January 2007 Ethics Dunce

Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist"

Reasonable ethicists often disagree, but when a nationally syndicated "ethics expert" ends the year with not one but two ethics howlers in his weekly column, he must be called to task. Randy Cohen, who authors the New York Times' popular "The Ethicist" column in its Sunday magazine, is a good and witty writer whose answers to inquiring readers are usually defensible even when the Scoreboard find them difficult to endorse. But on the final Sunday of 2006, Cohen's replies to two reader queries were not just wrong, but wrong in ways that raise the disturbing possibility that he missed a couple of key reading assignments in ethics class. Ethical confusion is bad enough in America without the nation's most widely-read ethics expert handing out warped ethics reasoning. Was Cohen taking a holiday break, perhaps, leaving his column to, say, Donald Trump? No, that can't be it…that would have been unethical!

The first question in Cohen's year-ending column came from a soon-to-be-married man whose fiancée was moving to join him from another state. He expected that she would be socializing with his friends, which posed a problem: he had slept with all of his female friends. The dilemma for the ethics guru: did he have an obligation to tell his fiancée this alarming fact in the spirit of full disclosure? Cohen's answer, after a characteristic amount of joshing about the situation, was that the man did indeed have an obligation to inform his betrothed about his sexual liaisons, unless she was "the sleeping dogs sort" who wouldn't want to know. Cohen didn't pick up on the fact that if the woman was willing to marry this guy, she obviously had a thing for "sleeping dogs." But I digress.

Cohen's conclusion was unethical and wrong. Marriage doesn't automatically nullify already established ethical obligations to others, and intimate encounters are presumed to be confidential between the two individuals unless both parties consent to disclosure or disclosure is compelled for some reason. A girlfriend, fiancée or wife does not have a right to know the names of all her man's sex partners in relationships that pre-dated theirs. Cohen answers as if the sensibilities of the writer's ex-lover female friends don't matter. They do. While his duty to keep the details of theses relationships confidential may be awkward for him, that's no reason to dismiss his pre-existing obligations. "Kiss-and-tell" and all of its assorted variations are not just bad manners, they are unethical. Would Cohen put any limitations on what a man is obligated to tell a fiancée about his past lovers? (How many times did you have sex? What kind of sex did she prefer? Anything kinky? Did she ever have problems? How does she look naked? Did she make noises?) Once he's opened that door, it's hard to see how he would justify closing it.

What Cohen should have said is that the inquirer has a classic conflict of interest, with competing obligations and loyalties. Unless he gets permission from the women whose most private moments he proposes to reveal, he is ethically obligated is to keep that part of his past where it belongs: between him and his old lovers. The obligation of "full disclosure" to the new woman in his life cannot over-ride this. The Scoreboard's advice: he should move to her state. Presumably he hasn't slept with all of her friends.

Cohen's slump was just starting: as bad as his first answer was, his second one was far worse. A Mr. Goutem Jois wrote to settle a dispute between him and his girlfriend. At a public tennis court, a player continued to practice his serve alone while pairs of players waited to play actual games. Jois felt this was unethical and selfish; his girlfriend said that "since there were no posted rules, all tennis-related uses were appropriate." Who was right?

Ethically, this is an easy call, but "The Ethicist" still managed to botch it. Noting that "…'inefficient' isn't a synonym for 'unethical'," Cohen held that the girlfriend was correct!

"Inefficient" may not be a synonym for unethical, but "unfair," "selfish," "irresponsible" and "inconsiderate" are a lot closer. Cohen's solution manages to violate the Golden Rule (What would the solo player think was fair if he had a partner and was waiting to play?), Kant's categorical imperative (Would we want a universal principle in which one would be justified in taking up scarce resources designed for many?), principles of utilitarianism (Can the solo player's conduct be justified as serving the best interests of the largest number of people?) and even John Rawls' "veil of ignorance" approach (If you had to decide this issue without knowing which side you would be on some day, what would you think was right?) all at once, an impressive achievement…and an impossible one for a supposedly ethical act.

Cohen employs a dubious analogy to support his view that actually cuts against it: if a solo player should give way to a pair, he argues, then an ethical pair should yield to a foursome. Would that make sense? Well...yes! And ethical tennis players who see long lines waiting for their court often offer to let on another pair to play doubles…because it's the ethical thing to do. Still, it's a bad analogy, because an individual practicing his serve is not making a fair use of the court when others are waiting. Public tennis courts are provided for "tennis-related uses," they are there for people to play games on, and one player practicing his serve is not a game. Should two softball teams wait to get access to a field being used by one batter who is hitting the ball out of his hand? Presumably, Mr. Jois' girlfriend is a lawyer, and would argue that any "baseball-related activity" was appropriate. But how appropriate depends on how many others are waiting to use the same scarce resource. If nobody else is waiting, sure…hit those fungos; serve away. But as soon as people are waiting, either find a partner or give up the court.

I once was first in line at an "all-you-can-eat" buffet at an especially ill-managed dinner theater. The audience had been called in groups, and we were the last group, about ten hungry patrons. As I went to fill my plate, I realized that there was not enough food for everyone in line, and no more would be forthcoming; the kitchen was closed. Cohen's and Jois' girlfriend's approach would hold that there would be nothing "inappropriate" in my grabbing as much food as I could pile on my plate, leaving the poor wretches behind me to wait their turn and fight for scraps. That wouldn't be considerate, it wouldn't be generous, it wouldn't be fair, and it certainly wouldn't be ethical. But that is exactly what the solo player was doing: making excessive use of scarce resources that he should have been sharing under the circumstances.

The odd feature of Cohen's reply to Jois is that his commentary comes right up to the correct answer and still overlooks it. He writes, "it is an unwritten rule on many New York City playground basketball courts that pick-up games take priority over casual shoot-arounds. Total strangers tend to honor this practice with remarkably little squabbling." Well, gee, Randy----why do you think that is? Because it's fair, that's why; because it's the right thing to do. "But where custom fails, formal rules are helpful," Cohen concludes, getting the correct point exactly backwards. Ethics become especially critical when there are no rules, and in cases like the public basketball and tennis courts as well as the all-you-can-eat buffet, "custom" is simply another word for ethics, a practice that evolves because it is more just, more civil and more beneficial than simply grabbing what you can and ignoring the welfare of your neighbors. By accepting the overly legalistic girlfriend's position that selfishness is "appropriate" in the absence of rules to the contrary, Cohen appears to have forgotten what every ethicist must know: that ethical conduct consists of doing the right thing when nobody is forcing you do it.

Yes, there's no getting around it: the last week of December was a bad one for "The Ethicist." The Scoreboard pronounces itself puzzled, but remains a fan of Cohen's column. Nevertheless, duty demands that "The Ethicist" join the ranks of Ethics Dunces to kick off the new year.

Things can only get better from here, Randy.




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