The New York Times Magazine includes a regular advice column under the title “The Ethicist”. Readers submit accounts of their dilemmas, to which the Ethicist proposes solutions. The founding Ethicist was the comedy writer Randy Cohen. In 2011, Cohen was replaced by the novelist Chuck Klosterman.
Cohen’s version of ethics was little more than the application of liberal politics to matters of lost wallets or unintentional eavesdropping. For Cohen, persons were neither good nor evil and acts neither right nor wrong, at least in any categorical sense. Rather, society was to blame for putting people in uncomfortable situations.
Cohen’s politicized version of situational ethics resembled a BoBo version of the Eichmann defense. Even so, it was preferable to Klosterman’s rudderless speculations. Last week, Klosterman advised a reader that it was ethical to submit the same paper to two college classes, even though this was likely against the academic integrity policies of the student’s university. The reason: “I can’t isolate anything about this practice that harms other people, provides you with an unfair advantage or engenders an unjustified reward.”
As a number of commenters observed, this argument is mind-bogglingly stupid. To mention only the most obvious objection, it ignores the probability that the student had already committed to not doing things like turning in the same paper for different classes. Many universities make observance of an academic integrity policy a condition of enrollment, and sometimes for the submission of specific assignments.
So the very first thing the student should have done was check the standards he had either expressly or tacitly accepted. At the colleges where I’ve taught, students are informed early and often of the policies for this sort of thing, and sometimes have to sign documents indicating their understanding.
Moreover, it’s pretty clear that the turning in the same paper for different classes does provide an unfair advantage over students who follow the rules. After all, they have to do much more work to complete their courses. In addition to his refusal to consider the ethical significance of the student’s voluntary commitments, Klosterman didn’t think very hard about the way college works.
Klosterman’s response was so obviously dumb that some critics challenged his authority as an Ethicist. Via the Times public editor, Klosterman responded as follows:
As for what my “credentials” for this job are … that’s always a strange question. The idea that I would need a degree in ethics to do this job is extremely strange. Is the assumption that all the film critics for The New York Times have film degrees? Do all the music critics have degrees in musicology? Would The Times not hire a business reporter because she didn’t have a J-school degree and an entrepreneurial background? You’re the public editor, and you seem good at your job — but do you have a degree in public policy? Perhaps you do, but I don’t see how that would be essential. The wonderful thing about the Ethicist position is that no one is truly qualified and everyone is partly qualified. The experience of living, the experience of considering life’s problems, the ongoing experience of trying to place an objective reality into an inherently subjective world — these are as close to “credentials” as I possess. It’s the same reason this column generates so much response: It’s not distant from anyone’s life. When someone asks, “Well, what are your credentials for this position?” it’s no different than if I responded to that question by saying, “Well, what are your credentials for asking that question?” Neither sentiment is meaningful. I’m not claiming to be more ethical than other people. I’m just a guy considering problems. (And if it matters, I have a degree in journalism.)
This response clarifies the problem. Klosterman has never thought seriously about what ethics is. In his view, it’s simply obvious that “ethics” is no more than the articulation of what he would do in a given situation, which others may consider or imitate as suits them. Klosterman, in other words, is an unconscious practitioner of what Alasdair MacIntyre dubs emotivism: the view that moral judgments are expressions of subjective approval or disapproval.
Now, there are philosophical arguments in favor of emotivism. But Klosterman doesn’t seem to know that they exist, let alone that there are alternatives. What’s shocking about his response, then, isn’t the conclusion. It’s his bewilderment that anyone could think differently.
Klosterman’s bewilderment is a predictable result of the abandonment of liberal education in many of America’s universities. If Klosterman had studied something more rigorous than journalism–or at least prepared for his professional training with a broad humanistic curriculum–he would be aware of the rich and various traditions of moral inquiry that might shed some light on the kind of questions he’s now paid to answer.
It’s not that one needs a degree in philosophy to be ethical. But it is virtually impossible to think and write coherently about ethics when one is cut off from the historical sources of ethical reflection. Reading Aristotle, or Aquinas, or Kant, or even Nietzsche doesn’t make us better people. It is, however, an antidote to the complacency and narcissism that Klosterman offers his readers.