Monday, November 04, 2002

The Unethical Ethicist

Anyone who allows himself to be called an ethicist is in need of serious moral improvement. The term is pretentious and arrogant, suggesting that the designee possesses much wisdom and is of high moral character. Randy Cohen who once was a humorist – a vocation that presumably required some skill – has been installed as the resident ethicist at the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times. As applied to him, the term is an oxymoron.

For all of its evident drawbacks, Cohen’s weekly column is a huge draw, something of an upscale version of “Dear Abby.” Admittedly, the comparison is a disservice to Miss Van Buren and the late Ann Landers. He is not in their league in terms of common sense or experience or empathy and he knows little about the subject that he purports to write about. Ethics is for him a way of expressing personal preference.

Much of what he responds to are slam dunks, questions about the propriety of cheating or engaging in deceit. Mr. Cohen stumbles when the issues are more complex, when they touch on ambiguities or dilemmas and it is useful, if not necessary, to weigh conflicting values and to balance conflicting needs. On such occasions, he sounds like a malfunctioning Delphic Oracle, as likely to be errant as to be on the mark.

It is especially unfortunate when someone labeled an ethicist is blind to nuances or does not understand that there are questions that cannot be answered, at least not with a quick judgment or quip. Mr. Cohen plows ahead, without saying – at least not in the column – that he does not know what the proper course might be or that there isn’t a single correct approach or that more than one response can be given.

His latest column, out a few days ago, illustrates what’s wrong. Asked by a reader whether to vote for a former boss running for public office who is “rude and condescending” but whose politics are right or for his opponent “whose politics are completely opposite mine,” Cohen responds that it is a “civic obligation” to “vote for your unlikable ex-boss.” Apparently, character does not count at election time, for it is now a civic obligation and the ethical thing to do to support a candidate whose character is flawed. This from a so-called ethicist. Can it ever be a civic obligation to vote for a particular candidate?

Cohen’s misadventures in ethicsland lend themselves to parody and Calvin Trillin has just jumped at the opportunity in the New Yorker with six “Unpublished Letters to the Ethicist.” Since Cohen kicked up a storm with a know-nothing response that is hostile to religion and offensive to Orthodox Jews, it’s interesting that Trillin’s first letter describes himself as being brought up in a Jewish home, but not observant. “Last summer, in a rash moment, I said publically that if Martha Stewart got indicted I would go back to the synagogue.” Now that she may be indicted, C.T. is in a quandary. His older daughter says that he will have to attend services regularly, have a kosher home and not drive on Shemini Atzeret. He asks the ethicist “whether a Friday-night service or two would do the trick.”

While it is easy to poke fun at Cohen, his skewed view of ethics is not always a laughing matter. Two weeks ago, he gave us a lesson in intolerance falsely marketed as ethics, when he advised a woman who had negotiated a deal with a “courteous and competent real-estate agent” to tear up the signed contract because “he refused to shake her hand,” saying that as an Orthodox Jew he does not touch women. It’s apparently ethical in Cohen’s warped understanding of ethics to tear up a signed contract. It’s also ethical to disregard the freedom of religious expression of the agent and it’s even ethical to suggest that contrary to law and social policy, Orthodox Jews who won’t touch women be victims of discrimination. Since, according to Cohen, they are sexist, it is appropriate to fire or refuse to hire Orthodox men who won’t touch a woman.

Cohen is silent about Orthodox women who refuse to touch men. Is their act of religious faith and modesty also an expression of sexism? At the June 2001 Yale graduation – President Bush was the featured speaker – a young Russian Jewish woman who was graduating politely told the official conducting the ceremony that when she received her diploma, she would not shake the hands of the men on the receiving line. Apparently, this official and others were not offended.

The Times and Cohen have received as many as 1,000 communications, nearly all critical of the column. The critics include persons who are not Orthodox and feminists who on other occasions have been critical of the Orthodox. If there would be a touch of decency or ethics in Cohen, he would apologize. That’s not likely to happen because he is motivated by hostility to religion and to Orthodox Jews and he readily converts his intolerance into pseudo-ethics. In responses to email, he has inappropriately compared the Orthodox conscience-based refusal to touch a woman to racial discrimination. In the mindset of one who is hostile to religion, there is scarcely room for the accommodation of religious belief, for allowing Orthodox Jews and persons of other religious persuasions to go about being faithful to beliefs and practices that harm no one.

The New York Times would not appoint a person who is ignorant about music to be a music critic or an unlettered person to be a book reviewer. It’s anyone’s guess why the newspaper chose someone totally ignorant about ethics and intolerant to boot to be its arbiter of ethical conduct. Whatever the explanation, the outcome is another stain in the Times’ inglorious history of the treatment of Jews.