Topic: Professions & Institutions

Richard Cohen, Hamilton, and the Right Thing

With the possible exception of Michael Kinsley, Richard Cohen is the most ethically confused of all respectable op-ed columnists, and as such he is a treasure, a gift that keeps on giving to any ethicist looking for ethical misconceptions to correct. Cohen, bless him, was in fine form recently when he excoriated Hamilton College for "giving in to the mob" when it cancelled its improvidently granted speaking invitation to the infamous Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado professor who is on record as maintaining that the victims of 9/11 deserved everything they got.

Now, Cohen doesn’t think Churchill should have been speaking at the college. He properly dismissed the college’s misapplied First Amendment arguments, and correctly identified Churchill for what he is: "an idiot" whose hateful and illogical rantings are not fit for respectable intellectual discourse at any institution of higher learning. Cohen thinks Churchill should never have been invited and should have been disinvited once cooler heads prevailed. So what is Cohen’s beef? He objects to the fact that Hamilton only did what he regards as the "right thing" after conservative TV rabble-rouser Bill O’Reilly got his loyal viewers to bombard the college president with e-mails.

"They chickened out," he wrote. Once having taken what Richard Cohen agrees is a wrong position based on misapplied principle, Hamilton should have forged ahead, the columnist proclaimed. By doing the right thing only when pressured by what Cohen calls the "mob" (mob, n. : A group of disreputable clods whose opinions must be garbage because they listen to a bloviating Cro-Magnon like Bill O’Reilly on the Fox network. The Richard Cohen Unabridged Dictionary), Hamilton turned the right thing into the wrong thing.

There is a glimmer of enlightenment in Cohen’s crack-brained argument, to be sure. Adhering to principle in the face of organized opposition is an admirable trait, involving courage, fortitude and sacrifice. But there is no escaping two basic facts:

  1. A harmful and wrongful act, done for what the actor regards as a noble reason, is still a wrongful act.

  2. An act having good consequences is still a right act, even if the act is performed for the wrong reasons.

Ethics aims at reaching the best result, not achieving the most admirable set of motives. The Nazis may have thought they were purifying the human race for the greater good of the planet, but that doesn’t make their genocide any more acceptable. The Hamilton administration told Churchill to get lost because it was intimidated, according to Cohen, but that doesn’t change the fact that Churchill needed to be told to get lost. The college deserves due credit for doing the right thing.

The test Cohen would apply to define ethical conduct is both unrealistic and impractical, not to mention destructive. The Christian who doesn’t really care about the poor but who gives to charity because he thinks it will grease his way to heaven should "stick to his guns" in the Cohen construct…but charities would get fewer contributions. The Congressman determined to sponsor a bill that constitutes a corporate give-away should ignore the emailed threats of his constituents that he’ll be sent packing in the next election, because he’d be "chickening out." A bad bill would be passed, but this is preferable, in Cohen’s world, to the bill being killed in response to "the mob."

Courage, fortitude and constancy and are virtues, but they are what are called neutral virtues that can be applied to good or bad ends. Elevating these values above their end results creates an equally invalid twist on "the ends justify the means": "the means invalidate the ends." Neither is ethically sound. People often do the right thing for less than noble reasons, but the most important fact is that the right thing gets done. It got done in the case of Ward Churchill. Cohen, whom I suspect let his already tenuous hold on ethical principles be completely undone by his ideological objections to Bill O’Reilly, ended up taking the absurd position that it is better to leave a wrong unaddressed than to fix it under pressure.

Thank you, Richard. Looking forward to you next ethics column!


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