Jan 05, 2009, 05:51AM

Ethics for Dummies

Randy Cohen's would-be humor column in the New York Times Magazine is a one-stop shop for all your wealthy, boobish non-problems.

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Nothing bores and infuriates me in quite the same way as the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The Sunday Magazine is like a bearded man who explains the concept of heirloom tomatoes to you in the checkout line at Whole Foods; it is like a yoga instructor who listens silently while you speak to her and then reveals that she has totally ignored everything you said; it is like a woman wearing folk jewelry who smiles condescendingly at you if you say “de Sade” instead of “de Sa-a-a-a-de.”

It is also entirely typical of The New York Times’ usually well-written though ultimately misguided reporting and writing. The paper’s haughty and bafflingly out-of-touch style most recently erupted in former fashion writer Alex Kuczynski’s pretentious article on surrogate motherhood. The article itself was relatively measured, although the photographers went to considerable lengths to make the surrogate look like a clueless hillbilly; the cover of the magazine in question showed Kuczynski in a slim wool dress standing belly-to-belly with the shabbily dressed woman who was going to bear her child. Even the Times’ usually blue-nosed readers did not find the article amusing. Ultimately this kind of clueless elitism is what I read much of the Times for anyway—it’s always a little thrilling, in a ghoulish way, to see exactly how little shame our country’s elites have, and how little they understand that their problems, next to the debts and disease of most of the world, seem trifling and passing.

The best place to see this Marie Antoinette obliviousness on parade is the Sunday Magazine’s endpaper, a weekly recitation of important lessons learned from saintly minorities and the endless torments of a successful literary career. I sometimes ask friends and family members to read the endpaper before me, much in the manner of a Borgia pope asking a nearby nuncio to take a bite of his steak before he starts eating; if the endpaper is too saccharine and vile I avoid it. There was a time, when I was in high school, that I actually tried to go through the whole magazine, but I began to read selectively while I was in college, eliminating first the extremely long feature articles, then cutting out some of the less essential columns and eventually whittling the whole thing down to just the endpaper and “The Ethicist,” Randy Cohen’s advice column.

Cohen admits that he has no particular training in ethics and is, in fact, a humor writer. Of course the questions that he answers are not exactly taxing. “The Ethicist” is a tarted up “Dear Abby”; god forbid the Times should feature something so pedestrian as an advice column. I love to read it, less for Cohen’s answers than for the inane and hilariously stupid questions that his readers ask. I usually agree with Cohen’s responses, grounded as they are in a practical, commonsense idea of doing little harm to anyone and acting as honestly as possible. But his readers! My god! Dear Abby fields questions from people who are stupid but who at least have the good grace to be poor and to write poorly, but Cohen’s readers are wealthy, highly educated, and still dumber than a bag of hammers. Many of them are college professors and none of them seem to be dealing with issues that would actually require professional advice of any sort. These are low-stakes questions, generally asked in a defensive way that makes it clear that the letter writers wish for Cohen to justify their selfish and repulsive behavior. Take this example:

I am participating in a charity bike tour in Italy later this year. Each rider must get sponsors to raise $2,500 for the charity. Since the ride will take place abroad, there are additional costs of airfare, hotel and registration fees. Is it ethical to raise more than the required $2,500 and apply the surplus money to those costs? — DAVID Y. HARARI, BROOKLYN
I can just imagine David Y. having brunch at Moutarde in Park Slope, his aviators clipped to his dirty white v-neck t-shirt. Cohen provided the correct answer to this obnoxious question (no, you are not allowed to collect charity money in order to score a free vacation in Italy). But this is a typical question for the column—Ann Landers and Dear Abby (columns that I also read whenever I find them) deal with issues like unplanned pregnancy, divorce, and abuse. Cohen tackles vacation homes and how much you should tip the housekeeper. The only possible conclusion that I can draw from my weekly reading of “The Ethicist” is that Cohen, though himself not that funny, is picking questions mostly for their comedic value, for the fact that they give us an odious portrait of their odious writers, for the fact that they show their writers to be mean and unethical and petty.

Ann Landers and Dear Abby are more like Jerry Springer, showcasing the genuinely horrible problems of people who we can safely dismiss as degenerates, savage others who are nothing like us and who make us feel that our challenges are small merely by existing. So what’s going on with the Ethicist’s petitioners, people who have no obviously monstrous qualities (they are not involved in incestuous or abusive relationships, and usually their financial problems are so minor as to escape the definition of “problem” altogether)? They are, in fact, a palladium for the Times’ actually-middlebrow-but-thinks-it’s-highbrow audience. People who write in to “The Ethicist” usually seem morally deformed, but in relatively small and safe ways. Take these examples:

Our son, 17, has a weekly paper route. He is supposed to deliver on a particular day but sometimes takes until the weekend. His boss doesn’t know this, because the subscribers, few of whom pay for this neighborhood paper, don’t complain. We find our son’s behavior inexcusable and have talked to him about advertisers who are hurt when he is late, but a parent’s words don’t carry the weight of an employer’s. Is it ethical to report this to his boss? — NAME WITHHELD, SEATTLE

“A woman I hired to do simple gardening comes weekly and, when school is out, brings her kids. While her twin preschoolers play in the shade, her approximately nine-year-old daughter works alongside her. I am uncomfortable watching my eight- and 11-year-old boys kicking a soccer ball as the girl walks past pushing a wheelbarrow. Should I ask the mother to keep her daughter from working? Should I not employ this woman? — JANE E., ALBUQUERQUE

Neither one of these questions contains what I would call a real problem, or even an ethical problem. Busybody parents ache to betray their son; they shouldn’t. A supermom feels guilty about having to see her gardener’s daughter toil; we can imagine that she would prefer not to know anything about the gardener’s family, since a gardener is not really a person in the vicious social world that we imagine for her. It’s the same process at work in Kuczynski’s article on surrogacy. Infertility is a real and heart-wrenching problem, unless you happen to be an immensely wealthy, well-connected professional who can afford the surrogacy fee without any suffering and can spend the fretful period of the pregnancy skiing and doing yoga.

I’ll leave you with the following:

Sometimes my normally obedient dog, Ornette, escapes our fenced yard and will not return on command. We open the car door and tell her excitedly that we will take her for a walk, her favorite activity, to entice her into the car. Then we put on the leash and take her home, no walk. Although dogs don’t really understand language in the way that humans do, I’m worried about the ethical propriety of our misleading ploy. Should I be? — DAVID SCHADE, VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA

  • Another gem! I had a boyfriend who loved the ethicist column. He like to play a game where he would read the question aloud and then we would both offer our answers before checking Cohen's to see who was more ethical. He was a real asshole. Loved the article.

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  • Ari, you've got more fortitude than me for actually reading the Times magazine on Sunday. On occasion, James Traub has a good piece, or Christopher Caldwell, but "The Ethicist" is just horrendous.

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  • i dont read the sunday magazine for the reasons you mention, but this was a hot piece.

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  • Ari don't front--you know you LOVE Moutarde.

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