Saturday, March 14, 2009

Has "The Ethicist" Lost His Moral Compass? Randy Cohen Wimps Out On Whistle-Blowing.

In tomorrow's issue of the NYT Magazine, Randy Cohen's column, "The Ethicist," advises a reader on a classic moral dilemma: should an employee blow the whistle on his boss's unethical behavior?

Surprisingly -- and disturbingly -- Cohen's answer is no.

Here's the scenario. A carpenter is working on an $8 million-plus home renovation. The painting subcontractor is a friend of his boss, and has botched his job: the paint won't stick. The boss won't tell the customer, and instead orders the crew to cover up his buddy's lousy work.

"Should I risk my job and inform the owner?" the correspondent asks. "Am I an accomplice to an unethical act or just an employee following instructions?"

Cohen's answer is as clear as it is unexpected: He instructs Name Withheld to keep his mouth shut.

"The threshhold for mandatory whistle-blowing in high," Cohen writes. "My guideline for duty-to-report questions is this: You must come forward when doing so will prevent serious imminent harm to a particular person. That is not the case here."

Cohen goes on to suggest that to come forward might be "desirable," but not necessary given the possibly dire consequences.

"The fate of whistle-blowers is seldom serene," Cohen notes, "and ethics does not compel you to sacrifice your job over this."

Cohen's right, of course: whistle-blowers (or "tattletales," as they're colloquially called) can face dire prospects if caught and punished by their employers. The courts and Congress have waffled on laws to protect whistle-blowers from persecution. It's a risky proposition, and not always advisable.

But is Cohen's job as "The Ethicist" to preach caution on matters of right and wrong? He's not a religious leader, but he's someone we look to for guidance and insight into the complex moral questions that crop up in daily life. Which may be a little scary when you consider that his previous full-time job, before becoming "The Ethicist," was writing jokes for David Letterman.

It seems to us that Cohen's caution sends a dangerous message to those who face similar issues to the one plaguing the morally confused carpenter. When facing a dilemma about the ethical behavior of our bosses, should we all be calculating the potential damage to our careers in deciding what to do? Or should we be more concerned with doing the right thing, no matter what the cost?

Cohen's right that there's no "serious imminent harm" created by a bad paint job -- this isn't the same as Karen Silkwood uncovering wrongdoing in the manufacture of plutonium pellets for fuel rods at a nuclear power plant. No one will die; no one will get sick; no one will probably even know.

But Cohen trips on his own logic by saying that only the guilty need to blow the whistle. "Declining to report other people's misdeeds is one thing; committing your own is another," he writes. "That's what you would be doing if you acted to disguise the bungled paint job."

Read the question, Randy: that's exactly what "Name Withheld" says he was being asked to do. "We employees were told to avoid making this mistake apparent," the carpenter writes. But Cohen glosses over this direct statement in advising the questioner to stay silent, and not go to the home's owner with the truth -- and protecting the wrongdoer in the process.

In the end, Cohen advises the carpenter to bypass the problem entirely, by changing jobs. "Perhaps the question is not should you risk your job but rather how quickly can you find a new one with a nonscoundrel boss," Cohen says.

Is that really a satisfying solution for the would-be whistle-blower -- to run away? The Ethicist's advice has left the carpenter with a knot in his stomach and the task of finding a new position in a ravaged economy. Thanks, Randy.

We're not ethicists, though some of us share Cohen's training as professional gag writers. Still, we do have a collective sense of outrage at injustice, whether it's on a grand scale or at a small workplace.

This case seems to us a simple matter. An $8 million home renovation must involve dozens of workers, all of whom must be aware of this ethical lapse by the "boss." Does the carpenter really risk his employment by going to the home's owner and telling him what happened? Isn't there a reasonable expectation that the owner will keep his name out of it, and fire the head contractor? Who knows -- maybe he'd even reward the carpenter for his honesty by giving him a promotion. It seems to us a reasonable risk, with the added benefit, for the carpenter, of behaving in a way that satisfies his desire to do the right thing.

It seems to us that Cohen ought be bending over backwards to advise his correspondents to do the right thing. It's easy to say that the risk factor isn't worth it on a job this small, but in a way that's a reflection of Cohen's snobbery. If the carpenter didn't care, why would he bother writing to The Ethicist for help? He clearly wanted Cohen to push him towards an act of moral behavior -- not to instruct him to avoid the issue by keeping quiet, or getting a new job.

The carpenter should do the right thing. Maybe he's risking his job, but maybe there's a greater reward, either financial or spiritual, in telling the truth. It's a reward that Cohen doesn't bother to calculate in advising the carpenter to play it safe.


Anonymous said...

What do you expect? It's the Magazine, where ethics are optional.

Anonymous said...

I usually agree with you on 99% of what you write. And your main point - that Cohen wimped out on the question - is valid. But you undermine your own argument with the snarky reference to his being a writer for Letterman. He's done the column for as long as I can remember. Ten years? Fifteen? Either way, we're long past the point where this is relevant. Did he blow the question? Yes. Does this really - at this point - have anything to do with him being a former Letterman writer? I think it's specious at best.


Thanks for the nice words. Normally we let comments here stand without a followup. But in this case, you raise a reasonable question that warrants a response.

In an item about facing fear of retribution for whistle-blowing in the workplace, it's relevant to know what work experience (if any) The Ethicist might have -- especially given the weakness of his answer. Most NYT readers aren't aware of the Ethicist's background before taking on this high-profile job. It seems to us they have a perfect right to know, and that's why we mentioned it.

Anonymous said...

Now I understand why Cohen's always trying to turn everything into a joke.

Anonymous said...

From Anonymous #2:

Thanks for the response. I see your point. I don't disagree (that in this context, his previous work experience is relevant), but had I been your editor, I would have pushed you to rephrase it, taking into account his more recent work experience: Namely, working for the NY Times. "If a reporter on another desk was doing a lousy job, would you keep quiet about it?"

Either way, love the site. Thanks for doing it.

(And no response is necessary to this.)