Archelle Georgiou, MD

By Archelle Georgiou. This week’s Sunday New York Times had its usual array of breaking national and international news on the front page, but my loudest “Oh No!” came when I turned to page 14 of the Magazine. Randy Cohen, author of The Ethicist, announced that he is retiring his column. For those of you who are not familiar, Cohen’s weekly column typically posed two moral/ethical dilemmas followed by his expert analysis and perspective.

This column has been part of our family’s Sunday morning ritual since it started being published 12 years ago. Bagels, lox, coffee…and… The Ethicist column. We all knew the routine

1.Archelle reads the dilemma. Twice.
2.Each daughter, youngest to oldest, must take a definitive position and defend it with clear rationale (yes, even Zoe is included in the lineup)
3.David, then Archelle, declare their positions. (I always go last since I seem to have the strongest opinion and don’t want to influence everyone else.)
4.Family debate…aka…we argue.
5.Once we’re exhausted or reach an impasse, we read Cohen’s expert opinion.

This discussion, every Sunday, week after week, was valuable for teaching the girls a process for deciding between right and wrong. The everyday scenarios that Cohen presented were a non-threatening way to proactively work through many of the seductive temptations that they would inevitably face later in their lives.

From December 2002: Is it okay to Google some one you’ve started dating to check up on them?  SN, New York
In 2002, this was a dilemma. In 2011, this seems like a no-brainer. 

From May 2004: I am an American posted to Vietnam, where pirated movies on DVD are cheap and ubiquitous, and legitimate copies are nearly nonexistent. Would it be ethical to purchase pirated DVD’s if I also join a monthly unlimited-rental service like Netflix? Ben Moeling, Hanoi, Vietnam
Arielle found herself with this exact dilemma as she spends the year in China.

From September 2007: A friend and I will soon take the LSAT.  His father, a psychiatrist, gave him Adderall to help him take the test. I asked if he could share some with me, and he said that would be unethical. Is it? Isn’t his dad’s giving him the Adderall unethical? Name Withheld, Austin, Tex.
The sharing of Adderall on college campuses is rampant.

The lifelong impact of this column became evident in 2005 when Athena was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah and matter of factly announced to us and the Rabbi that she wasn’t sure whether she believed in God. Since God and religion are merely a construct for moral/ethical decision-making, we were unconcerned about whether she believed in “God” but were very concerned that she develops a solid framework for distinguishing right from wrong.

Cohen’s ethics column was a non-threatening, familiar vehicle for helping Athena navigate through the process of maturing her moral framework. After 10 months, Athena developed her own set of “ethical decision guidelines” that she proudly shared in her Bat Mitzvah speech with our 130 guests: When faced with a dilemma, avoid decisions/actions that:

•are against the law
•don’t give you a good gut feeling
•you wouldn’t be proud to tell your mom
•you wouldn’t want on the front page of the Wall Street Journal

Making ethical decisions is learned, not innate. It’s a skill, not a talent. It takes practice and improves with feedback, debate, and, most importantly, self-reflection. It requires that you look at your own actions and honestly assess your intentions.

Is it ethical to sign an employment non-compete without really intending to honor it since its unlikely to be enforceable anyway?

Is it ethical to use ICD-9 codes that are not accurate but that assure a patient’s medical services will be reimbursed?

Is it ethical to accept a Senior Discount when a hotel clerk mistakenly assumes you are over 65?

Is it ethical to have dinner with a friend when on a business trip and then submit the entire restaurant bill as a business expense?

What decisions would you make in these scenarios?  Some may seem so innocent…but are they?

Cohen may be retiring his column but his dilemmas are very alive on the New York Times website. Read them. Debate them. Help your kids mature their moral maturity and continue to refine your own. We all need probably need some help in this arena. It’s a process that never ends.

Originally posted on Archelle on Health on March 3rd.

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