Housing plan raises ethical questions

The New York Times Magazine's ethicist columnist Randy Cohen

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: So what it is about this particular issue that's got folks so mad that they just don't want to take it anymore. Or, give it I suppose, when we're talking about foreclosure rescue money. Americans, though, have a general history of propping one another up when we're down. So what's so different about this time? And what's that they say about glass houses? With us to sort things out is Randy Cohen, ethicist columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Randy, welcome to the show.

Randy Cohen: Thank you for having me on.

Vigeland: Let's start with a little definition. How do you define ethical behavior?

Cohen: Ethics concerns are the effects of our actions on other people. And so ethical behavior is that which has a benign effect on other people, or certainly doesn't do harm to other people.

Vigeland: Given that definition, you know, as we've just heard from Nancy, there's a lot of, shall we say, frustration out there from people who say, "Look. I did nothing wrong. I was responsible. My neighbor's going to get a bailout. Where's mine, even though I don't really need it?" How are we supposed to reconcile, I guess kind of the greater good, versus individual fairness, especially when it comes to the dollars in our pockets?

Cohen: It's an understandable feeling, but it's a poor guide to public policy. Once you start conjuring up this Victorian notion of the undeserving poor. Look, we help people who make mistakes all the time. When someone goes to the emergency room, the doctors don't question their moral worth, they make a medical decision. We send the fire department to someone's house without asking why did their house catch fire? What it is to live in a community is to shoulder the burden of responding to the needs of those around you, without making moral judgments.

Vigeland: But, you know, there seems to be this notion that helping people in trouble is equivalent to rewarding them for bad behavior. But, as you said, we choose as a society to help people all the time. Why is this different?

Cohen: Here's why: To make a bad financial decision, isn't a moral failing. It's a practical failing. It's a financial failing. There were people who made moral failings who should be scrutinized. A banker who has a sworn duty to issue prudent mortgages and who is negligent about how much down payment should I demand? What's a reasonable monthly payment for someone with this income? That person has morally transgressed. A person who takes a mortgage on his or her home and gets in over their head has not morally transgressed.

Vigeland: I feel like some of this is similar in many ways to the anger that you saw during the debate over the bank bailout a few months ago. Then it was, you know, corporate America versus the population. But, at a certain point, people became very resigned to the idea that, "OK, we're going to have to do this." Now, it's almost household versus household. How, if at all, does that change the ethical debate?

Cohen: Significantly. The banker we were just talking about has a genuine professional duty to issue prudent mortgages. The federal regulators who are overseeing the financial sector have a sworn duty to make sure prudent practices are observed. If those people deliberately fabricate those responsibilities, they've committed moral failings, and we're rightly angry at them and should tax them for that. If an individual makes a foolish financial decision, that's ignorance. They acted unwisely, but not unethically. You know, in my view it's -- you're not going to succeed at social policy that, that takes people out and flogs them for this. We tried that. It was called debtors prison. We saw being poor as a moral failing, and responded punitively. Didn't work out so well. We've had much better luck with prudent banking law. That kind of regulation seems a much more practical response to how human beings behave.

Vigeland: So for those who are feeling more than a little angry about all this, you're suggesting maybe just chill out?

Cohen: Yeah. That's a very natural feeling, and I feel it too. If I've played by the rules, if I've led a frugal life, it's hard not to resent the people who have done so and are now people helped, at my expense, in part. We should recognize that those feelings are also not that which is best about us. We should look to the better angels of our nature.

Vigeland: And I guess who have to wonder what a world would look like where we all got what we deserved.

Cohen: A terrible thing, or a fine thing. We'd all be in Hell if we got what we deserved.

Vigeland: Randy Cohen writes the ethicist column for the New York Times. Thanks so much.

Cohen: I enjoyed talking to you.

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