Commentary Magazine

Ethics (and Other Liabilities), by Harry Stein

Easy Choices

Ethics (and other Liabilities).
by Harry Stein.
St. Martin’s Press. 168 pp. $10.95.

When Harry Stein, who is now in his mid-thirties, was invited to write a column on ethics for Esquire three years ago, he felt unworthy of the task. In college he had opted for a course in Social Problems over Ethics; he was, moreover, “a congenital exaggerator” and had even been known to tell an occasional lie. Who was he to discourse on right and wrong?

But Stein was determined not to let such qualms stand in his way. “I’d have preferred,” he confesses in his introduction to this collection of his columns, “to be given a humor column. . . . But if this was the one they’d handed me, I was damn well going to make the best of it.” And make the best of it he did, turning out an article every month for two years, and becoming thereby the conscience of the floundering generation of the 60’s, those ever idealistic young people now lost in the morally arid world of the 70’s and 80’s.

Somewhere along the way, Stein discovered that there was more to ethics than he had anticipated. “All at once,” he explains, “there seemed a right and a wrong to everything—and an obligation to act on that knowledge.” While some of Stein’s friends found his new obsession decidedly irritating—particularly when they saw themselves cited in his columns as illustrations of ethical laxity—the reaction from the great public was rewarding. There was, for example, a letter from a “young mother wondering how to keep her child untainted by racism”; and another from a woman “whose husband . . . had been blacklisted and who never thought she’d live to see the day when ideals and idealism made the pages of a national magazine.” A most telling testimony to the appeal of his column was the proliferation of T-shirts bearing the legend, “But what would Harry Stein do?” Such support sustained the author through the months of grappling with life’s tough questions.



Stein began his career as an ethicist at Esquire—and he begins his book—by taking a hard look at what he calls kissing ass. “The syndrome becomes apparent,” he writes, “as early as the third grade. There’s always . . . that one wimp, whose arm is constantly in the air, straining so desperately to please that it looks as if it might pop out of its socket.” It becomes even more apparent in college and, of course, in the working world, where “almost everyone is looking for an edge. . . .” The syndrome seems to affect even the likes of John Glenn, Walter Mondale, and “old Ed Muskie,” who made a public display of themselves trekking down to Plains to pay homage to Jimmy Carter in the hope of being tapped for the Vice Presidency. While Stein finds it “hard to argue” with a friend’s view that “ ‘sycophancy is what keeps America moving,’ ” he concludes that it is nevertheless difficult to “remain . . . independent, self-determined, pure” while “tailoring one’s behavior to fit the tastes of others.” Kissing ass, then, is ultimately bad for the soul.

Equally detrimental to spiritual purity is stealing. Stein’s “thinking on the subject had been shaped early, by [his] mother . . . a warm, blunt, humorous ex-Communist with an unyielding view of the proper order. . . . Stealing . . . was for degenerates—something a politician’s kids might do, not hers.” And, indeed, little Harry never did steal—until one day he was falsely accused in a toy store. Less than two weeks later, he was embarked on a career as a random—and very minor—shoplifter.

His “life in crime” was brought to an abrupt conclusion when, years later, a college graduate, he was arrested in Paris for lifting a magazine. “[H]onesty turned out to be a habit,” and Stein never stole again; he never even cheated on his expense account. “Financially,” he admits, “this may have been imprudent, but it at least enabled me to blast Richard Nixon . . . with an uncluttered conscience.”



Stein’s conscience is not quite so uncluttered when it comes to abortion. After experiencing “our abortion . . . the talk and the tears; the self-doubts and doubts about each other,” he and his girlfriend “at last learned the melancholy lesson that hundreds of thousands of others who like to think of themselves as progressive had learned before us: that abortion cannot be viewed exclusively, or even primarily, as a political issue.” The apparent ease with which others decide to abort unwanted pregnancies, or to remain barren altogether, leads Stein to the “inescapable” conclusion that “we postwar kids, the most indulged youngsters in the history of the planet, have grown into the most profoundly selfish generation of adults.”

Let it not be thought, however, that Stein would wish to impose these particular views of his on anyone else. In making the decision to have or not to have children, he explains, “nobody’s values should matter except one’s own.”

The necessity of making choices is not limited to one’s personal life. There is also the matter of electing our political leaders. Sadly, in Stein’s view, this process in America often boils down to a question of “choosing among evils.” American politicians, it seems, are for the most part repositories of “[i]gnorance, shortsightedness, and provincialism.” Witness a 1968 Esquire survey which revealed that favorite films among Congressmen and Senators were Gone With the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and The Sound of Music, and that many saw their chief political influences as their fathers, grandfathers, and colleagues. Compared with such third-rate minds, politicians in Italy (as Stein learned from Oriana Fallaci) “are all Einsteins and Shakespeares.”

Still, even in America there is the occasional pearl among the sand pebbles—notably Henry Wallace and Adlai Stevenson, Responsibility for the failures of these beacons among men must be laid at the door of universal suffrage, according to a friend of Stein. “There are,” this friend opines, “too many ill-informed people voting.” But if restricted suffrage is an idea whose time has not yet come, Stein does not lose heart. It is enough for him that there are those who still toil on, despite the failures of their Henrys, their Adlais, and their Genes. Such perseverance deserves admiration, perhaps even emulation. As yet another friend reminds Stein, in one of their favorite aphorisms from days gone by, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”



This book signals Stein’s intention to be part of the solution. Unfortunately, the problem he seeks to address is not accessible to his capacities. For, despite its title, this book lacks even the most elementary moral discrimination and is devoid of even the most minimal ethical vision.

The author’s position on the baser human tendencies is that they are undesirable because they exact too high a spiritual and psychological price; even adultery, in Stein’s view, is to be avoided simply because it “makes most everyone involved feel rotten.” This is to reject the very essence of ethics, namely, that a standard of right and wrong, good and evil, must exist independently of the individual; and it is to deny the very essence of morality, namely, that ethical standards must guide behavior irrespective of personal feeling.

Nor does Stein’s conviction that the moral failings he discusses are fostered and sustained by such external forces as the political, economic, and social system of the United States bespeak a sincere preoccupation with ethical issues. Any serious attempt to deal with such issues must begin with the recognition that they are of universal—and thus peculiarly internal—significance.

Stein’s work, in short, far from adding anything to the understanding of life’s complexities, is no more than a rehashing in moralized language of the standard pieties dished up by magazines like Esquire. That this rehashing should be proffered—and received—as a discussion of ethics is, perhaps, only to be expected from people who have become accustomed to viewing their own thoughts and feelings as the ultimate criteria of judgment on every subject under the sun.

In this sense, Harry Stein might indeed be considered the quintessential ethical voice of his class and of his generation—those 60’s paragons now creeping toward middle age, always on the lookout for new reasons to think well of themselves.

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