One of the less-discussed changes to the New York Times‘ revamped Sunday magazine is the changing of the guard in The Ethicist column. For years it was Randy Cohen, who I always imagined as a nebbishy man surrounded by dusty old books, pushing his glasses up his nose as he dispensed wise — and very dry — advice to people who are too serious for your regular old advice column. The Ethicist was one of those staples of the magazine that, growing up, I would read five sentences of and be like, “wow, on to Benoit Denizet-Lewis.”
Now there’s a new Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, who writes the City Critic column for the Times and who used to be editor of the paper’s Arts and Leisure section. So how’s she doing, Ethically?
Well, not much has changed so far, although she’s only just come out with her first column. I kind of wanted Kaminer to be awesome and different because I mean, Randy Cohen, you were good at your job, but you’re no Dan Savage. But at least her answers aren’t as long-winded.
The first one is in response to a businessman in Connecticut whose customer from India asked that a holy man come bless his business — with the stipulation that there be no women there. So dude was all, girls, please vacate the premises, and his female employees weren’t happy.
Kaminer’s advice is sound; the gist of it is, “you’re an asshole.”
By asking those women to leave the premises and excluding them from the blessings, you in effect told them that you place a greater value on the comfort of some random visitor or on the business of a loyal customer — or perhaps on some religious beliefs that aren’t even your own — than you do on the feelings of the people who work for you every day.
Boom. Girl power. The next one is okay, if weepy; it has to do with whether a family can contact a sister’s ex-husband who tried to commit suicide, even if the sister told them not to. Kaminer says it’s fine to check up on the ex-husband, which, whatever, but this sentence is great: “The ethical obligation to save a life is greater than that to avoid offense.” Other than that though, things get a little Dear Prudence in this second answer.
So far so good — or as good as The Ethicist gets. It’s actually kind of refreshing that the column is still not afraid to be boring. Its purpose, after all, is to explore ethical questions (hence the name). And if you can hack through the professorial vibe, it can be worth it.