Topic: Professions & Institutions

"The Ethicist" Whiffs

The Scoreboard confesses to being a longtime fan of Randy Cohen, author of the New York Times Magazine’s popular column “The Ethicist.” Cohen’s ethics are sound, his choice of topic is interesting, and his solutions to the ethical dilemmas posed to him by readers show wisdom, a knowledge of his subject, and frequently, humor. When I have disagreed with him intensely, which isn’t often, I have dropped him a protesting e-mail, and if I receive a response, it is a measured and civil one.

However, Cohen’s uncharacteristically faulty reply to a recent query is worth dissecting in a somewhat more public forum, which is why I am writing a Scoreboard essay rather than a private e-mail to Mr. Cohen. In this case he fell victim to bias, that most insidious of judgement distorters, and it caused “The Ethicist” to have a most unethical reaction to an interesting problem.

The question came from a printer, who had been asked by a customer to print up bumper-stickers that read, “Defend American Against the Communist/Vote Republican”. The printer asked Cohen whether he should alert the customer to the typo, especially since he found the message repugnant, misprint or not. “I think his faulty grammar suits his ridiculous message, and I do not want to correct it. I’d rather save my energy for helping those who mean well,” he wrote. “What shall I do?”

“The Ethicist” replied that he should perform his job up to “professional standards,” but he was not obligated to correct his customer’s “prose.” Besides, quoth the now rapidly de-ethicizing Cohen, why rob the rest of us of the chance to laugh at the resulting bumper-sticker, so illiterate, so dumb…you know, like “the president’s quirky pronouncements.”

OK, we get where you’re coming from, Randy. But since your column is called “The Ethicist” and not “The Democrat,” let’s get back to ethics, shall we?

As in The Golden Rule…remember that one? You know, we don’t have “an obligation” to treat others as we’d like to be treated (even mean old Republicans), but it is still a valid ethical standard. The printer knows that a paying customer has submitted a job with an error in it. Isn’t the kind, fair, generous, and professional thing to do for the printer to call up his customer…who has entrusted a job to him in good faith, not to make political judgements about but to complete according to his trade…and ask him if he is aware of the mistake? The customer would be grateful, just as I have been grateful literally dozens of times when my printers have alerted me to page numbering mistakes in brochures, incorrect dates, and once, an invalid mailing code that would have cost me thousands of dollars. Since when, exactly, did it become ethical to allow someone to harm themselves simply because you don’t agree with their view of the world? And while The Scoreboard will stipulate that the requested bumper-sticker message lacks a bit of, shall we say, political sophistication, since when is a printer supposed to be a critic of what he prints? That’s not his job, nor is it the role that those who employ his services expect him to play. Nor, unless this is the rare case of a Kennedy School of Government professor moonlighting as a bumper-sticker printer, is it a role he is qualified to play.

Randy Cohen, ethics maven, is saying that it’s OK for a printer to alert one customer to a problem when the printer likes what he wants to print but not alert another whose message annoys him. Uh-uh. The Ethicist has just endorsed untrustworthy conduct, because a professional who varies his services according to arbitrary criteria cannot be trusted. Untrustworthy is unethical, Randy. But I know you know that.

And what is really likely to happen? Both “The Ethicist” and “The Printer” are so blinded by their partisan views that they assume the foolish customer (for nobody who isn’t a fool could urge people to vote Republican, right guys?) won’t notice the typo after the bumper-sticker is printed, and that all of his like-minded friends are such morons that they won’t notice it either! But that’s not going to happen. What’s going to happen is that he’ll realize the mistake when he actually sees the sticker, and will have to order the whole job again, thus giving his trusted craftsman, the Democrat printer who has privately convicted him of not meaning well (those poor, misunderstood Communists!), twice the fee.

Is this feeling unethical yet, Mr. Ethicist?

I agree with one point Cohen makes, which is that the printer can choose not to do the job. That is certainly more ethical that doing it but doing it badly on purpose while rationalizing that producing an unusable product and being paid for it is still acceptable because you have no “obligation” to correct an error. More ethical, but still not right. The spirit of the principle that led us to make it illegal for restaurants to refuse to serve non-Caucasians requires that those who provide a necessary service shouldn’t withhold it because of an individual’s opinions, lifestyle, appearance, or other characteristics. Just as pharmacists shouldn’t be refusing to fill birth-control prescriptions, gas station attendants shouldn’t withhold gas from SUV owners and grocery stores shouldn’t refuse to sell food to fat people. Printers should give the same service to all, regardless of what their message is. And good, professional, ethical printers flag time-consuming and embarrassing errors in copy before they print the job.

Randy Cohen, wise as he is, let a strongly felt political orientation knock all those ethical instincts right out of his head. That doesn’t make him any less of an ethicist; it just makes him human, and reinforces an important lesson for all of us. Our passions, opinions, strong likes and dislikes can and will pull us away from ethical values that we believe in and usually practice. That is the power of bias, and when we stop looking for biases in our decisions, it can warp our judgement.

If it happened to “The Ethicist,” it can happen to this ethicist…and it can happen to you.


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