Asking the Ethicist

05/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I guess I'm not surprised that I did not get a response to my inquiry of Randy Cohen, who writes the column The Ethicist in the New York Times. But I really do wish we could have a public discussion of ethical issues that matter, that point to who we are and what we think we're doing. So I'm reprinting my note to him and my question. Help, anybody?

Dear Randy,

I always turn to "The Ethicist" first thing when I get my Sunday New York Times. I'm deeply interested in questions of ethics and in the ways you approach multiple issues. But I was finally driven over the brink of frustration by your consideration of the ethical issues involved in eating a box of Oreo cookies from a hotel minibar and replacing them with Oreos bought at a nearby store. I mean, come on! Is this a matter for ethical parsing? We, in a country involved in two wars, with a prison population of a size unheard of in human history, with massive economic theft, you want to talk about Oreos? It is not only trivial but it suggests that these larger, crucial, questions are not important - are not even issues. Imagine a gathering of colonial settlers in the heart of the British Raj in India, with servants and starving locals all around, discussing the proper way to repay a teatime favor. Ridiculous, right?

Which brings me to an actual ethical question I've been wrestling with. And I think with your training and insight you might well be able to help me. So here goes, my letter to The Ethicist:

I believe it is my civic duty to vote and during the last election I happily voted for Barack Obama. But I also believe that, by voting, we give an endorsement to the actions of the person we have elected. Indeed, if he or she does terrible things, we bear some moral responsibility. I have learned that President Obama recently ordered drone strikes in Afghanistan in which many children were killed instantly, others badly wounded. I don't want my vote to make me complicit in such killings, so I imagine I will sit out the next election. But then I wonder: if Obama's drone strike killed 23 children and the Republican candidate's drone strikes are likely to kill 250 children . .. . . should I vote for the lower number of children killed? It seems I'm implicated either way. What should I do?


Rick Ayers