The Ethicist(s)

In Legal Ethics & Professionalism, Literature & the Arts by gravierhouseLeave a Comment

I am glad to see that there is, again, one Ethicist.

The Ethicist, for those who don’t know, is a weekly column that appears in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. As with other advice columns, readers submit various fact situations with questions and conundrums, to which the author responds, analyzing the problem from an ethical perspective.

When I first started reading the column, “the Ethicist” was a guy named Cohen, (think it was something like Ethan or Randy or something). At some point, he was replaced by Chuck Klosterman, whom I love. Not only did I agree with almost every conclusion / advice, but I was generally impressed with the insightful way that he would get to the heart of the issue. He would generally explore (and reject) a couple of ways that you could look at the issue differently – e.g., based on the addition of or a change in facts that were not expressly provided; or on a gut or emotional reaction; or according to some religion or philosophy; or the way that contemplated conduct might likely be treated under the law. But then he would hone in on the penultimate question of how the available choices might or might not be fair (or least unfair) to others.

A few months ago, the magazine switched to a different format. Instead of just one Ethicist, there were now three. One was a lawyer; one was maybe some type of philosophy or psychology professor; don’t really remember what the third one was, maybe just a “writer”. In any event, rather than trying to precisely identify and resolve the issue, (explaining, concisely, along the way, why the potential Red Herrings were not really where the answer would lie), the “column” turned into what was more of a transcript of the discussion between and among the three Ethicists, reacting to the conundrum, and each other, from each of their own individual perspectives.

Which was very unsatisfying.

Yeah, sure, sometimes it’s nice to get multiple points of view.

But the whole point of this particular column was to provide an answer.

That’s what makes it interesting.

Because it bucks the convention, and flies in the face of our vague and contemporary notions that “everything is subjective” or things are “relative” and “there are no right answers” and that “nothing is black or white, but only shades of gray”.

By saying No, there is a Right and a Wrong answer, and the Right answer is: This.

Perhaps This isn’t really the “right” answer in any absolute sense. Or even one with which you personally agree. But the taking of an objective and definitive approach is exactly what makes the whole exercise thought-provoking and refreshing.

Plus, when you are asked to come up with the definitive, ultimate, correct answer to a complicated problem, you generally engage in your own internal dialectic. The first few back-and-forths almost always end up on the cutting room floor. As you realize that those are the easy questions, and/or not really the issue, and you start to get to the true heart of the matter – (or at least to new levels that are new, or insightful, or interesting).

When you are only asked to participate in a conversation, all of the pressure is off. You don’t have to think about it too hard, or really dig deep to come up with the “right” answer. The reader just gets the first few knee-jerk and often obvious reactions that would otherwise likely end up discarded.

And because there is no conclusively “right” answer, no one spends too much time further thinking about whether that’s really the case or why they disagree.

Anyway, we are now apparently back to just one all-knowing “Ethicist”. Kwane Anthony Appiah. A “philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist whose interests include political and moral theory” (Google, 2015). Sounds promising. We’ll see….

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