The Times Does Ethics

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has a weekly column by Randy Cohen called “The Ethicist”. I’ve hardly ever read it, for obvious reasons. What Cohen calls “ethics” is more or less synonymous with what is better known as “liberal politics.” Cohen himself says:

More and more I’ve come to feel that people will be about as virtuous as the society in which they live. Most of us will be neither heroes nor villains, but just average folks. So it increasingly seems essential to work toward the building of a just society if we are to have any hope at all of being fair and honest individuals. I suppose this means that I’ve come to make less of a distinction between ethics and politics.

I don’t expect much from the Times, but I found today’s “Ethicist” column astonishing. Cohen advises an anonymous reader who says that he works for a law firm and volunteered to work on a pro bono project “to help with child-labor problems in a developing country.” Belatedly, however, he learned that the project “is run by an evangelical Christian group, a movement I morally oppose.” The reader concludes: “I am uneasy refusing to help just because I don’t like the group providing aid. Should I continue with the project?”
Cohen’s advice, in essence, is to stop feeling uneasy:

Lawyers may choose their clients. Thus, you may continue on this project, but you are not required to. In your place, I would step down. Life’s too short (and a good night’s sleep too elusive) to spend your days on a cause you find profoundly offensive.

Cohen suggests that his advice would be different if the reader were representing a Nazi group:

I would feel differently if this client were unable to find another lawyer. There’s no doubt that A.C.L.U. members abhorred the neo-Nazis the organization represented in Skokie, Ill., and yet you must admire those lawyers’ commitment to free expression and their conviction that unpopular, even odious, clients are entitled to counsel. Fortunately, you are not in such a dicey situation.

In Cohen’s view, representing Nazis is “dicey,” but representing “evangelical Christians” is out of the question.
Cohen reassures his reader that dropping out of the project to avoid being associated with evangelical Christians can’t be considered bigoted:

[Dropping out] may open you to charges of religious intolerance, which would be warranted if you harbor an anti-Christian animus. But there is nothing untoward in opposing the evangelical movement as a conservative political interest group. That its ideas are defended on religious grounds neither exempts it from public debate nor makes bigots out of those who contest them.

Three quick points about this: First, note the complete absence of any information about the “evangelical Christian” group in question. A single brush, I guess, is enough to tar them all. There is zero evidence from which either the anonymous advice-seeker or Randy Cohen could have concluded that the group is somehow morally suspect.
Second, note how quick Cohen is to assume that the unidentified group in question is fair game because “the evangelical movement” is a “conservative political interest group.” This leap may come naturally to Cohen, who “has come to make less of a distinction between ethics and politics.” But can he really be unaware that the world is full of people who do not equate either religion or ethics with politics? Is it really unimaginable to him that a religious group could want to alleviate problems associated with child labor without having a political agenda? And isn’t this a rather huge blind spot for a professional “ethicist”?
Which brings us to the last point: what kind of “ethicist” could answer this reader’s question without even mentioning the child laborers in a developing country who are the object of the church group’s efforts? Apparently, to Cohen, who believes that ethics and politics are the same thing, those children’s plight fades to insignificance beside the political imperative of attacking evangelicals.
I think the lawyer who wrote to the “Ethicist” would have gotten much better advice from one of the evangelical ministers who are running the child labor program.


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