that out.

I hadn’t checked in on Kwame Anthony Appiah, the New York Times Magazine’s current incarnation of “The Ethicist,” for a while, and based on this exchange, the usually reliable NYU philosophy professor is showing some wear and tear. I blame The Great Stupid.

An inquirer wrote to ask if her friend had done the right thing by not telling her neighbors in ” a close-knit neighborhood” who used the same mother-daughter housecleaning team she did that she had caught the daughter stealing, and dismissed the pair. “She spoke with the mother, who apologized profusely on behalf of her troubled daughter and, of course, understood when my friend said they wouldn’t use the service any longer,” the letter concluded. “Was my friend obligated to let her neighbors know? She worried about this team losing business when she had no way of knowing whether or not the daughter was stealing from others.”

I was gobsmacked that Appiah endorsed not telling the neighbors. He wrote,

Continue reading

Notes From The Great Stupid: “I’m an Asian TV Writer. Should I Take on Projects With Black Leads?”

As you may have guessed, that a question posed recently to Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Ethicist” of the New York Times Magazine. Unlike most of the queries to that column that I periodically discuss here, I don’t think the question is difficult, challenging, or even interesting. What is interesting is that anyone would ask it, and further, that someone like Appiah would deem it worthy of spending over 800 words treating a question as a genuine ethics conundrum that is, in my view, merely evidence of brain seepage provoked by George Floyd Freakout propaganda.

The whole question was,

I’m an Asian television writer who has been extremely lucky in working fairly consistently since my first gig. I’m now in a position where people reach out to me to develop new projects. When these projects feature a Black lead character, is it ethical for me to pursue these opportunities?

As an Asian (and a woman), I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of racism and discrimination, and I can write authentically about that experience. But I’m “just” Asian, and I may be taking a job from a Black writer. Or because it is Hollywood, it’s more likely I’d be taking the job from a mediocre white dude, which, ethically, I feel just fine about. If any of these projects got off the ground, I’d be able to create a lot of opportunities for other BIPOCs, but again, it’s Hollywood, so who knows how likely it is the project would ever get to that stage.

The question is: Where do I, as an Asian, fall in this movement? I don’t want to be a tool of white supremacy, but visibility is important for my community too. Name Withheld

I admit that I have little patience for ethics navel-gazing when the answer to such question should be obvious, and thus the response to “Name Withheld” should begin with, “What the hell is the matter with you?” To his credit, “The Ethicist” gets this one right, but man does it take him a long time, apparently because he doesn’t want to seem unsympathetic to flagrant virtue signaling by Name—I wonder if that’s a common Asian moniker…

I would be tempted to respond,

Continue reading

Oh Great. The Ethicist Goes Woke.

Boy, look at all that social distancing!

The New York Times Magazine’s Kwame Anthony Appiah, aka “The Ethicist,” chose to respond  to a question about the fictional ethical conflict posed by a Black Lives Matter supporter who is so torn. Should she follow her sense of moral outrage to participate in protests against systemic racism and police brutality (as proven by a single death -by-cop in Minnesota that had nothing to do with race, and a botched no-knock police search with a warrant that had nothing to with police brutality or race), even though it risks spreading the Wuhan virus?

It’s not a tough question in ethics terms. It really isn’t. Even leaving aside the clear (at least to me) verdict that the George Floyd protests themselves are unethical, being contrived, dishonest, destructive, and aimed at substituting one kind of racism for another while unfairly demonizing police, it’s no contest as a utilitarian calculation. The protests are accomplishing nothing positive while harming many and much, and would be unethical to participate in even if they did not contribute to the Wuhan virus resurgence—and if they don’t, then public health officials have been lying to us all along.

This isn’t a difficult balancing problem at all, but sadly, the usually rational Appiah tied himself into rhetorical knota to avoid saying, “Are you kidding me? Stay out of mobs! How could you even ask such a thing?” Continue reading

The Ethicist Apparently Endorses Discrimination As Ethical

, the New York Times Magazine’s ethics columnist, just opened a can of metaphorical worms, and I’m going to spread them around a little. It may get messy.

A woman—actually, now that I re-read the post, we don’t know it’s a woman— wrote to be reassured that he or she wasn’t a bad person for wanting to dump a man she had engaged in a nascent romantic relationship after discovering that he had Crohn’s Disease. “I know I’m being selfish, but is it unethical to not date him because of it?” she wrote. ” I don’t know what to do to support him, and I am worried about the future. He said it’s very likely his intestinal issues could get worse, and his life expectancy may be shorter. I want to shield myself from the pain, but I also feel like a terrible person for even thinking about it.”

Hey, don’t feel bad,  sayeth “The Ethicist”:

“Once someone is truly a friend or a lover, you have all kinds of responsibilities to them that you didn’t have before. So for example, it would be deplorable to abandon a spouse because he or she has become seriously ill. That’s part of what’s meant by saying a marriage is to endure “in sickness and in health.” Of course, this can turn out to be a promise someone can’t keep. But precisely because a partnership is for the long term, you can appropriately consider what your lives together would be like before you enter into one. When a potential partner is already seriously ill, committing to this person may be committing to a life as a caregiver. (The specific condition you mention has a wide range of severity; it can be mild and well controlled or genuinely debilitating.) You don’t owe it to anyone to accept that burden; indeed, if you think you don’t want such a life, you have a good reason not to enter into the relationship. It doesn’t make you a terrible person to think about the issue. The terrible thing would be to make the commitment and then to be unable to keep it.”

Oddly for “The Ethicist,” he ducked the main question that was asked, and instead answered what he thought was an easier one.   The questions he answered were ” Is it wrong to reject a commitment to someone because that commitment may be too burdensome?,” and “Is it wrong to think about the issue?” (It isn’t wrong to think about anything, regardless of what Black Lives Matter says. They should see what I think about them.)

What the inquirer was asking, however, is whether she should end a casual relationship—she had only known the guy through Zoom, after all—because he had Crone’s Disease, before she could form an attachment to him and might decide that he was worth the trouble…make that  potential trouble.

I see no distinction between what she wants to do and invidious discrimination in any other relationship, like employment. Discrimination is when you treat someone worse than someone else because of who they are and  features they have no control over, rather than what they do, have done, or “the content of their character.” It is also discrimination to make judgments about someone based on assumptions about people “like” them—profiling, essentially. “I don’t want to date him, even though I really like him, because he has a handicap” is,  as I see it, indistinguishable from saying, “I don’t want to hire her because she has a handicap/ is likely to become pregnant/ is old/ is black.”

That’s discrimination, and that’s wrong. Continue reading

Ethics Alarms Thanks The Ethicist For Some Non-Pandemic Topics

With  about 80% or more of all news stories somehow involving the Wuhan virus and its effects (World War II must have been like this), finding non -pandemic stories and ethics issues has become an irritating and challenging job.

Fortunately, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “The Ethicist” column” this week saw two interesting issues arise, both of which he answered correctly. (There are other questions in the column too.) One inquirer asked, “It has become clear to me, however, that individual senators and other elected officials outside my state do indeed have a powerful effect on the entire country. Is it appropriate for me to donate to candidates in elections in which I cannot vote?”

Of course it is. Appiah wrote essentially what I would: “As you recognize, the effects politicians have aren’t confined to their immediate constituencies. On the contrary, the prospects for our country depend on who holds elective offices at every level. For one thing, representatives from each of the states in the U.S. House and Senate vote on national legislation. For another, policies in one state affect what happens in others….We are one nation; if we’re to aim at liberty and justice for all, we need to do it together.”

Bingo.

The second question was interesting because it is amazing that anyone would have the gall to make such an outrageous request, and fascinating that anyone would be so  puzzled about how to respond that they would seek advice from a third party: Continue reading

Another Visit To “The Ethicist”: Appiah Overthinks The Dilemma Of The Treacherous Ex-Wife

is the first and only competent ethicist to handle the long-time New York Times Magazine column, so I feel badly that most of the time when I reference his opinions, it is to criticize one of them. He over-all record is excellent, despite the impression one might get from Ethics Alarms. For example, read his superb, if a bit overblown, response to a white woman who was “deeply offended” that a contractor hired by her husband flew a small confederate flag on his truck. She wanted to report him as a racist to his boss, and asked Appiah if this was the right thing to do.

That nuanced advice is more typical of “The Ethicist’s” work than this recent chapter, in which a man wrote that he had split from his wife after she had refused any physical intimacy, saying that it was no longer “part of her life.” She suggested a trial separation, which led to a formal divorce, and the couple signed a non-disparagement agreement as part of the process. Recently she admitted to him that she had repeatedly cheated on him during their marriage, and that she suggested the trial separation so she could resolve her affair at the time with a married man.

The inquirer says that he has never blamed his wife in discussions with his sons for the end of the marriage, but that he has learned from them that she “places the sole blame on me for every problem ever experienced by our family, including the drug addiction of our older son. When I recently contacted her about visiting him in jail, she said he didn’t want to see me. I contacted him and found that this was not true.”

He asks “The Ethicist” if he can ethically violate the non-disparagement agreement in his own defense, and tell the sons what a lying, cheating, betraying mother they have. To my amazement, Appiah said he could, and even suggested that he should, arguing in the process of a looooong discourse, Continue reading

Ethics Alarms To “The Ethicist”: It’s Called “The Golden Rule”—Why Is That So Hard?

I hadn’t checked in for a while on Kwame Anthony Appiah, the N.Y.U philosophy teacher and author who finally brought ethical consistency to the New York Times magazine’s advice column, “The Ethicist.” I was surprised to find him struggling to answer two family related queries that I would have assumed he could and should have answered  easily with three words: “The Golden Rule.”

The first inquirer asked in part,

Recently a mutual acquaintance who knows my friend’s husband well told me that he has been cheating on my friend on and off for years with someone who once worked with him.I know that if I reveal this information, my friend will take their child and leave her husband. Do I sit on this information and pretend the affair isn’t happening, or do I tell her?

Isn’t that an easy call? Of course she should tell her friend. The Golden Rule applies: would she want to be told if the positions were reversed? Sure she would; anyone would. Not telling her would be a betrayal of the worst kind.

Yet Appiah uses 608 words to reach that conclusion. 608! This makes a slam dunk of an ethics decision appear to be a difficult one. Oh, it’s difficult in the sense that the inquirer has to take sides in a crisis affecting a couple she and her husband are close to, and thus the repercussions as well as the process will be unpleasant, but that’s life. One of the Ethics Alarms rules is that if you can fix a problem, fix it. The Ethicist’s rabbinical musings about the decision just supplies a dangerous volume of rationalizations to temp the questioner into keeping the husband’s secret, and abetting the harm. Continue reading

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