Is it ethical to pose as an ethicist?

The NYT‘s Ethicist column has a new pencil pusher:

Exciting news for Chuck Klosterman fans.

The pop culture and music critic best known for his Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs collection has landed a sweet new gig at the New York Times Magazine writing the publication’s weekly The Ethicist advice column, originally penned by humorist Randy Cohen.

“This is a job I’ve wanted for 10 years,” Klosterman told the AtlanticWire in an email confirming the news. “I don’t claim to be more ethical than anyone else, or even more ethical than the average person. But I love thinking about these types of problems, and I’ll try to be interesting. We’ll see what happens.”

Emphasis mine. While the first column is better than Cohen’s chronicling of his unreasoned gut reactions, it bears saying that actual ethicists exist. They may or may not be more ethical than anyone else, but they think a lot about this sort of stuff. For a living. They might even have some things to say about it.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Rose-

    What makes someone an ethicist? While I’ve always enjoyed reading The Ethicist, I never quite understood what it meant to be an “Ethicist”. The name implies that it is someone who practices ethics. But don’t we all practice ethics, albeit a system that might be personally developed and incongruent with most commonly accepted approaches? I can understand someone being more knowledgeable than another on the field or study of ethics, and perhaps these are the people we should look to for ethical advice, but the mere title of “ethicist” seems silly. Unless there is a professional field of ethicists of which I am completely ignorant.

    • The term is used in philosophy to mean philosophers whose specialization is ethics. So people who study ethics. Not necessarily practice it. (If a philosopher refers to someone as an aesthetician, she is talking about someone who specializes in aesthetics, not someone who works at a beauty salon. Logic is a logician, metaphysics is a metaphysician, epistemology is an epistemologist, and I think everyone else would just be called a philosopher of X.)

      It can also mean someone who consults an organization, such as a bioethicist who can consult for hospitals. These folks sometimes don’t have a huge amount of background. They are not, with some some exceptions, held in the highest regard by philosophers.

        • Perhaps that came off worse than I meant it… I’m just curious what type of philosopher or philosophy person you are.

          • Aesthetician and philosopher of mind. For me, ethics is what I would call on my CV an area of teaching competence (as opposed to an area of specialization). That means I could teach it to undergrads, but wouldn’t publish a paper in it or teach grad students. So I would not call myself an ethicist.

          • I tend not to blog on stuff I actually work on directly, because I’d like to get it published.

          • I tend not to blog on stuff I actually work on directly

            Me too, but in my case it’s because there’s a limited audience for discussions about closures within loops in JavaScript.

          • I don’t either, though in my case that’s because it would violate the Public Service Code of Conduct.

      • The latter sort of ethicist could bring a degree of academic rigor to their art and I can only presume that if they are doing a meaningful job they are not there to provide a gloss over events or practices retrospectively (“No, really, it was justifiable to switch those babies without the knowledge of the parents because we’re going to learn so much from the experiment!”) or to be fodder for public relations, but rather to help guide decision-making on a propsective basis. If that is the case, wouldn’t that tend to elevate their standing with their fellow-philosophers?

        • Oh, I don’t think the job is objectionable to philosophers in theory. At least, I hope not. It’s the practice. The quality of argumentation tends to be poorer. Rigor would be welcome, but they lack rigor. They often don’t have PhD’s in anything even related to ethics. Most stuff that gets published in, say, a bioethics journal would get rejected from a philosophy journal, even one that specialized in ethics.

          There are plenty of exceptions, certainly. And perhaps the prejudice is unwarranted. But in the few bioethics areas where I’ve really delved into the literature, though, I’ve actually been shocked at what passes muster.

  2. At the risk of being the Joe Schmoe of this thread, I might disagree somewhat.

    I’m not sure that having someone who is not an academically trained ethicist isn’t a plus for this kind of column. If I’m going to read about science, for example, there are hundreds if not thousands of academically trained scientists that do science for a living that could explain it to me, but for whatever reason it doesn’t follow that they’re better at doing that than Bill Bryson. Similarly, there are a lot of nutritionists with PhDs out there trying to make a difference, but they haven’t had the impact in making non-academics understand the consequences of what they eat that Michael Pollan has.

    Klosterman has a talent for taking things that people don’t know or care much about* and deconstructing them in a way that is both entertaining and informative that few other writers can match. In the same way that Bryson and Pollan have gotten people interesting in learning about things they never thought were interesting enough to learn about, I would think ethicists might find they have more people interested in what they have to say (and more young people interested in pursuing them academically) with the hiring of Klosterman.

    *(My own personal example of this is an essay he wrote about the TV show Saved By The Bell.)

    • I agree that the best person need not be academically trained, but it would be nice if he were well-versed in the field, a la Jonah Lehrer for cog sci. Or at all versed.

    • I’m with Tod. As long as the “ethicist” is an interesting writer, and interesting thinker, and not a pyschopath, I would look forward to reading them.

      Esquire magazine used to have an ethics column, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It was written by Harry Stein, who was also a mere journalist.

      • me 2

        (I’d say that the majority of The Usual Suspects here at the League would qualify as ethicists.)

        • Most I’ve seen at the League are practiced at providing good reasons for a position, so I’d agree. I wouldn’t call most of you ethicists, but I wouldn’t mind seeing one of you guys do it. Cohen never did.

        • Most at the League have also thought seriously about the idea of rights v. consequences. Your ethical reasoning can come out as a mishmash if you’re not all that familiar with the debate.

    • (My own personal example of this is an essay he wrote about the TV show Saved By The Bell.)

      That was an amazing essay. I think you’re wrong about people not knowing/caring about SBTB. It was a staple for those of us of a certain age.

      • Agreed. I’m not sure I can be friends with Tod anymore.

        (If only Mr. Belding – or, perhaps, Ms. Bliss – were here to teach me a lesson on overcoming differences.)

  3. when i think of deep thinking about moral clarity, i think of chuck klosterman. i also brush my teeth with bleach to keep the government fluorides out of my blood.

  4. I haven’t seen any of Klosterman’s work yet to judge, but I loved Randy Cohen’s columns in the NYT magazine – but it’s just an advice column, really.

    “The Ethicist” seems to be a conceit no differently than any other out there, I cringe at half the stuff I see written in any of the ‘Dear . . .” columns out there, but rarely The Ethicist.

    I’m not sure if any high profile columnists out there have the right academic qualifications to opine on the stuff they do, do they?
    I hazard that it might be in no small part because the proper response is generally ‘this story is not sufficient to give a definite answer’

    • I remember being surprised to discover that being a film critic required no special expertise in film, academic or otherwise. Just journalistic experience.

      • And nowadays, all you have to do is read box-office reports.

        I was surprised, lo these many years ago, to learn what it really means to be a technology analyst:

        1. You talk to a lot of companies about their products.
        2. You repeat what you heard, sometimes without garbling it too badly.

  5. Klosterman can write well on pretty much any subject from sports to music to small town America. That’s because he can write well.

    Philosophy needs outsiders to probe around in it, hell, there’s plenty to find in there. Ethics, like the rest of philosophy, is woefully misunderstood and philosophers haven’t done much to clarify matters. Problem with philosophy is the same as law, or science for that matter: it’s afflicted with many terms of art which lots of folks think they understand.

    I have to deal with the ethics of AI and it’s more complex than Asimov’s Three Laws, which are pretty naive when you look at them seriously. People are going to build robots to kill people and other robots. And folks will make all sorts of moral objections and excuses for it, just as they’ve made them for every other stand-off weapon.

    A good writer can do more to elucidate a problem from the outside than an insider. Frank Zappa once said most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read. Chuck Klosterman proves him wrong on every count.

    • we have wildly different standards for music journalists.

      • You don’t like his stuff in Spin? I think it’s great.

        GRIME: Almost two years ago, I asked two learned people at Spin to explain to me what grime is. They both said, “Don’t worry about it. You will never need to know. It’s completely unnecessary knowledge.” Then, over the next few weeks, grime came up in conversation on three separate occasions. And it would always come up in the same manner: Someone would mention either Dizzee Rascal or the Streets, refer to them as grime artists, and immediately be told, “Those aren’t real grime artists. That’s not real grime.” As such, this is all I know about grime-it’s British rap (but not really) that is kind of “like garage and 2-step” (but the word garage is pronounced like marriage), and it’s supposedly a reflection of life in lower-class London neighborhoods like Brixton. If anyone out there knows what grime is, e-mail me at But make sure you write “This is about grime” in the subject line so I will know to ignore it completely.

        • yeah that’s basically my issue with him in a nutshell. and i can’t even begin to like british rappers!

    • The Three Laws are pretty naive even if you naively pretend that everybody is going to give up their drones and other military uses of robotics.

  6. I have a very low opinion of ethicists, due to the fact that just about everyone I see one quoted in a newspaper article, he’s arguing for banning some life-saving, life-extending, or life-enhancing medical technology for some eye-rollingly stupid reason. I imagine that there may be a decent ethicist out there somewhere, but all the ones I’ve met have been literally trying to kill me.

    • Those are often the non-philosopher kind. What would younconsider an eye-lollingly stupid reason, if you don’t mind my asking?

      • I’ll probably be sympathetic. I wrote a letter to the editor of NYT (and it got printed!) chastising David Brooks for being hand-wave-y about that sort of thing. Basically, that it was obvious life wasn’t worth living with severe disabilities.

      • For example, this guy’s answer to the first question.

        Though a Google News search for “bioethicist” suggests that they’re not as uniformly awful as I recalled. The things they’re saying mostly seem to be reasonable, if obvious, or at worst understandably wrong.

        • Argghhh. It wasn’t an eye-rollingly stupid reason, because there wasn’t a reason. Just a statement of a possible state of affairs with no reason given as to why it would obtain.

          • But it was an eye-rollingly stupid set of false (or at best highly questionable) assertions.

          • Indeed. Stupid assertions given as if they amount to a reason. Them’s the worst kind.

        • His reasons, to the extent I can discern any, seem to more about aesthetics than ethics, per se.

          The closest he gets to ethics are issues of consent for engineering traits into the not-yet-born. Although how that’s much worse than the crap-shoot of nature I’m not sure.

    • That is what I think of when I hear “bioethicist”. I was glad to hear that there are actual ethicists who know better than that.

  7. Rollingly. I hate the autocorrect on iPads!

    • You know you can turn it off, right?

      And “eye-lollingly” worked just fine… 🙂

      • I’m too lazy to type out “I’m,” “I’ve,” etc., so I leave it on.

        And Russell and I have noted that there’s often a poetry in autocorrect’s work.

        • Long ago, a Usenet acquaintance declared that he was a “buckbean conservative”, which was very charming: it made me picture him as a latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel, rescuing traditional values from the liberal Terror.

          • Autocorrect often corrects my name to something that, despite not being an accurate descriptor for me, is one that has nonetheless been attributed to me.

        • Yeah… it’s almost zen-like in its utter obscurity. What are “suns”? Why would you want or need 698218 of them? And what are the things you’re willing to pay 357322 of for them?

      • Have you hit on some kind of internet numbers station?

  8. I’ve heard a story that philosopher Max Scheler, when asked how he could write books on ethics when he led such an unethical life, responded by noting that the sign for a town isn’t in the town. Not sure if the story is true, but it has a truth to it, I’d say.

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