For 13 years in The New York Times Magazine, Randy Cohen’s weekly column, “The
Ethicist,” posed and answered ethical questions from readers. It was widely
discussed and debated, often angrily. Cohen recently published a
collection of his columns, Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of
Everything. I turned to the book for a summation of his ethical
sensibility – and found evidence of both his decency and the limits of his
secular approach, which in turn highlight a danger society currently
Cohen’s politics are not mine, but in his book I found him fair
and thoughtful. A sensible man, he thinks long and hard about the questions he
faces, using the ethical tools available to him. Cohen generally demands that
his questioners practice honesty, obedience to law, and sensitivity to others.
He requires that they refrain from damaging other people’s property and
otherwise causing financial harm. You might think that these are ethical
no-brainers. Still, Cohen deserves praise for his consistent adherence to
common- sense morality.
But when ethical situations become complex, Cohen
grows unpredictable. Indeed, he punctuates his book with updates of some of his
columns, including correspondence and other fallout that highlight debate over
In one column, for example, he advises a company’s
computer technician not to report the child pornography he found on the
president’s computer. Cohen then defiantly reproduces the letters of
remonstration he received from the offices of the Manhattan District Attorney
and US Attorney General.
In another column, Cohen allows the producer of
a play to alter its words to make it suitable for her small town audience. He
then reprints an angry letter from a playwright: “How is it ethical to encourage
people to alter and/or deface artists’ work because it’s not important to you?”
There were several more rounds to the exchange. Neither party changed his
These are more than simple mistakes or differences in
judgment. They demonstrate a fundamental gap in Cohen’s ethical
Please make no mistake: Randy Cohen’s ethical decisions are
rarely objectionable. His problem is that while he has an excellent moral
compass, he lacks a map.
In the introduction to his book, Cohen describes
“I didn’t apply any method, and I suspect neither does anybody
else, at least not initially. When deciding on correct conduct, it is first the
verdict, then the trial. I had what some readers deprecated as ‘just a gut
reaction,’ an immediate feeling about right and wrong. But I didn’t stop there.
I subjected the intestinal tremor to various forms of moral scrutiny: how does
it stand up to the Golden Rule, or to a greatest-good argument, or to the
Cohen subscribes, in sum, to dartboard morality: hang
your gut reaction on the wall, toss objections at it, and see what sticks. And
why not? Who is to say which is right? This one says this; that one says that. I
can support whatever I say with a respectable rationale.
In the end, this
post-modern haze of faux values lets self-affirmation pass as considered
judgment. Cohen’s columns do not just entertain; they denigrate the idea
of a principled morality. Yet Cohen deserves only part of the blame. A comedy
writer turned journalist, he did the best he could with his unconventional
background and lack of education in the field of ethics.
lapse lies with his editors, who handed over the keys of moral judgment in the
“paper of record” to a man without a license. Maybe Seth McFarlane will
be their next literary critic.
FOR CONTRAST, let us look at Rabbi Aaron
Levine’s recent book, Economic Morality and Jewish Law, written shortly before
his death. Levine, whom I knew and admired, followed a formal ethical process.
His studies are generally divided into four parts: the moral question or
questions, the relevant Jewish laws, any applicable economic principles, and a
detailed application of these concepts to the question at hand.
example, he discusses a rabbi who speaks poorly at a charity event and the
various people who praise his unremarkable address. Levine explains the
prohibitions against lying and flattering, the situations in which these
principles must apply, and the times when exceptions may be made. He then
analyzes the circumstances of each flatterer, using these rules to render
ethical judgment. Like Cohen, Levine carefully explores the potential
avenues of recourse, examining the details of the case and the complex
interpersonal effects of particular actions. But Levine does so in light of the
values he has previously established.
Levine repeats this process with
various moral issues – some extremely complex, like the question of the living
wage. Should we differentiate between single- and multiple-wage households? Will
raising salaries help or hurt the neediest people?
In each case, Levine first
establishes his moral foundation, then judges the case. In contrast, Cohen has
no clear foundation; he makes snap moral decisions, which he then tosses around,
sometimes changing his mind, until he reaches a level of comfort.
approaches work well enough in simple cases. But when multiple values
intertwine, only a sophisticated process can unravel the knot. Levine,
with his clarity of thought and process, can make his way through an ethical
maze. Cohen’s hands get hopelessly entangled when his moral concerns outnumber
A SECULARIST, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues in his recent book,
The Great Partnership, can be a deeply moral person; but a secular society
inevitably falls into immorality. In Sacks’ view, the relationship between
religion and morality, while indirect, is powerful and deep-rooted. Secular
moralities are external: there are many secular moralities from which a consumer
can choose. The convenience of selfishness will win out over altruism and, in
the process, destroy the social cohesion that depends on truly moral
The job of the ethicist is to prevent this moral erosion by
identifying the rules that are relevant to a given situation and applying them,
with sensitivity and without bias. If you skip the first step, you allow
self-centeredness, masquerading as morality, to invade and corrupt the public
Our loss of Rabbi Levine highlights our need for real ethicists
to help us rediscover the virtue that society requires for its
The writer, a rabbi, is a frequent writer on Jewish topics
and maintains a popular blog at TorahMusings.com. This initially appeared in
Jewish Ideas Daily and is re-printed with their permission.