Saturday, April 15, 2006

Why 'The Ethicist' Is A Wanker

Jon Mandle at Crooked Timber has a post on the NYT's Ethicist column regarding the vitriolic reactions that it engenders in some of his colleagues. He's chalking a lot of it up to professional jealousy; I can't speak to that, since I don't know a lot of professional ethics types. But I can speak to why its a source of mockery among the NYT readers that I know. Let's start with the column title and work our way down, shall we? Why The Ethicist? Why not Dear Abby for People with Large Vocabularies?1 I mean, really, have you looked at the kinds of letters that get published in this column? After vigorous scientific analysis, we at the Shiny Ideas labs have managed to extract the essence of an Ethicist letter:
Dear Ethicist - I have a problem. Should I do what's right, or what's easy? Sincerely, Someone who really should know better
What, you say? That's an unfair characterization? Well, here's an excerpt from last week's column:
I am a first-year professor at a small college being considered for reappointment. A major factor is student evaluations of my teaching and my response to them. Curiously, I am to read these signed evaluations and complete my review portfolio before grading these students. Should I refuse to read them, or just attempt to be as objective as possible (which I am anyway!) when administering grades? Mark Tursi, Dallas, Pa.
Uh-huh, let's run the checklist. Problem? Check. Easy solution? Check. Correct solution? Check. Here's a hint, Mr. Ethicist man. If you're going to write a column on ethics you should restrict yourself to people who have bona-fide ethical dilemmas, not provide pep talks to people who already know the correct course of action. An how, exactly, does Mr. Cohen go about resolving these putative dilemmas anyway? You know, Ayn Rand may have been crazy, but at least she was clear about how she arrived at her conclusions. There's something to be said for stating your axioms and associated baggage up front. Mr. Cohen, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have anything resembling a coherent framework... most of the time he seems to be shooting from the hip, dressing things up with occasional theoretical-sounding references. For example, from the same column cited above, in response to a question about whether lies told to a nursing home patient about her condition were ethical:
They were not. Deliberately misleading a patient robs her of her dignity. This is not to suggest that nurses should deal harshly with patients, but that tact and sensitivity are preferable to outright falsehood. Instead of saying: "Your condition is hopeless," the nurses can say, "Wouldn't it be great if you could go home?" or "You'll feel better if you come to therapy." That is, encourage a patient, humor a patient, but do not lie.
He seems to be endorsing the tactic of changing the subject (or lying by omission, take your pick) rather than actually communicating the truth to the patient. Way to go! I'd give him more credit if he actually confronted the issue; "How to tell someone they're screwed" is actually an interesting discussion with bona-fide ethical implications. So that, in a nutshell, is why The Ethicist drives my cohort up the wall. Its really just a run-of-the-mill advice column all tarted-up for the NYT.
1 Snark attribution: That particular quip is courtesy of Kim in NYC. Hi Kim!


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