By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers
September 14, 2012
In the 12 years that Randy Cohen penned "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times, the nation lived through three presidents, 9/11, two wars, a tanking economy and seven iterations of "The Real Housewives." And yet ethical quandaries changed very little.
"I didn't see any radical shift in the types of questions," he says. "There were tiny upheavals in response to great public events. But in terms of large cultural change, that happens very slowly."
"Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything" (Chronicle) is a newly released collection of Cohen's columns, organized by categories and introduced with Cohen's delightfully urbane wit. Taken together, the columns are a fascinating snapshot of what vexes us.
"Modest problems, perhaps," he writes, "but when dissected they revealed much about power, money, race, class, gender, the mutual obligations and unspoken assumptions that connect us."
We chatted with Cohen recently about the life of an ethicist.
Q: Do you have a particularly strong moral compass?
A: I have the same moral responsibility as everyone else to behave honorably, but I was never hired to be a role model. I was not made to personify virtue. I was made to write about ethics in a way that readers would find interesting. But I was aware that people who publicly tell other people what to do run the risk of being branded hypocrites if we don't live up to the ethical standards we've prescribed for other people.
Q: Did the right answers occur to you immediately?
A: Sometimes it was a gut reaction, but it wouldn't stop there. Jonathan Haidt, the psychologist, made an unbelievably brilliant analogy between moral response and aesthetic response. He thinks we have an immediate gut reaction to moral questions, and it's often appallingly wrong. And he compares that to an aesthetic response, when we hear a piece of music or look at a painting, where we don't have to reason our way through it and we're not stuck with our initial response. I've certainly come out of movies that I sort of change my response to retroactively. I think that's true of moral reasoning too.
Q: Did you receive questions that were too weighty to tackle?
A: None that I gave up on, but many that I found really hard. In a way, that's kind of the job. If the answer is too easy or too obvious, it's not interesting enough for people to read about. I often sat with a question for weeks — sometimes months — as I'd continue to think through and discuss it with other people.
Q: Any you remember really struggling over?
A: One I found bewildering was from a woman traveling on business who saw her best friend's spouse in the arms of another. Must she tell her friend? If she doesn't tell, she'll feel she's conspiring to deceive her friend. If she does tell, she's messing about in someone else's marriage. I felt, ultimately, it was a question not about sexual morality; different people have different rules in their marriages. So it became a question about the duties of friendship. I think we do have an obligation to our friend, and that is to do what our friend would like. The question then becomes, what does my friend want to know? Just as the New York state driver's license indicates, "I want to be an organ donor," there should be an answer about infidelity: "I'd want to know." "I wouldn't want to know." Until that glorious day arrives, your default decision has to be: If you don't know that your friend would want to know, you have to keep it to yourself. If you know your friend wants to know — and if it's your best friend, you may have had this conversation — then you must tell her.