What the Ethicist Suggests

Randy Cohen, The New York Times resident ethicist, suggested over the weekend that Prof. Gates should sue Sgt. Crowley, not for profit so much as for greater learning. Here is his argument: “A trial . . . would draw increased attention, stimulate more news stories, create more teachable moments and inspire more conversation about issues of race and class that are of genuine national importance.” (See “Should Henry Louis Gates Sip or Sue.”)

What a bad idea. A trial might do some of those things, but, much worse, it would also reinforce the public’s belief that this is essentially a matter of right and wrong, and that the complexities of the issues involved could be – and should be – resolved once and for all. I am not saying that Gates has no right to sue, or even no grievance to file. I am saying the issues deserve more reflection and association than a judgment in a court of law.

It strikes me that “The Ethicist” typically passes pronouncements on a regular basis for people who have a hard time accepting ambiguity. “Tell me what to do” or “Tell me what to think” are the questions he intrepidly sets out to answer.  But if we want to know what we don’t know we know, we can’t so easily settle for an answer — or accept someone else’s opinion.