Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ethics revisited

So-- as people have been delighted to point out to me-- New York Times Magazine ethics columnist Randy Cohen has been revealed to have donated money to, in violation of the Times' ethics rules governing political activity by its writers.
The New York Times, Randy Cohen, ethics columnist, $585 in three donations in August 2004 to, which conducted get-out-the-vote drives to defeat President Bush. In addition to the syndicated column "The Ethicist" for the Times Magazine, Cohen answers ethics questions for listeners of NPR.

Freelancers like Cohen are covered by the Times policy, which says, "Times readers apply exacting standards to the entire paper. They do not distinguish between staff-written articles and those written by outsiders. Thus as far as possible, freelance contributors to The Times, while not its employees, will be held to the same standards as staff members when they are on Times assignments, including those for the Times Magazine. If they violate these guidelines, they will be denied further assignments."

Cohen said he thought of as nonpartisan and thought the donation would be allowed even under the strict rule at the Times.

"We admire those colleagues who participate in their communities — help out at the local school, work with Little League, donate to charity," Cohen said in an e-mail. "But no such activity is or can be non-ideological. Few papers would object to a journalist donating to the Boy Scouts or joining the Catholic Church. But the former has an official policy of discriminating against gay children; the latter has views on reproductive rights far more restrictive than those of most Americans. Should reporters be forbidden to support those groups? I’d say not. Unless a group’s activities impinge on a reporter’s beat, the reporter should be free to donate to a wide range of nonprofits. Make a journalist’s charitable giving transparent, and let the readers weigh it as they will.

"Those who do not cover anything, but write a column of opinion should have even more latitude. It is such a writer’s job to make his views explicit. Those donations to nonprofits will no doubt reflect the views he or she is hired to express. In evaluating such civic engagement, it is well to remember that to have an opinion is not to have a bias. To conceal one’s political opinions is not to be without them."

After checked the names of Times staff and contributors on this list with a spokesperson for the Times, Cohen sent this addendum:

"That said, Times policy does forbid my making such donations, and I will not do so in the future."

Over at NRO, Douglas Kern provides commentary that manages to be almost right and yet totally nuts.
Dear Randy:

Nincompoops talk ethics. Men talk virtues. Stop being a nincompoop.

My highest law-school grade was in Legal Ethics. I achieved a stellar grade because I devised an infallible mechanism for solving any legal ethical dilemma. My mechanism was this: Remember that legal ethics is a system of rules:

1) designed by sociopaths;
2) for sociopaths;
3) to prevent public acknowledgment of their sociopathy;
4) while still allowing said sociopaths to fleece said public.

Once you realize that contemporary ethics is not morality but the clever simulation of morality, you’re halfway to qualifying for an ethics-consulting job.[...]

I’m only kidding a little about the sociopathy. By definition, a sociopath is one who can only emulate the rules and mores of society, as a sociopath never internalizes any sense of right and wrong. In a country where fewer and fewer people agree about how to determine right and wrong, the bogus pseudo-answers of ethics begin to sound more and more appealing. Put another way: As we grow more sociopathic as a society, ethics makes more and more sense.

And that’s where you come in, my fine ethical friend. Your job as a public ethicist is not to teach people how best to apply the rules and obligations of a transcendent authority, as the ethicists of old once did. That would be hard. And intrusive. And divisive. And let’s face it: “transcendent authority” carries the whiff of the red state, with all the unpleasantness (NASCAR, Wal-Mart, redundant children) there attached. Neither is your job to teach philosophy. That, too, would be hard, and unsatisfying as well; when do philosophers ever agree? No, your job is to provide just enough soothing advice to scratch that fleeting itch that your affluent readership feels when confronted with moral questions that vacuous self-serving upper class prejudices can’t immediately resolve. Forget right and wrong; the role of the modern ethicist is to move puzzled smart people from a state of mild dismay to a pleasant coma of satisfied smugness in the shortest time possible. You seek to avoid not sin, but the appearance of impropriety. But a great many virtues can appear quite improper, and a great many sins can appear quite proper indeed.

Consider, for example, the “ethical” rule that precludes journalists (and quasi-journalists like yourself) from donating money to politicians and overt shill machines. You’ve correctly deduced that this rule is asinine. Suppose for a moment that you obeyed it. Would you feel any differently, write any differently, be biased against conservatives any differently if you kept your $585.00 instead of donating it? And would you suddenly evolve into a better, purer, more ethically unstoppable self if you gave that money to The Medusa Fund for Underprivileged Maoists in Malibu, instead of Kucinich for President? No, this rule does nothing to prevent bias. It rewards those sneaky enough to donate anonymously, or through a proxy, even as it penalizes those who make their political biases a matter of public record. Note that my infallible ethics problem-solving mechanism predicts this rule perfectly:

1) It’s easily implemented, so that even a sociopath can enforce it;

2) It’s easy to obey, so that even a sociopath can abide by it;

3) It gives the public the entirely false sense that journalists who abide by this rule are honorable and unbiased; and

4) It doesn’t prevent any journalist with even a lick of cleverness from secretly donating money to politicians and then copping a “fairer than thou” attitude from an unassailable position of serene non-involvement.

A real system for determining right and wrong requires commonly held first principles and leadership with the acknowledged authority to interpret and apply those principles. That kind of agreement is in short supply these days. In modern societies where people adhering to all sorts of creeds regularly interact in order to make money, principles and dogma will tend to take a backseat to rough ‘n ready codes of conduct – and modern ethics is nothing if not rough ‘n ready. Morality is for heroes; modern ethics is for sophisters, economists, and calculators. We tolerate modern ethics, as we tolerate sophisters, but they should both know their place, and neither should command great love or respect.

So ignore the rules, Randy, and donate away. Of course, your donation will expose you as an appalling hypocrite, and you may lose your job consequently. That’s okay. Your job is stupid. Why not write a column calling men to heroic virtue instead of cocktail-party pleasantries?

OK, in order:
1) If Randy Cohen actually knew about the Times policy and thought that somehow (the PAC, not the affiliated 501c4) was relevantly like a nonpartisan charitable contribution and not relevantly like a political contribution, and didn't even wonder about this enough to ask someone, then he's dumb. When you donate to a PAC, and fill out the paperwork that gets the donation into the FEC database, you get lots of verbiage about this not being a tax-deductible charitable contribution. You're contributing directly to the election or defeat of political candidates, even though you're not contributing directly to the candidates. This is the basic distinction of American campaign-donations law. It's not hard. One may not like the rules that put PACs on one side and the Catholic Church on the other of a very bright line, but they're not hard to understand from a donor's perspective. (They may be hard for the organizations themselves to understand, in terms of what's permitted or not to groups on either side of the line.)

I don't think he's that dumb. Therefore I think he's a liar.

2) He's not, strictly speaking, a hypocrite, because-- as I kvetched about all these years ago-- his official position on the relationship of ethics to political morality is that the rules are less important than being on the leftward side. He's living up to his announced code, though of course that differs from the Times' code.

3) I agree with both Cohen and Kern that this is a pretty dumb rule. It's not as dumb as the famous case of the Washington Post editor who doesn't vote lest it prejudice him, but it's dumb. Journalists categorically shouldn't be in the pay of political actors. But how one gets from there to the rule that they should not themselves contribute to such actors is beyond me. Making the contribution doesn't add to the journalist's bias. In order to avoid (yes) the appearance of impropriety or conflicts of interest, I'd say that news (not opinion) reporters who directly cover politics and elections shouldn't contribute-- lest the donation make the reporter feel that he or she now has a psychic stake in the candidate's success. (But note it's only a psychic stake; the conflict of interest is much harder to identify than when a business reporter owns stocks.)

4) But, contra Cohen's general position and Kern's view about this case, I think that following the rules is morally important. This may make me less than manly in Kern's eyes.

[Aside: Has any good ever come from someone who feels the need to announce he's being manly? Among the defining traits of John Wayne types is that they don't talk very much, certainly don't talk about themselves very much, and basically never talk about themselves with the kind of self-reflexivity that says, 'hey, didja see what I just did? Didja see what kind of action that was? When someone tells you he's being manly, call him a poseur-- it's ok, you can use a French word, because you're not pretending to be John Wayne-- and then check to make sure your wallet's still in place.)

Anyway: this may make me less than manly in Kern's eyes. And in Cohen's it means that I'm morally deluded. But the rules are how we live with our moral and political disagreements. The rules are how we avoid case-by-case post-hoc ajudication-- the kind of ajudication that is most likely to be infected by bias. Until the day comes when everyone working on a newspaper has precisely the same political principles, because they've fallen in behind Kern's manly "leadership with the acknowledged authority to interpret and apply those principles," a news organization needs some way to know, and to provide mutual reassurance, that people with strong but divergent beliefs about ultimate political ends are all operating within the same restraints on means.

Kern is kind of right about the difference between ethics and virtue-- but completely wrong about what that means about ethics. Ethical rules tell us: don't stuff the ballot box, even when you think it's really really morally important that your guy win because of your general theory of justice. They tell us: zealously represent your client, even if you think he's scum, or get out of the way and let someone else do so, because you're a professional with expert knowledge and the client-customer has a hard time monitoring whether you;re doing a good job or not. They tell us: don't give a students bad grade because they disagree with you politically, even if you think that their political views reveal that they must be really dumb or very bad people. They tell us-- contra Cohen's advice-- not to authorize ourselves to commit workplace fraud in the service of our overarching vision of how commerce and labor ought to be organized.

That's not to say that ethics is ultimately more important than morality broadly understood. Ethics offers a particular register of morality, not the whole of it. But the ability to live on terms of fair and reciprocal cooperation with those who disagree with us is morally important in its own right. Honoring professional and contractual obligations is morally important. In denigrating ethics as the morality of sociopaths, Kern implicitly calls for the morality of narcissistic megalomaniacs-- those so sure of their own virtue and the rightness of their cause that they can't imagine the need for moral engagement with those who might disagree.