Commentary Magazine


The Good, the Bad & the Difference by Randy Cohen

The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations
by Randy Cohen
Doubleday. 277 pp. $23.95

There is no getting away from ethicists these days. The Nexis database points to 45 articles in the Washington Post alone over the past year wherein ethicists can be found pronouncing on such issues as assisted suicide, war with Iraq, and what a parish should do about a male minister who has undergone a sex-change operation. Scrolling through the articles on-screen, one observes that though the people identified as ethicists are often heavily credentialed academics, the propositions they bring to the table are rarely different from what has come to the minds of ordinary characters like you and me.

One also observes that ethicists usually have an agenda. Overwhelmingly clustered at the left end of the political spectrum, they tend to equate ethical behavior with left-liberal politics and political correctness. Thus 100 “Christian ethicists” recently signed a statement claiming that President Bush had made “no compelling moral case” for attacking Iraq. A report in the Annals of Internal Medicine tells us that medical ethicists object not just to the death penalty but to the assistance that doctors sometimes provide at executions by verifying death. So-called “animal ethicists” like Steve Wise of the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine promote legal rights for chimpanzees and other primates. Even Wall Street has liberal ethicists, many of them peddling investments like the Domini Social Equity Fund; this looks for companies committed to affirmative action, while steering clear of cigarette and liquor stocks, casinos, polluters, utilities operating nuclear power plants, and companies that “earn significant revenues from weapons contracting.” National defense, it would seem, is unethical.

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Perhaps our best known public ethicist nowadays is a totally noncredentialed individual named Randy Cohen. Since 1999, he has been writing a popular column called “The Ethicist,” which appears regularly in the New York Times Magazine and is widely syndicated. Now we have his first collection, The Good, the Bad & the Difference.

The idea for an ethics column was thought up by the Times itself, which then went searching for a suitably entertaining writer and ended up with Cohen. In some measure, the column can be thought of as a hip, updated “Dear Abby” That is, it tells correspondents what is the right and proper thing to do when you accidentally dent a parked car, or when you come across your friend’s husband smooching with a blonde.

Another similarity: like Abby, Randy often concludes by urging correspondents to seek counseling for themselves or others. And, in both columns, a familiar sign-off line is to recommend that one approach a person behaving badly and discuss things calmly but frankly. My own experience with each of these pieces of advice is that neither gets you anywhere.

“The Ethicist” is in some ways superior to “Dear Abby.” For openers, Cohen is a better, wittier writer. A typical column will feature a couple of queries, followed by his verdict. In the book, these exchanges are organized by subject, with separate chapters devoted to “commercial life” (i.e., buying stuff), work life, social life, family life, school life, and civic life. This last-named is a somewhat amorphous, residual category that covers happenings on the subway, in the park, or when one is outdoors but not shopping. Unlike the weekly columns, the book includes a fair amount of back-and-forth with readers who have objected to Cohen’s original judgments, plus occasional second thoughts by the ethicist.

Cohen’s correspondents are obviously more upscale and better educated than the hapless housewives who tend to confide in “Dear Abby,” and his often lengthy responses to their moral quandaries are plainly intended to be taken seriously—even though the author, once a television writer for David Letterman, not to mention Rosie O’Donnell, often turns funny before he is through pronouncing on a case. Responding to a collegian who plans to go for a Ph.D. in philosophy, suspects his earning power will be nil to limited, and therefore worries that it may be unethical to borrow money he will be unable to repay, Cohen cites an encouraging counterexample:

While your eventual destitution seems likely, sadly, it’s not something you can count on. Carleton Fiorina, recently named president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, majored in medieval history and philosophy. Financial failure can be so elusive.

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Despite the wit, this reader found himself increasingly annoyed by Cohen’s invincibly PC line, never a total surprise in the world of ethicists but in this case manifested at a more primitive level than one would expect even at the Times. Under this heading, it seems obligatory to cite a recent column—not in the book—that triggered an avalanche of protest from Jewish readers. Cohen’s correspondent, a woman identified as “J.L., New York,” had just hired a real-estate agent. Observing that he was “courteous and competent,” she went on to complain that after their contract was signed, he had declined to shake her hand because, as an Orthodox Jew, he was forbidden to touch a woman to whom he was not related. J.L. averred that, while supporting “freedom of religious expression,” she opposed sex discrimination of all sorts and wondered if she should just tear up the contract. Cohen’s knee-jerk advice: yes, tear it up. “Sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions.”

The book itself is a treasure trove of similar clichés. Readers are told that college students cheat more than they used to on college exams; the reason is . . . Ronald Reagan: “They grew up under a President who emphasized self-interest at the expense of community.” Also, that it is ethically mandatory to take your little boy out of the homophobic Cub Scouts. Also, that race is a meaningless social construct, and that a man who says he is physically attracted to Asian women is a racist. Also, that there is a “darker meaning” in the custom of men opening doors for women—it is “deference as a form of social domination.”

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Cohen has done himself no favor by bringing his columns together in a book, since, especially when he wanders off the reservation of political correctness, he has a problem with consistency. In one place we observe him scolding a couple, both fifty-five years old, who make a practice of getting low-priced senior tickets at movie theaters that define “senior” as at least sixty-two. “I’m afraid that what you’re doing is indeed unethical,” Cohen writes. “You’re going to the movies on tickets to which you’re not entitled.”

But in another place one notices a distinct change of attitude. Here a child complains that his father endlessly embarrasses him by buying the cheapest tickets to baseball games and then later, when the game starts, moving down to better, unoccupied seats. The kid asks if this is okay, and is presumably dismayed when Cohen answers in the affirmative. “Your dad’s seat-hopping is more than okay: it is a time-honored baseball tradition. He hurts no one, and it would be foolish to let good seats go unused.”

This particular dictum drew a raft of complaints from readers, one of whom cites the chaos that would result if everybody engaged in the practice of seat-hopping. Cohen’s response begins: “To ask what would happen if everyone did it is not entirely helpful. First, because everyone will not do it.” Here our ethicist seems to have momentarily forgotten that he himself often invokes the “what-if-everyone-did-it” argument, writing, for example, that even though stealing from a cable-TV company might not appear to be true theft, “if everyone stole cable, the company would go under. . . . Hence your obligation to pay your share of the service.”

“Dear Abby” lacks Randy Cohen’s panache—and, thankfully, his politics—but at least she knows that no self-respecting ethicist talks out of both sides of his mouth.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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