Author Interviews
4:24 am
Sun August 26, 2012

'The Ethicist' Explains How To 'Be Good'

Originally published on Sun August 26, 2012 10:32 am

After 12 years writing a column on ethics, Randy Cohen is convinced ethics is not a moving target, unique to time or place.

"I believe there are a set of principles that are so profound and so essentially moral that if I were just slightly smarter and slightly more eloquent, I could travel everywhere and persuade everyone that they should apply," he tells Weekend Edition guest host Linda Wertheimer.

Cohen's column, "The Ethicist," was featured in The New York Times Magazine. He answers more questions of scruples in his new book, Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.


Interview Highlights

On how cultural advances change ethics

"Over the 12 years I wrote the column, the biggest changes in the kinds of questions people asked all drew on new media. And I would say the moral principles remain the same, but how to apply them in a new landscape changes. And it takes time for our customary behavior to evolve."

On the most common contemporary ethical questions

"The question I would receive the most was duty to report, as a class of question. People who had done nothing wrong themselves were aware of the wrongdoing in others, and they wanted to know when they had an obligation to come forward. The guideline for me is this: When someone is acting in a way that presents an imminent, serious threat to other people, you have an absolute duty to come forward.

"If you found out that your friend was a pirate and 50 years ago looted a ship and buried pirate gold, you don't have a duty to the community to set that matter right, to dig up that treasure chest and report your pirate friend. If your friend is about to attack another ship, then you have a duty to come forward."

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Have you ever boarded a train seeking a little quiet reading time, only to be disrupted by the incessant cell phone chatter of a fellow passenger? What do you do? The answer to queries like this one and many more questions of scruples are found in Randy Cohen's new book "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything." It's based on his years as "The Ethicist," writing for The New York Times Magazine. He began that very popular column and wrote it for 12 years.

Randy Cohen joins us from our studio in New York City. Welcome to our program.

RANDY COHEN: Thank you for having me on.

WERTHEIMER: Now, first of all, I want to ask you if you now believe - based on your vast experience of exploring ethical dilemmas for The New York Times magazine - that ethics is ethics? Or is ethics some kind of moveable, changeable sort of a standard?

COHEN: Right. Is ethics just a manifestation of culture? Different people in different parts of the world, in different parts of history, do things differently. Or does ethics presents us with a set of immutable moral principles that would apply in every time and every place? I believe the latter. I believe there are a set of principles that are so profound and so essentially moral, that if I were just slightly smarter and slightly more eloquent, I could travel anywhere and persuade everyone that they should apply.

I could go to ancient Rome and convince them, you know, this gladiatorial combat, not good.

WERTHEIMER: What about new media and the Internet, cell phones? Don't new things require us to rethink?

COHEN: They do very much, indeed. And over the 12 years I wrote the column, the biggest changes in the kind of questions people ask all drew on new media. And I would say the moral principles remain the same, but how to apply them in a new landscape changes. And it takes time for our customary behavior to evolve.

For instance, when I first was starting the column early on, someone asked me: Is it OK on a blind date if I Google the guy or is that too intrusive.

(LAUGHTER)

COHEN: Yes, that's what I think too, ha-ha-ha. Now it just seems oh, how quaint. Who wouldn't? If someone didn't you would think that person is just reckless or she doesn't really take any interest in me. Of course, you should Google...

WERTHEIMER: Basic due diligence at this point.

COHEN: I think so. But when that first started appearing as something we all had access to, it wasn't so clear if you were kind of prying into someone.

WERTHEIMER: Do your readers get in on the act? I noticed one case that you cited one case where you said you stopped counting reader comments at 4,000.

COHEN: Yes. Well, one of the true delights of the job was I felt in many ways I was running a kind of salon. Ethics offers us questions about which honorable people may differ. There is no one right answer, and so the readers would instantly respond. Oh, the question you referred, usually would be two or 300 people pointing out how wrong I got it every week. Here was the question that provoked by far the most response.

A woman goes to hire a real estate agent. And she meets the guy and she thinks, Wow, he's great, he's honest, he's confident. And she goes, you are my guy, and sticks her hand out for a handshake to seal the deal. And he will not shake her hand. And she instantly understands why. She sees that, oh, he's an Orthodox Jew and there's a religious stricture against physical contact across the gender line, except for close relatives.

Her question is: Should I work with this guy? And she crystallized it beautifully. She goes: On the one hand, I truly respect religious tolerance. This does me no actual harm and it's not meant in an unkind way. On the other hand, I hold my feminist principles in as much esteem as he holds his religious principles. All I'm asking for is to be treated with the same courtesy and respect as anyone else would be, in an ordinary business deal. Hire the guy or fire the guy?

My position was fire the guy. And the way I worked towards this conclusion was by making an analogy to race. That if this person had said, I can't touch you 'cause you're black, we would not put up with that for two minutes - nor should we. And in my case, I felt that your religious values which manifested you being part of a voluntary community cannot be imposed on other people.

WERTHEIMER: Leaving aside the Facebook, cell phone, you know, Internet type questions, what do you think of the ethical questions people seem most concerned about these days?

COHEN: The question I would receive the most was duty to report, as a class of question. People who had done nothing wrong themselves were aware of the wrongdoing in others, and they wanted to know when they had an obligation to come forward. The guideline for me is this: When someone is acting in a way that presents an imminent, serious threat to other people, you have an absolute duty to come forward.

So, you would - if you found out that your friend was a pirate and 50 years ago, you know, looted a ship and buried pirate gold, you don't have a duty to the community to set that matter right, to dig up that treasure chest and report your pirate friend. If your friend is about to attack another ship, then you have a duty to come forward.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: OK, that makes it clear.

COHEN: If you travel in pirate circles, I suppose.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Yeah. Randy Cohen's book is called "Be Good," which is a great title but it also comes with a subtitle: "How To Navigate the Ethics of Everything." Thank you so very much.

COHEN: It was just a pleasure to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.