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

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

A Shocking Farewell Confession From “The Ethicist”

In Randy Cohen’s farewell column for “The Ethicist” today—he was sacked by the new editor of The New York Times despite providing an entertaining, well-written and provocative column for many years— he makes a statement that I find shocking, and one that challenges the core assumption of this blog and indeed my occupation.

Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.
What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing.

Amazing. Randy, we hardly knew ye, and we sure didn’t understand ye, either. How can someone possibly spend one’s working day “thinking about ethics” and not become more virtuous in his daily conduct? 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.

“The Ethicist” Nails A Rationalization

I have often been critical of Randy Cohen, the New York Times Magazine’s longtime writer of “The Ethicist” column. This distorts, I fear, Randy’s performance, for he is right far more often than he is wrong, and he is usually right with wit, humor and clarity.

As an effort to balance the scales a bit, I want to salute “The Ethicist” for explaining, concisely and lightly, what is wrong with one of the commonly used rationalizations for unethical conduct: “If I don’t do it, someone else will”:

Responding to a man who felt that it was wrong to take a job facilitating his industry’s outsourcing of jobs overseas, Cohen assured him that there was nothing unethical about the assignment. He then added,

“That is fortunate, because your wife’s argument — if you don’t do it, someone else will — would not justify nefarious conduct. Someone else will do pretty much anything. I’ve met ‘someone else,” and he’s quite the little weasel.”

Well said.

Incompetent Advice from “The Ethicist”

Randy Cohen,”The Ethicist,” really doesn’t apply ethics to the intriguing questions sent to him in his long-running column in the New York Times Magazine. What he applies is Randy’s customized social justice agenda, which has a strong class bias (Rich people deserve to be brought down a peg whenever feasible), endorses redistribution of income (stealing from rich people is different from stealing from poor people) and a belief that if a rationalization can provide a green light to allow a deserving person to stick it to a company or wealthy citizen, by all means, embrace it. Because Cohen is a smart and instinctively ethical guy, he still get the answers right the vast majority of the time, as he has done for quite a few weeks now. Eventually, however he’ll reveal the Real Randy in a column like today’s, in which “The Ethicist” endorses vigilante justice. Continue reading

“The Ethicist” and His Definition of “Unethical”

Eureka! Bingo! At last!

While explaining in this week’s column why he hesitates to label a manifestly unethical practice unethical, The New York Times Magazine’s ethicist, Randy Cohen, clarified a couple of questions that have been bothering me for quite a while. Why do so many people react so violently to my conclusion that they have done something unethical? And why does Randy Cohen, a.k.a. “The Ethicist” so frequently endorse unethical conduct, especially dishonesty, when he believes it is motivated by virtuous motives? Continue reading

Elevator Ethics

Randy Cohen surprised me today. “The Ethicist,” in his weekly column in the Times Magazine, responded to a  question from a Chinese citizen whose office building had only one working elevator, resulting in long lines of office workers waiting to catch a lift to distant floors. Cohen’s inquirer asked if it was unethical for him to run up the stairs to a higher floor, and secure a place on the elevator before it arrived on his original floor, one below.

Cohen said he was “cutting in line,” and that it was unethical. Randy may well be right, but I’m not immediately convinced. Continue reading

Ethics, Ethics, Everywhere…

Stories with ethical implications are popping up everywhere, in many fields. I’m running hard to keep up; if you want to join the race, here are some recent developments and notes:

  • A prominent Harvard professor and respected researcher just retracted a major paper and has been put on leave, as an investigation showed irregularities in his methods and results. “This retraction creates a quandary for those of us in the field about whether other results are to be trusted as well, especially since there are other papers currently being reconsidered by other journals as well,’’ wrote one scientist. “If scientists can’t trust published papers, the whole process breaks down.’’
  • A Wisconsin lawyer bought a farm from his own client in a bankruptcy matter, a classic conflict of interest. The lawyer’s defense was amusing: since his license had been suspended, he no longer had a fiduciary duty to his now former client. The court canceled the sale. The story is on the Legal Profession Blog.

Sunday Ethics Round-Up: Cynical Fines, Drunk Norwegians, Lazy Newsmen and Pitiful Ballplayers

Here are some ethics issues to ponder from the recent news and around the Web:

  • Who says it pays to be ethical? The astounding insistence, under oath, by Goldman Sachs executives that they had done nothing wrong in selling admittedly “crummy” investment products to clients while using the company’s own money to bet that the same products would fail will not be sufficiently punished or contradicted by the S.E.C.’s cynical cash settlement of its suit against the firm. For a $500 million penalty, Goldman Sachs is off the hook for the equivalent of four days’ income, as the Obama Administration claims to the unsophisticated public (“Isn’t $500 million a lot of money?”) that it is “getting tough” with Wall Street. The fact is that Goldman Sachs’ unethical maneuvers paid off handsomely, and nothing has happened that will discourage it from finding loopholes in another set of regulations and making another killing while deceiving investors legally and, by the Bizarro World ethics of the investment world, “ethically.” You can read a perceptive analysis here. Continue reading