I cannot imagine being so bereft of wisdom, friends and mentors that I would ever be moved to ask a stranger to advise me regarding an important decision based solely on a letter describing my problem. Nevertheless, a lot of poor souls apparently do, and because they do, many of them probably act on the advice they get from Beth, Abby, The Ethicist and the rest. This means that anyone with the ego and chutzpah to hold themselves out as qualified to give such advice is ethically obligated to be able to do a competent job at it, and at very least to “do no harm.” Yes, unlike the law, advice columnist is one of the professions where the traditional ethical mission of medicine is not just appropriate, but essential.
Most advice columnists in the media are not competent, and some are dangerously reckless. The worst thing an advice columnist can do is to use the trusting and needy stranger as a potential recruit to steer toward the columnist’s ideologically-driven goals. The question being asked by desperate advice seekers, after all, is not “What would you do?” but rather “What should I do?” If the columnist answers the question presuming that the advice-seeker does or should see the world as the advice columnist does, then doing harm is the likely result.
Carolyn Hax ( Washington Post) is a wonderful advice columnist, and Emily Yoffe (“Dear Prudence”) is the other kind. Two recent responses by them illustrate the distinction between competent, skilled and ethical advice, and advice column malpractice. Continue reading