Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Ethicist

Every Saturday, the New York Times Magazine publishes a column by their in-house ethicist, Randy Cohen. Armed with a wry sense of humour and a strong moral keel, Mr. Cohen answers everyday moral dilemmas using conventional wisdom and unconventional wit. Here are a couple samples to whet your appetite:

I am an executive of a small marketing firm that has been hired to develop advertising for a political campaign I strongly oppose. The owner of the agency knows my beliefs and admits to having similar ones. However, he doesn't feel we can afford to walk away from this business. Is there a way to reconcile my personal and heartfelt beliefs with my allegiance to my company? Anonymous

Here's another way to phrase the question at hand: should I betray my principles for money? To which I reply with yet another question: how much money? No, of course I don't. If you have a profound and principled objection to this political campaign, you should not work on it. Ideally your boss would assign you to projects that don't clash with your fundamental beliefs -- what about corn chips? Everybody likes corn chips. Can you work on ads for corn chips?

While the desire to be true to yourself is laudable, ethics primarily concerns the effects of our actions on others. Thus an important question here is: who would you harm by working on this political campaign? From your perspective (given your ''heartfelt beliefs''), me, your neighbors, the nation, the world. You ''strongly oppose'' a candidate because you believe he'd have a baleful effect on our lives. To spend your working days helping someone get into a position to do that damage is not honorable.

Now, you could honorably work on an ad for Doritos even though you really prefer Tostitos. The distinction is innocuous, morally neutral, a matter of taste (and either one goes great with guacamole) -- none of which you could aver about, say, designing ads for Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign for the presidency.

Your rank in your company is also a factor. The more influential you are in shaping this campaign, that is, in abetting wrongdoing, the worse your transgression. The brilliant political strategist is more culpable than the guy who fixes the ad agency's copy machine, never mind the guy at the gas station who fills the tank of the guy who fixes the copier.

The world is an untidy place, and only saints or those capable of photosynthesis can be absolutely scrupulous about such decisions, but your principles and your position unsuit you for this project.

I hope your boss will understand.

My husband and I are planning to have a child through an egg donor. Are we obligated to tell our child that he or she is not genetically related to me? My husband thinks we must: the truth is always best. But I think that unless there is important medical information to be conveyed, it is unnecessary to tell a child something likely to be painful and confusing. Should we tell? Anonymous, Los Angeles

The question is not whether to give your child a full account of his or her origins, but when. Information that might disturb a 4-year-old can be comprehensible to a 16-year-old. Once your child is mature enough to understand the story of his or her conception, it needn't be either painful or confusing. There's certainly nothing shameful (or these days even all that unusual) about what you and your husband are planning.

Indeed, it testifies to your determination to start a family and presages the love you'll have for your child.

I do agree that it can be tough on the parents having to tell a child something at least potentially painful and confusing. But you have years of practice ahead of you when you try to explain, for example, why the ''Lord of the Rings'' movies won all those Oscars.

For this week's column. And more. 


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