The Bourgeois Morality of ‘The Ethicist’

The New York Times advice column, where snitching liberal busybodies come to seek absolution, is more than a mere annoyance. In limiting our ethical considerations to tricky personal situations and dilemmas, it directs our thinking away from the larger structural injustices of our time.

The term “first-world problem” is used to describe the type of minor nuisance that occupies the minds of the bourgeoisie. You dropped an AirPod in the urinal. You spilled chardonnay on the divan. Whole Foods was out of pomegranates. And so forth. These are perfectly real frustrations, but they only afflict the comfortable. We might define a parallel quandary in the field of moral philosophy: the first-world ethical problem. These are dilemmas about right and wrong that don’t actually touch any of the major ethical crises of our time, or the issues of structural injustice. They’re problems that only arise, or seem worthy of spending time on, once you reach a certain level of wealth and privilege. The New York Times advice column, The Ethicist, is filled with these kinds of bourgeois dilemmas. 

The Ethicist—a role a few columnists have inhabited over the years—purports to offer “advice on life’s trickiest situations and moral dilemmas.” Since 2015 the answers to the public’s queries have been written by philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah. As Appiah explained in an interview shortly after taking the Ethicist role, the questions that he answers are not those about, say, the placement of an olive fork or how to avoid being audited by the IRS—in other words, those that could be answered by other guides to bourgeois life, like Emily Post, a lawyer, or a financial planner. “An ethical question is, roughly speaking, a question about how you ought to conduct yourself, what you owe to other people, how you ought to think about what you do, and how it impacts the world—whether on other people or on animals or on the environment,” Appiah says. He has also said that he seeks not just to answer a particular question but to show readers how to think about questions that arise in their lives. This all sounds unobjectionable. But an examination of some of the questions and answers from recent years reveals that bourgeois values and worldviews are (surprise!) inadequate for approaching the kinds of large-scale problems we ought to be thinking about. 

Ethicist questions fall into a number of common categories. Here, we present a discussion of some of the most notable, and the underlying values they reveal.

Property is Sacred

Here we have questions concerned with minor violations of private property rights. In one typical case, an Ethicist reader writes in to ask, “Are People Who Read Magazines Without Paying ‘Stealing’ Their Content?” At their local Barnes and Noble, it seems, this person has witnessed other customers who “grab multiple magazines and take them to their table with their coffee” to read, only to later “put the magazines back in the racks without paying for them.” The questioner’s indignation is palpable, and they stridently complain that their fellow bookstore-goers are “‘stealing’ content that is meant to be purchased.” 

This person may be the perfect example of an Ethicist reader. They’re peeved about a perceived transgression that doesn’t affect them in any way, or really harm anyone (the store gets its magazines back and loses nothing), and they want the entire world to know about it. Underlying the mentality of the question is a core belief in the sanctity of property. The idea is that even immaterial things like reading an article must always be paid for in a market transaction, and that no circumstances can justify sacrilege against that holy principle. The correct response to this kind of question would be “What on Earth are you talking about?” followed by “Don’t you have something better to do?” 

But because The Ethicist—and The New York Times as a bourgeois institution—fundamentally shares the belief that property is sacred, this is not the answer the complainer receives. Instead, Appiah tells them that reading the magazines is acceptable because Barnes and Noble itself hasn’t opted to “crack down on the behavior,” and is “acting as if what they’re doing is OK.” In other words, the appropriate conduct for the situation is whatever the business owner decides. Property law has resolved the ethical question. Importantly, the creators of the magazines in question don’t enter into the calculus: there’s no consideration of whether it’s a small publication that could really use the sales or, say, The New Yorker, which is doing fine and doesn’t need your money. The principle is simply that owning property allows you to dictate propriety.1

Some property-related questions in the column are merely frivolous. (“Is it wrong if a friend sells my hand-me-downs?”) Others, though, reveal serious shortcomings in The Ethicist’s understanding of the world. One such question is “Is Shoplifting OK if the Shop Owner is Awful?,” from February 2024. In this column, a reader asks about a friend of theirs who “shoplifts on a regular basis,” but only from “companies that are known to treat their employees badly, or that knowingly source their products from places where human rights are violated, or whose owners/C.E.O.s donate to ultraconservative, authoritarian-leaning candidates.” In keeping with the property-is-sacred motif, the Ethicist concludes that this is not acceptable, because it allegedly undermines the overall social system “that allows people to hold on to their possessions and dispose of them only when they choose to.” The response muddies the waters, because (despite what Mitt Romney might tell you) corporations are not people, and the personal property of individuals is very different from corporate property on a mass scale. Stealing from your neighbor and stealing from Walmart are entirely different acts, because “Walmart” as a corporate entity can’t suffer feelings of betrayal, violation, and loss the way a human being would. This crucial difference goes undiscussed. 

What’s more, the Ethicist’s sense of moral priorities is completely backwards. The column treats a single individual’s violation of the property rights of a company as distasteful and dangerous, while regarding the fact that the companies in question damage many people’s fundamental human rights (remember that they “treat their employees badly” and “knowingly” have abuses in their supply chains) as unremarkable. Appiah even says that the companies’ bosses are “exercising their rights as citizens” by supporting “ultraconservative, authoritarian” politicians. (In other words, they have a right to curtail others’ rights, as long as they do it through the established political channels!) There’s a distinct class bias to the direction the ethical condemnation is pointed, and the direction it’s not pointed. There’s plenty of concern that acts of petty theft could damage the fabric of society, but no acknowledgement that the businesses in question damage it far more, simply by continuing to operate. 

There is, of course, a valid criticism of the act of stealing from a company like (for example) the notoriously misogynistic and transphobic Hobby Lobby or the brutally anti-labor Amazon. Namely, it doesn’t damage them enough. They’re not really going to notice a missing apple or pack of batteries, and things like unionizing their workforce would be more effective in challenging the companies to shape up. But at worst it’s a fairly anodyne act, neither praiseworthy nor unspeakably villainous. To loudly denounce such thefts in the pages of the New York Times presupposes that the current order of property, power, and ownership is legitimate and must be protected. By the same logic, a 19th-century version of The Ethicist could have justified turning Jean Valjean in for stealing that loaf of bread in Les Misérables

Speaking of turning people in, this brings us to another common trope of Ethicist questions, which is…

Snitching is Virtuous

In the 2015 interview, Appiah admitted that many Ethicist questions revolve around determining what people can say to whom. In many of these questions, the writer asks whether it’s okay to turn someone in to the authorities, condemn them, or just reveal privileged information. Often, readers are looking for permission to reveal information in the form of snitching on another person (which makes sense given how gossipy the Times’ headlines and overall tone are). Ethicist questioners also often want to know whether they should intrude into someone else’s life, to stop “minding their own business.” Notable examples include:

Two especially concerning queries involve snitching to two of the most racist and violent authority groups in the country: the police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In “Was I Right to Call the Cops on a Black Man Breaking Into a Car?,” Appiah, first and foremost, affirms the sanctity of private property and the proper role of police in protecting that property. It’s your “civic responsibility,” he tells the writer, to report an act of apparent (and unsuccessful!) burglary. The worst part, though, is the reasoning he uses to assuage the writer’s concern that calling the police on a Black man may very well lead to the man—or others mistaken for him—being “harassed” or killed. (The column describes this as “the tragic way things too often end between police and people of color,” which is something of an understatement.) To justify calling the cops, Appiah suggests something that is purely speculative: that the man in question could steal a firearm from a car and then, presumably, use it on another person. He writes, “In recent years, the theft of firearms, often from vehicles, has risen sharply where you live. Your state also has the highest rate of black homicide victims in the country (and most violent crimes are indeed intraracial). So yes, I’d say you did the right thing.” This response is stunning in its callousness and presumption. Appiah’s use of the word “intraracial” here is also notable. You can bet the reader isn’t going to be thinking about, say, “white-on-white” crime, so in this context it obviously refers to “Black-on-Black crime,” which is a racist and debunked trope used sometimes in response to concern about police violence against Black people. When people—such as political commentators—talk about Black-on-Black crime, it suggests that there’s something uniquely violent about Black people and that this violence is actually the thing people should be concerned about as opposed to police violence against Black people. Having squashed the writer’s concerns about calling the cops, Appiah then goes on to talk about how the police need to “root out” more of their own bad apples—another liberal talking point that mischaracterizes the problem with police (the problem is systemic, not one of a few individuals). 

Now let’s go back to the writer’s scenario. It turns out that the man “breaking into a car” had opened an unlocked car door and went no further, having been deterred by the writer shouting at him, and so no one’s car was actually stolen! Overall, there doesn’t really seem to be a good reason for involving the police here unless one wishes to act as a private arm of the police and make sure no small “crime”—including attempted burglary—goes unpunished. The potential fallout of calling the police seems disproportionate to what the man in question actually did. Appiah focuses more on what the man might do as opposed to what he did, which makes it seem like he’s really stretching for a reason to justify a deference to authority. (If we are serious about considering hypotheticals, though, we might consider the abuse that the man might undergo—assuming he survives his encounter with the cops—in a jail or prison for opening somebody’s car door.) 

In another entry, a questioner asked whether they should report an acquaintance to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after finding out they only got married in order to secure someone citizenship. The Ethicist said it would be a good idea to report the married couple to the government, assuming they were certain about the facts, and even recommended they seek out an online form for the purpose. Now, a person who has “faked” a marriage for citizenship might not be as stigmatized or in danger as, say, an immigrant crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without documents, but reporting the person and setting in motion a process which could lead to their deportation is to subject the person to trauma, hardship, and possibly violence (depending on the circumstances they left behind in their home country and whether they feel comfortable going back). 

Appiah also reminds the reader that millions of other immigrants have applied “properly” and are “waiting their turn.” He notes that he, too, is an immigrant, and presumably, he followed the rules to become a citizen, so everyone else can, and should, too. Liberals and conservatives alike love this immigration talking point: just do it the right way—“legally”—and everything will be fine! Of course, migrants at the border are doing something legal by seeking asylum. And generally, the path to U.S. citizenship is expensive and not as easy as people would assume.

Lastly, Appiah’s assertion that the writer’s duty to report would be different were she not a U.S. citizen reaffirms the idea that people’s loyalty to an abstraction like the nation-state is ultimately more important than thinking about what might happen to the person who gets reported to ICE. The Ethicist is calm and cool about matters here, and ICE is just another important authority doing the work of keeping people where they’re supposed to be: on one side of a completely arbitrary border. Deeper—and more interesting—questions as to whether we need borders (there is a good argument that we don’t) are not to be asked. In the Ethicist’s world, it’s all Law and Order, all the time.

White Guilt Must be Assuaged

“White guilt” is another Ethicist commonplace. In this subgenre of column, a white reader writes in to the New York Times because they’re terribly worried about some minor, ultimately symbolic issue where they could be perceived as racially insensitive. They want Appiah to soothe their anxieties. Often, the issue at hand involves some kind of object in the reader’s possession. One of the classic examples is “I’m White. Should I Repatriate my African Art?,” from December 2023. In this letter, the questioner says they own a “significant collection of masks, statues, figurines and other objects from mostly West African cultures,” and that they’re worried about the possibility these objects were acquired “via an unfair transaction” during colonialism, asking Appiah if it’s “possible to repatriate them.” Other typical letters in this vein ask questions like:

Sometimes an obsession with policing other people’s behavior comes into play, as in the case of the self-described “white woman living in a mostly white town” who asks “Should I Speak Up About a Worker’s Confederate Battle Flag?” Confronted with these earth-shattering dilemmas, Appiah gives a variety of answers: no, you don’t need to repatriate your African masks, because you have no idea whether they were purchased legitimately or not; yes, it’s probably a bad idea to give your racist ancestor a “place of honor” on your mantelpiece; yes, you should tell your friend it makes you uncomfortable to see a figurine of “Santa in Black face”; and it doesn’t matter very much what you do with the Nazi helmet, provided you’re not a neo-Nazi yourself. But it’s the questions themselves, and the decision to give them prominence in the pages of the Times, that’s really interesting.

The concept of racism and racial justice on display in these questions is very liberal, and very bourgeois. In essence, the kind of person who writes in to The Ethicist thinks of racism as a question of individual manners, rather than one of sociopolitical power. To them, racism is when a particular person says something, or owns something, that might cause others offense; it’s not, for instance, when the entire police force pulls Black drivers over more frequently than white ones, or when the standard of medical care or housing available to people of certain ethnicities is worse than others. Conversely, combating racism becomes a matter of making one’s individual behavior nice and polite (or in the worker-with-Confederate-flag incident, reprimanding others whose behavior is not). As long as no one says the wrong thing, and no one displays the wrong symbolic object, there’s no racism; all is well in Liberalville. The idea that dealing with racism might require a mass political movement to uproot and overturn racist systems of power is completely outside the moral universe of The Ethicist. Appiah might give a mini-lecture on the nuances of virtue-signaling or tell a reader to “[take] in the ugliness” of a Confederate historical site, but he’ll never tell a reader to organize a protest at the nearest police precinct or Homeowner’s Association, where it might actually do some good. 

In 1938, the great Bolshevik revolutionary and political theorist Leon Trotsky wrote a short book called Their Morals and Ours, in which he laid out his views on the whole vexed subject of ethics and how they mix with politics. In one memorable passage, Trotsky blasts the self-righteous armchair moralists of his own time: 

The chief traits of the prophets of this type are alienation from great historical movements, a hardened conservative mentality, smug narrowness, and a most primitive political cowardice. More than anything, moralists wish that history should leave them in peace with their little books, little magazines, subscribers, common sense, and moral copybooks. But history does not leave them in peace. It cuffs them now from the left, now from the right.

What a perfect description of The Ethicist and its readers! Today, there are indeed “great historical movements” to be involved in, from the struggle to defund the police and abolish mass incarceration to the cause of the Palestinian people. But to look at the pages of the New York Times advice column, you’d never know it. “Smug narrowness” and “political cowardice” are the order of the day, as Appiah and his fans fret endlessly about the appropriate way to dispose of their trinkets and tokens—something no actual advocate for racial justice, or any other kind, ever asked them to do. Beyond their little bubble of privilege, history marches on. 

Rich People Problems

Some Ethicist letters are even more clearly about “rich people problems.” These involve large sums of money, exclusive institutions, and other trappings of the financial elite, such as:

Half the time, the readers of The Ethicist seem to live in the decadent and absurd world of a  P.G. Wodehouse novel, or perhaps a particularly crap episode of Downton Abbey. Other times, they write to Appiah about the problems they’re having with members of the lower classes. For instance, one reader asks, “A Homeless Man Sleeps in the Lobby of My Apartment Building. What Should I Do?” The reader, who lives in a “lovely old apartment in a relatively upper-class suburb of a major U.S. city,” is troubled that “a homeless man has been sleeping in the unlocked vestibule of my building,” even though he “hasn’t directly harmed any person in the building” or done anything especially offensive beyond perhaps once eating someone’s delivered food order. The Ethicist tells the reader that “your safety matters,” implying that the homeless are inherently dangerous, and suggests talking to others—although not, notably, talking to the homeless man himself or directly offering him help of any kind. The Ethicist also suggests “putting a lock on the vestibule.” (There’s the fixation on protecting property again.)

While Appiah does—barely—admit that the problem of homelessness is a societal one, his final words on the matter are utterly disappointing: “I’m glad that you’re treating him as a human being in need. But your safety matters, too. Helping to ameliorate his situation isn’t a responsibility that should fall on you alone. It falls on us, collectively, and we’ve let you down.” Really? In a time when homelessness—and the demonization of the homeless—has reached record levels, “We’ve let you down” is the best he’s got? For that matter, is it really the comfortably-homed letter-writer who’s been “let down,” and whose “safety” needs to be considered? The implication is that the reader’s discomfort at having to encounter this man is a more significant problem than his actual lack of a home. In this way, perhaps Appiah is like his fellow Times columnist Pamela Paul, who, as Hamilton Nolan recently assessed in a deliciously funny blog post, is simply unable to “access true anger at the state of the world” due to having spent “decades ensconced in bourgeois antechambers.”

Additional queries in the “rich people problems” category include:

Here, the questions only become relevant if you’re wealthy enough to have domestic help in the first place. Since the vast majority of people aren’t, it’s unclear why they’re being published—and notably, there’s rarely a question from a working person asking “What should I do about my boss?” In fact, this genre is so predictable that we’ve devised a Mix-n-Match table for you to auto-generate your own Ethicist questions:

graphic by cali traina blume

Let’s return, for a moment, to our old pal Leon Trotsky. In Their Morals and Ours, he draws a clear distinction between morality in general and “bourgeois” morality. As he describes it, the latter not only has its origins in class inequality, but serves as a mechanism to protect that inequality: 

Morality is one of the ideological functions in [class] struggle. The ruling class forces its ends upon society and habituates it to considering all those means which contradict its ends as immoral. That is the chief function of official morality. It pursues the idea of the “greatest possible happiness” not for the majority but for a small and ever diminishing minority. Such a regime could not have endured for even a week through force alone. It needs the cement of morality. The production of this cement constitutes the profession of the petty bourgeois theoreticians and moralists. They radiate all the colors of the rainbow but in the final analysis remain apostles of slavery and submission.

Once again, we can see exactly this dynamic at work in the pages of The Ethicist. There is a “small and ever diminishing minority” for whom the advice is intended, and whose worldview is reflected in the columns. The “majority” appear as a never-ending source of trouble for that minority, not as subjects in their own right. At every turn, the bedrock assumption is that the actions of poor and working-class people are likely to cause a problem, one that Appiah and his sage advice will help to overcome. The idea that the reader might be working-class themself never arises. In this moral universe, working people’s behavior needs to be monitored and policed. Gambling nannies need to be fired (if only because they might one day be tempted to steal!), and homeless men need to get out of the lobby so polite New York Times readers don’t have to feel uncomfortable. The fundamental message is that people should know their place, and the behavior appropriate to it. With such “cement” is the elite liberal order, the class order, maintained.

Doing Well to Do Good

On occasion, a newly-minted member of the professional managerial class—someone from working-class roots—stands at the precipice of entry into elite life and questions which way to go. Should they work for an evil corporation and have the lifestyle and financial stability that that kind of salary affords, or choose the less remunerative path of employment in a public agency or nonprofit so they can serve the common good? This is precisely the situation in the classic Ethicist column “Is It OK to Take a Law-Firm Job Defending Climate Villains?” Here, the writer is about to graduate from law school and is entertaining a job offer from a firm that they know will require them to represent “many polluters and companies that I feel are making the apocalyptic climate situation even worse.” This entry is particularly notable for the astronomical amount of bullshit and “both sides-ism” that Appiah flings at the writer. Appiah starts off by writing,

It’s hard to see how the world would be improved if such corporations couldn’t find legal advice and representation. Is a corporation really going to behave better if it doesn’t know what the law is? 

At which point we must emphasize that this is a total misrepresentation of what corporate lawyers do. They don’t simply “tell corporations what the law is,” which sounds harmless. They help prove in a court of law that the corporation’s evil acts are in compliance with the law! Also, it’s actually not hard to see how “the world would be improved” if climate-destroying companies couldn’t find legal representation! A corporation that is actively destroying the environment and the future of the human species shouldn’t be allowed to exist, let alone have representation!

Appiah continues, “as with criminal defense, we need lawyers who will work diligently for people and associations whether they approve of them or not.” But this isn’t true. As with the shoplifting case, it assumes that the same calculus applies to both “people” and “associations” (in this case, climate destroying corporations). But while we do need lawyers who “will work diligently” for people they don’t approve of in criminal cases, why do we need lawyers who will work diligently to defend corporate wrongdoers? Why are chocolate companies entitled to have someone diligently argue in defense of child slavery, for instance? 

Appiah suggests being a corporate lawyer is actually an act of public service on par with… a job in public service. Never mind that the lure of corporate law sucks eager law school graduates away from other “public interest” jobs all the time in what has been called the “conveyer belt to corporate law.” Instead of focusing on the people the writer could be helping other than corporations, Appiah focuses on making the choice to work for a malevolent corporate client look good. He even uses the logic of the effective altruists, who argue that taking a high-paying corporate job and then donating the money to a good cause would actually be a way to do the most good. (This is doubtful.) He tells the writer that they might be able to change a firm from the inside. (Again, doubtful.) And he reassures the writer that they won’t abandon their values just by working for a corporation, even one that is actively wrecking the planet. Somehow Times ethical theory has brought us to the conclusion that the right thing to do is to help destroy the world.

The Troubled Family Member

What is one bourgeois institution where propriety reigns supreme? The Family. Enter some of the most important, common, and thorny Ethicist queries. Frequently, the questioner is trying to deal with a particularly challenging family member: someone with age-related issues or care needs, mental illness, a drug problem, neurodiversity, or someone formerly or currently incarcerated. Many of the questioners in these family scenarios are deeply unsympathetic people who tend to point out that while everyone else in their family is healthy, productive, and thriving, there’s one person who is making things difficult:

  • “My youngest child, now 33, was recently incarcerated for the third time. I have four older children who are all thriving.” – “My Son Is in Prison Again. What do I Owe Him?” 
  • “Our other children are living normal, happy, productive lives.” – “Can We Disinherit our Addicted Son?”
  • “We both have adult children. All are loving, sharing adults who get along well, except for my wife’s son, who is very likely the most entitled person I have ever met…  Friends of his recently told us that he has a drug problem.” – “Should I Call the Cops on My Stepson?

These situations are particularly concerning because the children in these scenarios are dealing with issues that our culture tends not to have a lot of empathy for: drug use or addiction, repeated imprisonment, homelessness or the threat of homelessness, and special needs issues. The incarcerated son in the first example above is also noted to be adopted, and you can sense that the writer sees the non-genetic relationship to her son as a factor that might limit her responsibility to him.

Other family-related ethical dilemmas include: whether to withhold money owed to the morally repugnant widow of a dearly beloved sibling, whether to cut off a daughter with learning disabilities and autism, whether to support an elderly mother who refuses to manage her money well, whether to help a hoarding parent, whether to shun a politically toxic ex-brother in law. Some families have plainly bizarre internal dynamics, such as the spouse complaining that their husband always flies first class while putting the rest of the family in coach. (Here, Appiah refers to the “institution of marriage” and how it should be about couples treating each other as equals. He mentions the husband’s presumed enjoyment of “warmed cashews and lie-flat seat”—seriously, only people who have actually flown first class know about the warmed nuts—as a situation which requires more “equity” to remedy. What’s his suggestion? “Taking turns” in first class. But this is deeply unsatisfying! Why can’t they both fly first class—surely a man who “loves to travel” with his family could afford it. And what about how selfish it is for anyone to treat their companion this way, regardless of whether the two people are bound by “the institution of marriage”? One wonders whether Appiah’s answer would have been different had the woman in question been, say, the man’s assistant or someone else he didn’t consider his class or social “equal.”)

Readers often want a way to control how their money is spent or to demand that their family members be responsible with finances. (“I’m Supporting My Adult Son. He Just Gave $1,000 to a Homeless Woman.”) In the case of the daughter with autism, the parent wants to support her if she’s in college. Support is often highly conditional on a person meeting some arbitrary worthiness criteria, meaning the person writing in often wants to impose a “moral test” on the recipient of their largesse. 

In Ethicist responses of this type, love, care, and support for others are all based on very carefully constructed notions of what is proper. Personal boundaries are noted to be important, good behavior and “mental competence” dictate mutual care toward family members, people should not be too much of a burden to each other, children may be cut off once they reach legal adulthood, and sensible money management is very, very important. Perhaps the most useful function of The Ethicist in this section is to help a wealthy reader to sleep better at night when the Ethicist tells them that their reasoning is “sound” when they choose to cut off their “addicted” son from all funds except those used for drug treatment or that they are right to demand their child with mental illness stay on their medication in order to keep their housing. 

But ultimately, the problems that the writers face in these family scenarios often occur because in the U.S., the family is a substitute for the existence of a real social safety net. There would be no ethical dilemma about whether to care for a difficult relative in a society where everyone was already guaranteed housing, food, and healthcare, and we didn’t cage people to try to reduce crime or punish them for drug use. Often, it’s strange that the New York Times questioners are even in a position to make certain decisions. For instance, the son in prison is in need of money to pay for a lawyer and court fines. If everyone was given quality legal representation regardless of their ability to pay, and if we didn’t have an extortionate system of fines and fees that bleed the already-impoverished, these wouldn’t be issues, and a judgmental wealthier parent wouldn’t have to enter the picture. A more just society would not tie perceived worthiness to basic survival. And it would not limit us to receiving acceptance, support, or love from those people we share a close genetic relationship with. 

The unasked and more important question here has to be what all of us owe people struggling with any unmet need and how we could create a society to meet everyone’s basic needs regardless of whether we personally like or love them. In short, could we conceive of a society in which we are responsible for everyone, not just our own family members? This question cannot be entertained by the bourgeoisie, for whom the family helps maintain the political and economic order (think inheritance), as well as the strict gender and sexuality norms that come along with it.

Why is The Ethicist Like This?

Appiah’s responses are usually not as bad as the Ethicist questions themselves. With questions like the ones from the infamous “Am I the Asshole?” Reddit page, he usually points out to the writer that, yes, you are the asshole in this situation. But Appiah has bourgeois values himself, hence his abhorrence at shoplifting, his concern about the risk posed by a random homeless man, and his suggestion that it’s virtuous to call ICE on someone if you know they’ve broken the rules. Appiah is from an aristocratic family. He’s the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps on his mother’s side and belongs to an elite Ghanaian family on his father’s side. He has spent most of his comfortable life in the nation’s top private universities, and it shows in his lack of interest in deep issues of injustice.

The absence of those deeper issues is the core problem with the Ethicist. Problems that have large structural causes (homelessness, drug use, etc.) are reduced to personal matters between individuals—what does a writer owe this particular homeless man or person with a drug problem? Questions of social ethics are excluded from consideration. For instance, some of the most critically important ethical questions of our time are: what do we owe the victims of the climate catastrophe, present and future?2 If your tax dollars are funding crimes against humanity, are you obliged to march in the streets? How can we introduce a healthcare system that ensures people aren’t dying preventable deaths? How can we end grotesque wealth inequality? The Ethicist zeroes in on highly individualistic and essentially trivial dimensions of injustice—what should I do with this racist artifact? A better and more important question is: what kind of duty does each of us have to bring about an end to the many racial inequalities that still persist?

In the pages of The Ethicist, we have obligations vis-a-vis coworkers, neighbors, family members, the people in our immediate vicinity, but “ethics” extends no further. Solidarity is not an ethical imperative. We also  have ethical quandaries only when unique situations arise; the status quo does not raise ethical issues. This is the same deficiency that plagues the famous “Trolley Problem,” which plunges people into a situation in medias res where all of the choices are horrible. Because the question is constructed in a very specific way, a discussion of the factors that produced the range of choices now under consideration is precluded. Leftists have long criticized “bourgeois morality” for precisely this reason. It considers moral questions within a particular economic structure but doesn’t consider questions about that economic structure. 

The result is that the most trivial matters are blown up into having outsized significance, while the most significant matters are simply excluded from view. The questions are not much different from the type of questions made famous on Curb Your Enthusiasm: Who gets the last Perrier? Is there an implicit limit on the number of hors d’oeuvres each dinner party guest is allowed to take? Is it rude to toss your keys to a valet? Can you use golfing advice that you get from overhearing someone else’s lesson? Curb wrung humor from the fact that the stakes are so obviously trivial, and it can be richly entertaining to watch people with different answers to these questions argue about them passionately. But Curb Your Enthusiasm dilemmas are not, needless to say, the world’s serious ethical questions.

The New York Times Ethicist, too, could be waved away as just a bit of fun. Why spoil it by taking it too seriously? But the world that produces these questions, and these answers, is deeply broken. We need to talk about all of the major ethical quandaries that don’t get an airing in the paper of record because it gives over page space to discussions of whether to fire your nanny because they have a gambling problem

  1. This is a common theme among American liberals of the kind who are likely to read the New York Times. It can also be found in the ubiquitous “In This House, We Believe” yard signs, which express the same basic view of property as a conservative parent thundering “not under my roof!” at some perceived sin. How do you know everyone in the house believes the same stuff? Do they get to stay in the house if they don’t? 

  2. In one entry, a writer asks, “I Live in California. What Do I Owe Climate-Denying Kentuckians?” The entire premise—that the state people live in determines how we should conceive of them as human beings impacted by climate change—is, of course, rotten, and Appiah is right to call the writer out on this. Appiah writes, “what you have in mind looks like collective punishment,” in response to the writer asking whether people in a red state are owed help after a natural disaster given that they voted for leaders who helped make those disasters happen. But even then, Appiah focuses on our duty towards Americans when we really need to be thinking internationally about climate change and about what we owe the Global South, whose people are burdened the most by climate change. It’s easy to say we ought to support “other Americans.” But it requires a confrontation with power dynamics—which is to say, colonialism and capitalism—to truly confront the inequality embedded in the climate crisis and to propose a solution going forward. 

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A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

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