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The Situational Ethicist

In which our resident ethical expert contends: Ethics may complicate, but absolute ethics complicate absolutely.

With apologies to the estimable Randy Cohen.

Dear Situational Ethicist,

I regularly download music from free filesharing services online. I only download singles, and if I like the single enough, I typically go and buy the full album over at iTunes. This seems to me a reasonable approach for online consumers, but is it ethical?

-- Dave, Detroit, MI

Depends on the artist, Dave. I often take a similar approach to yours. For example, I loved that Yeah Yeah Yeahs single "Maps" from a few years ago, and have since bought all their albums legitimately. I figured, they're a young band, could probably use the money, and Karen O is, you know, a fox. But I also love old Elton John songs, and have maintained a strict policy of stealing all his shit. I figured, these are ancient songs, he doesn't need the money, and Elton John is, you know, a dick.

Dear Situational Ethicist,

I'm a spinal surgeon trapped on a mysterious island controlled by a group we'll simply call The Others. I've recently been asked to perform a life-saving procedure on the leader of this group, even though The Others have kidnapped, tortured and killed several of my friends. I've got this patient on the table right now, as a matter of fact, and have deliberately lacerated his kidney. He'll die in an hour of I don't sew him up. What should I do?

-- Jack, Mysterious Island

C'mon, Jack. As a physician, you swore the Hippocratic Oath, right? I'm pretty sure there's a do no harm clause in there somewhere. There's no question about the medical ethics involved; you know your obligation. Luckily for everyone involved, you're on hiatus until February, so you've got some time to think. Here's my suggestion: do the right thing, and save Henry's life. Unless ABC's ratings start to tank, in which case, carve up that bug-eyed freak.

Dear Situational Ethicist,

I'm an advertising executive and brand manager for several tobacco industry clients, and [irrelevant remainder of letter deleted – ed.]

-- L.J., New York, NY

Kill yourself. No, seriously: kill yourself.

Dear Situational Ethicist,

I'm the publisher of the upcoming OJ Simpson book, If I Did It, and wish to state for the record that I pursued the book and television interview with Mr. Simpson in the interest of domestic abuse victims everywhere. I consider this book his confession. I chose to trick bookstores into purchasing the title in advance, because I feared a retail boycott would not be in the interest of domestic abuse victims everywhere. I also paid Mr. Simpson $3.5 million, because I believe this to be in the best interest of domestic abuse victims everywhere.

-- J.R. New York, NY

Ah, Ms. Regan. Always a delight. You are to situational ethics what Hurricane Katrina is to afternoon rain showers. I bow to your superior gifts, madam. I wouldn't worry about defending your publication of the book, at least not in this lifetime. Frankly, you've got bigger issues. The pure karmic payback of partnering with this sociopath and killer in pursuit of just a little more fame and money guarantees you a special place in the afterlife. And all complicit employees of ReganBooks, HarperCollins Publishers, Fox Television, NewsCorp, and Mr. Murdoch. Good luck, kids!

Dear Situational Ethicist,

As political leader and military commander-in-chief of a large, influential Western nation (I can't name it here -- too many may recognize me), I have a lot of responsibility. For example, part of my job is "unofficially" setting the standards by which "enemy combatants" are "interrogated" and "detained". My critics suggest that there are strict "constitutional" and "legal" precedents that ought to determine our nation's policies and conduct, not to mention certain "moral" imperatives. They also like to point out many "ethical" concerns regarding my administration's conduct, in regard to budgetary policies and environmental stewardship, to name two. I don't really have a question, I just think it's funny.

-- G.W.B, Washington, D.C.

I don't really have an answer, I just think I'm moving to "Vancouver".

Send your questions to the Situational Ethicist to the Comments page (tab above). Coming up next week, our special Higher Education Edition: Sleeping With Your Grad Students … Peccadillo or Perk?

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