Monday, May 4, 2009

Is the "Ethicist" Sending Us On a Guilt Trip?

You have to be much smarter than I am to understand how winning an Emmy for writing jokes makes you an authority on ethics.

Whether it was brains or something else, the editors of the New York Times chose Randy Cohen, formerly an award-winning joke writer for David Letterman, to pen a column called "The Ethicist."

Most Sundays the anguished souls who write to Cohen want to know things like: whether they should give alms to the poor in India, and, if they don't, should they feel guilty about it?

And most of the time the well-written and witty column serves up sanctimonious moralizing that offers help for people who want to live their lives politically correctly.

All of which proves that the joke is really on us. Among ethicists Cohen's chief distinction is that he does not know what ethics is.

Along with his weekly advice column, Cohen now also writes an online column where he tackles larger and more lengthy ethical issues.

Last week the question was: Should Ruth Madoff have known that her husband was a crook? Did she have an ethical duty to inquire about where the money was coming from? Link here. (See also the interesting comments by Times readers.)

For present purposes we will ignore the issues of criminal and civil liability. Those are clearly matters for the authorities.

Cohen's focus is elsewhere. He asserts, rather blithely, that the wife of a wealthy man has an ethical duty to ask where the money is coming from. In other words, she has no duty to trust her husband; she has no duty to be loyal to her husband. She must abandon trust and loyalty and become a fearless and fearsome interrogator.

She must ask the kinds of questions that Cohen, who is obviously out of his depth here, thinks that any rational person would think of.

When the happy couple is tucked into the marital bed, she must (ethically) turn to her husband and ask: How can you be earning such consistent returns? Why hasn't Goldman Sachs invested in your funds? If we're so rich, why aren't you in jail?

Anyone who follows this advice will turn her boudoir into a Star Chamber.

To see through the scam Ruth Madoff would have needed complete access to the company books and sophisticated knowledge of accounting, finance, and investing. The SEC missed it. Many highly sophisticated investors missed it. Why would a spouse be able to catch it.

In case you missed the politically correct moralizing, Cohen expands his point.

Before you bite into that hamburger, you must find out whether the cow that provided the meat suffered needlessly while being put to death.

Before you lace up that new pair of Air Jordans you must know whether the Chinese workers who produced them are allowed frequent coffee breaks.

And before you buy that new laptop make sure you figure out whether the company that produced the battery has been polluting rivulets in the pristine Laotian countryside.

Cohen pays lip service to the fact that if anyone were to take him seriously and follow his instructions, the world economy would quickly grind to a halt.

His purpose lies elsewhere. He does not want to control your behavior; he wants to control your mind. He wants us all to feel guilty, and to engage in periodic moral self-flagellation.

Ultimately,he wants us all to think the way he does. He is more than happy to guilt-trip people into agreeing with him.

The moral of the story is this: ethics is not and should never become a guilt trip.

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