The questions aren’t easy: If you find out your friend is having an affair, should you tell their spouse? Is it okay to lie to your dad about being gay so that he’ll keep paying for college? How much money is too much to spend on chemotherapy for your dog, when there’s so much suffering in the world?

These are the types of quandaries on which NYU philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah must opine each week as sole author of the popular Ethicist column in the New York Times magazine, a post he assumed this fall, after a brief period sharing duties (and an Ethicist podcast!) with NYU Law’s Kenji Yoshino and novelist and psychotherapist Amy Bloom.

How does he do it? NYU Stories asked Appiah to take us through his process, from first instinct to final, confident pronouncement—and all the agonizing in between. 

photo: Kwame Anthony Appiah in his office

Here Appiah has help from his editor, who sorts through The Ethicist’s email inbox and tosses out stray dilemmas (“Does the olive fork go to the left or the right of the plate?” “How can I avoid being audited by the IRS”?) that could better be addressed by someone else (think: Miss Manners, a lawyer, or your financial planner) before forwarding him the rest. What makes the cut? “An ethical question is, roughly speaking, a question about how you ought to conduct yourself, what you owe to other people, how you ought to think about what you do, and how it impacts the world—whether on other people or on animals or on the environment,” Appiah says.

Though he’s a world-renowned philosopher—the author of 10 books and recipient of a National Humanities Medal, a dozen or so honorary degrees, and too many other accolades to count—Appiah approaches tricky dilemmas the way most of us would: by first going with his gut. “The first thing I do is decide what my hunch is about the right answer to the question,” he says. “I don’t sort of reason my way towards it—I just kind of think about it.”
That process sometimes involves running a question by his husband, say, or thinking out loud in the company of friends. (“But I think I’d become a bore in my social world if I just went around asking people how to answer these questions,” Appiah says, “so I try not to try them out on people too much.”)

Only after he’s been stewing on it a while does Appiah then “try to think more systematically about what the considerations are,” he says. “Does the person have any duties that they ought to consider, or are they free to do whatever they judge is best independently of any duties? What are the likely consequences of the various forms of action that they're contemplating, in terms of impacts on others? There’s a sort of toolkit of things that philosophers think are important in trying to understand what to do and who to be.”

The choice of tools depends on the particulars of the situation, of course, though Appiah says that questions to The Ethicist tend to center around some common themes. “For example, a lot of people have questions about what they can say to whom,” he says. “And when you know something, what you can say about it depends on how you came to know it. Did somebody tell you this? Did they tell you in confidence? Did you read in the newspapers? Often, people gave us information either with explicit or implicit understandings of what we can and can't do with it.”

Some types of information—like a medical status—are assumed to be confidential. A friend confiding in you about a strained relationship with her mother probably assumes you’re not then going to call up the mom and repeat what you’ve heard, Appiah points out. But, he says, if the same friend told you she planned to shoot her mother, you’d have an obligation to call the police. Then there’s the matter of the mental state of the person receiving the information: When someone recently wrote to The Ethicist asking whether he should share with an emotionally fragile relative that his mother’s death had been a suicide, for example, Appiah urged caution. “

Even for a philosopher, such choices can be wrenching, and Appiah often flips back and forth on a given issue. “I do find often that once I've used my toolkit and thought about the dimensions of the question in the sort of a way that philosophers do—in terms of duties, virtues, consequences, different kinds of sources of obligation, different kinds of relationships—that brings out features of the situation that may not have struck my intuitive self,” Appiah says. On questions about whether to press charges following sexual assault, for example, he feels torn between the privacy of the victim, “who should be in charge, and whose main task is to recover,” and the knowledge that if a victim chooses not to prosecute, the perpetrator remains a potential danger to others. In this case and in so many other ethical dilemmas, Appiah says, “There’s a genuine case for doing A and a genuine case for not doing A. Sometimes, I start thinking my hunch is one way, and then I end up going the other.”

Is it crazy-making to know that one’s advice could dramatically change the course of someone’s life? Appiah says he can’t help worrying some, but that he consoles himself by presenting his perspective as just one of many that the person should consider before making a decision. “It would be sad if I’m the only advice they’re seeking,” he says, “Because they should have friends, family, neighbors—people they can talk to who have more information about the situation than I do.” Then there’s the fact that he thinks of himself as providing a professional service not to the advice seeker (that’s a job for a therapist or life coach), but rather to the reader. “I mean, on the one hand I want to answer the question that’s been posed to the best of my ability,” he says. “But on the other hand, I feel a duty to my audience, which doesn’t just want an answer to this particular question, but wants to be introduced to ways of thinking about questions, to problems they might have.”

That’s why he approaches his responses—both to writers to The Ethicist and to friends who inevitably approach him for advice—less as definitive verdicts than as suggestions for different ways to think about the problem. It might be that “this is a situation in which someone who has less power is being taken advantage of by someone who has more power, and the question is how to set about undoing that,” Appiah says. “That can be very complicated in any particular case, and often I don’t have any idea how to do that! But just framing the question that way might be helpful to someone who's thinking about how to intervene.”

Finally, at some point—after all the internal wrangling—it’s time to sit down and put pen to paper, a task to which Appiah devotes his Saturdays. “I write it a certain way,” he says, with a nod to style, “and then I rewrite it to make it more intelligible and perhaps a bit more entertaining.” But even the finished product isn’t meant to be read as definitive: “I don’t think the position that I end up on is guaranteed to be the best possible position, obviously. For a start, we have a limited amount of space, and on lots of these situations, one could say lots more. I'm usually editing down by the end of this—subtracting words, rather than adding them.”

Dithering over other people’s problems, writing, rewriting, editing—it’s a labor of love, for sure. Appiah quips, “What else would I do with my weekends?”

—Eileen Reynolds