Ask the Ethicist

Dear Ethicist:

I have this friend who’s a ghostwriter. She’s been asked to do a book for a potential client, and is feeling really torn. The job would pay a lot, and it would take only a short time — just three months or so. The potential client has done a few books in the past, a couple of which have been best sellers.

But here’s the deal. The client’s mantra is that anyone can get rich quick. That anyone can take his or her hidden assets — credit card limits, home equity loans, savings accounts — and invest them in businesses that produce cash.

This seems kind of risky to my friend. After all, most people can’t manage their own personal finances, much less start and run new businesses. It seems a little simplistic to assume that anyone picking up a book in a bookstore can suddenly learn to be an entrepreneur.

On the other hand, is it my friend’s job to protect the assets of gullible readers? If the client isn’t doing anything illegal, and really believes these books can help certain people make a lot of money, is that so bad? And if the book is going to get written anyway, wouldn’t the most ethical path be for my friend to get involved and try to shape it in a way that helps readers the most?

My friend is really conflicted over this. The money’s good. The topic is timely. Ghostwriters work with controversial authors all the time. Working on someone’s book isn’t tantamount to espousing 100% of their views. But still, is it ethical to help someone disseminate advice that might prove financially damaging to some? Is it okay to hold one’s nose and do work that one might not do if the payday weren’t so large?


Concerned Friend


Dear Concerned Friend,

Blah blah blah blah. Banal observation. Yada yada yada. Tortured effort at humor. Jaunty aside. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-blah-de-how-the-hell-do-I-get-paid-for-this? Bad advice bad advice bad advice bad advice bad advice. Statement which I’ll have to retract in the public editor’s column three weeks hence.

Bull bull bull bull bull baloney. Bumpity bumpity bumpity are you still reading? More jaunty asides. One last bad pun. I am a genius. I love that I am me.

[Note to Great Whatsit readers: Despite the fact that in my very first post for TGW lo, these many years ago, I criticized the Ethicist for his “updates,” there is an update for this particular installation, and it’s one I find most pleasing.]

Update: After several days of agonizing indecision, the ghostwriter turned the job down. 

12 responses to “Ask the Ethicist”

  1. Dave says:

    The Ethicist’s response left out: “Blah blah tendentious claim about what ethics is ‘really’ concerned with. Blah blah pseudo-Kantian directive presented as definitive answer.”

  2. Marleyfan says:

    Your friend made a good decision, hopefully she can still pay her bills. Yet if she runs short, I can direct her to a good book which can make her rich quick.

  3. Dave says:

    Wait, I know: Tell the parents about the lightbulb!

  4. Scotty says:

    How embarrassing, as I was reading the first half of your post, I was putting together a bla, bla, bla, banal observation response of my own. Thank god I didn’t have to – you took the advice I would have given you anyway. I would’ve been really bummed if you took that job.

  5. trixie says:

    you mean if her friend took the job.

  6. MF says:

    My view is gonna be pretty unpopular here, but I’m gonna write it anyway.

    I think your friend should have taken the job. I don’t think there is an ethical issue at all.

    Your reason for thinking there is an ethical issue here is that “Most people can’t manage their own personal finances… much less their own businessess.” So, you seem to be suggesting, it would be very difficult to improve.

    From what you wrote, the book is providing suggestions about how to do something people aren’t doing today. The fact that some people might not correctly follow the suggestions or that they might abandon the tools and plan after they have spent their hidden assets but before they make any returns is immaterial to your decision to help write the book. (In fact, this attitude is pretty condescending, if you ask me. There seems to be an inside message here that people are stupid and uncapable. Just an observation.)

    Now, if the premise of the book was that “anyone can get rich, and here is how to do it,” but the suggestions included in the book would not actually lead to wealth creation, then we have an ethical issue.

  7. Mark says:

    I’m in agreement with MF on this one.

    Trying to make money isn’t bad, and trying to do it by selling a book seems way less than wrong to me. If the client wanted to hire someone to help beat up people in dark alleys, that would be wrong.

    Books = not evil

    Back alley beat ups = mostly evil

  8. swells says:

    On another note: Hey Parrish! Was that your first earthquake? Welcome to California, for real now!

  9. Dave says:

    MF gets it right, but not when she says your friend should have taken the job.

    It depends on the book. If the advice it offers isn’t going to harm the people who follow it (even if it’s unrealistic to think that many people are going to follow the advice), it’s fine to work on it. You’re basically producing a neutral product, something people buy that does them neither harm nor good. Most of what most of us do for a living falls roughly into this category.

    But it sounds like this book was something else. Advising people to max out their credit cards and home equity to invest in (what kind of?) businesses sounds bad. It’s a risky financial move that most people, as you say, won’t be able to pull off correctly. Your friend reasonably figured that if people were to read and follow the book’s advice, many of them would be significantly harmed.

  10. LP says:

    8: Yeah! Wow, how about that shaky-shake? What a wacky feeling. I did feel a small earthquake in SF a couple years ago, but this was stronger.

    4, 6, 7, 9: You can say that people are responsible for themselves, and that authors are free to publish any advice they feel is useful. The question for my friend became, in part, whether it made sense to take part in something that is perhaps ethically sound but could end badly for people anyway. In the end, it didn’t seem worth it.

  11. Scotty says:

    The question for my friend became, in part, whether it made sense to take part in something that is perhaps ethically sound but could end badly for people anyway.

    Like the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes quote about speech ending where a fist touches the end of another’s nose, I think the question of whether or not something is ethical has everything to do with how it affects other people.

    MF: your suggestion that it is elitist to question other’s ability to manage their own funds sounds a lot like the argument for personal savings funds over social security. This isn’t a criticism by the way. But just as an asside, do you favor personal accounts on these same grounds?

  12. PB says:

    I am late – having been in the SAME sunny earthquake although away from a computer.

    I have to add my 2 cents however on both MF’s comment and some others. I agree that we should not assume that people are just stupid and why tempt them with bad choices – that does feel a little noblesse oblige – but what seems at risk here is personal integrity. What was in question was the friend’s discomfort with practices espoused. That to me was the crux – you can’t write or edit or support something you fundamentally don’t believe in without feeling like a prostitute. We all have to whore a little in our society to make a living – in a case where you can take a road truer to your heart – and you can afford to make another choice – why wouldn’t you?