Elite “Ethics” (and the “Ethicist” Advising Them)

Modern ethics has gotten so ridiculous it's become impossible to parody.

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Two vignettes:

  • In January 2022, Pope Francis set off a controversy by criticizing people who chose to have pets rather than children. Advocates of “furry babies,” to put it gently, were not amused.  
  • Growing up, I liked to read the “Ann Landers” column syndicated in my local newspaper. Landers, and her sister Abigail Van Buren, wrote advice columns helping people solve their problems, dilemmas usually of their own making.

Both matters came to mind recently while reading “The Ethicist.

In case you don’t know, “The Ethicist” is a New York Times help column written by Kwame Appiah, who teaches ethics at New York University. The ethical dilemmas his correspondents pose are hardly those of my childhood, which focused on whether to bring your uninvited kid to a family wedding reception or to go out on a date with a divorcée. For “The Ethicist,” that’s so passé compared to the quandaries faced by the woke and affluent. Let me contrast two.

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On October 20, “The Ethicist” was asked to address a controversy between two dog owners. (Is that term appropriate for the pet-human relationship?) It seems that while dog owner A was talking to dog owner B, dog A decided to “do what comes naturally” with dog B and, naturally, B is now with puppy. Owner B wants owner A to pay for B’s prenatal care, birthing, and expenses through adoption of the out-of-relationship puppies. Owner A counteroffered to pay for B’s abortion, something in which owner B does not believe. So, what are the ethical obligations in an unplanned puppy pregnancy?

You cannot make this stuff up.

Neither can you make up the seriousness with which The Ethicist addresses the matter. After all, the “Ethicist” assumes most responsible pet owners today ensure their pets are neutered. So, owner B shares some responsibility for the procreative consequences of her dog’s pregnancy (as does owner A, for not being quick enough to force coitus interruptus). And  it is reasonable for owner A to stipulate he’ll pay for B’s puppy birthing contingent on B agreeing to a paternity test and refund of reimbursements if it proves pedigree poodle ain’t nothing but a hound dog.

Again, you can’t make this stuff up.

Apart from the ridiculousness of this “dilemma,” a few observations:

  • Does elite opinion now assume sterility, not fertility, is the “natural” state of all creatures big and small? Is there a duty for your canine and child both to be on contraception? Remember: there is actually a “World Vasectomy Day” (November 17, and apparently not species-centric).  
  • Who will perform the abortion on our fallen pooch? I ask because last year Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation removing restrictions that only physicians perform abortions in the Golden State, but California still requires only vets (i.e., animal doctors) to perform abortions on animals. Apparently, that might be a big thing with bovines and equines. Glad California maintains medical standards at least for some mammals.
  • Given today’s sexual ethic (“all’s OK as long as it’s consensual”), does doggie A need to be enrolled in remedial obedience school, since the inquirer wrote that the deed was apparently over faster than owners A and B noticed or could intervene?

What bothers me about this “ethical” farce is how it borders on the tragic. With apparently no hint of incongruity, a week after the puppy paternity problem “The Ethicist” was asked to play Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 3:16-28) and, rather than divide a baby, multiply them.  

This time, a homosexual couple wanted to hire a surrogate to make twins for them. Their dilemma was whether it is “ethical” for them to ask the surrogate to bear for them twins rather than a single child, given the economies of scale hiring one pregnancy would represent for their limited budget. Their hesitations are whether this would impose a maternal health burden on the surrogate and/or endanger the health of the twins they are commissioning.

“The Ethicist” first declares that surrogacy is not in itself immoral before citing medical data that multiple pregnancies can pose greater risks to mother and children. Because medical opinion considers such pregnancies higher risk, “it would be wrong.” Besides, bear in mind that complications in multiple pregnancies increase medical costs exponentially and there’s no guarantee the children may not have problems. “Parenthood gives you responsibility; it does not give you control.”

Procreating—human or canine—costs. But I can’t think of any cases better illustrative of the aphorism about knowing the cost of everything and value of nothing. Life merely has subjective “value” to the degree it is wanted or convenient, be that human or canine. Its costs—what you can invoice or put a price tag on, be that the vet, OB-GYN, or hired woman—are objective. And the “ethics” are determined mathematically.

Pardon me, but something here doesn’t add up. If these are the moral problems today’s “Ethicist” faces—again, you can’t make this up—I miss the days of the gauche kid crashing a wedding.  


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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