The Right Coast

April 11, 2004
Ethics for people who don't like morality
By Tom Smith

I am the only person who has noticed that Randy Cohen, ethics columnist in the NY
Times Sunday Magazine, is a complete nitwit? The most frightening thing about the column is that apparently there must be quite a few readers out there who think the process he engages in resembles ethical thinking.

Today he has outdone himself. Most people don't have to look very hard to find some serious ethical problems in their own lives. Should I rat out a crooked fellow employee even though doing so might ruin my career and so hurt me and my family? It is permissible to lie on your tax form and so pay less for truly morally objectionable government programs? If I do give money to a charity, which should I choose? How should I weigh my own happiness against those to whom I have obligations? But talking about such things might not be as entertaining as talking about trivial matters, and, as we all know from reading the Times, ethics is just a matter of entertainment, something to think about when we get tired of thinking about luggage and are not yet ready to think about glassware or kitchen counter treatments.

On the agenda today are these two staggering ethical brain twisters. One: Some teenager is doing a good deed recycling old electronic equipment at school or some such place. Various people bring in their old computers etc. for recycling. Teenager sees some of it is valuable and instead of doing whatever you do to recycle such stuff, sells it. Ooooooooohhhh. Is that, like, ethical, dude? Professor Cohen gives some long-winded answer. Here's mine. Yes. Fine. After you sell it, it won't pollute the earth or whatever badly disposed of gear does, you will have more money, and everybody will be better off. Or, if for some reason that bothers you, sell it and give the money to a worthy charity, of which there are about a million. But don't wring your hands over making a little money. Why is it liberals' ethical antenae get all twitchy whenever somebody makes a little money, even if everyone is made better off in the process?

The next ethical mind-blower is even worse. What should you do if you inherit a valuable fur coat and, here it comes, you think it's wrong to wear fur!? Oh dear, oh dear. My head is about to explode with the profound, world-image-shattering force of it all. You could just sell it on Ebay, couldn't you, and give the money to Save the Naked Mole Rats or something, couldn't you? Oh, no! That might suggest you were condoning the wearing of fur, and we musn't have that! Because it's all about one's ethical fashion statement. One must choose one's ethical pose as carefully as one chooses one's shoes, or sports coup, or apperitif.

Randy Cohen suggests turning the fur coat into teddy bears. Boy, I guess that just shows how ethically benighted I am. I would have thought it was ethically questionable to take a say, $10,000 fur coat and turn it into five $2000 teddy bears. I would have thought $10,000 could keep a Peruvian family alive for five years. I suppose I might spend $10,000 on a toy for myself, but I wouldn't be congratulating myself for my ethics for doing it, and it wouldn't be a f&^%ing teddy bear.

A $2000 mink teddy bear is, however, a perfect metaphor for the kind of ethics Randy Cohen represents. For those of you who have hugged a woman in a mink coat, or you ladies who have worn one, you know you just want to rub your hands up and down the thing to see how good it feels. And that's what ethics is to the Randy Cohens of the world. It's like a fur coat, or a facial, or a new Italian suit. You put it on, and sort of wiggle, and think, ooooooooh, that feels good. Now, what kind of luggage should I get?