‘Behavior may be relative, but values are not’
Questions for Randy Cohen
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine, will serve as guest speaker for the 2010 Jewish Family Service of MetroWest gala. The event, to be held June 3 at the Morris Museum, will honor longtime community leaders Beth and Allen Levithan.
Cohen's work writing for Late Night with David Letterman and TV Nation won him four Emmy Awards and he is the author of several books, including The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations.
NJJN spoke to Cohen about his decade as a sometimes controversial arbiter of life's ethical dilemmas, big and small.
NJJN: What have you learned about people and society after a decade on the job?
Cohen: Before I started this job, I thought ethics was how people respond as individuals in a moment of moral crisis. More and more, I see it as a series of social and political questions: If you want people to behave well, what is the best way to create that situation? It's a question of community; more and more, people will act well or badly depending on their community. We tend to act like our neighbors, not with incredible heroism or villainy. The good news is, we are fairly adept at creating communities with good values.
NJJN: So what does it mean to be ethical? Are ethics relative?
Cohen: Some say it is just an expression of values at a given time and place. I think there's a more universal principle, and if I were smarter, taller, and had a better head of hair, I think I could convince more people that I'm right, that other people are entitled to the same things I am. We can't be racist anymore; we can't be sexist anymore. This leads to an egalitarian society. Even though many societies don't go to this place, I think that precept leads you there. The ancient Romans behaved differently, but I think they followed the same basic premise, that there were universal principles. So behavior may be relative, but values are not.
This is not so different; it seems to me, from one aspect of Judaism: Jewish law is not culturally relative. Jews believe in the same values that applied 3,000 years ago. Particular manifestations may have evolved, but the underlying principles have not.
NJJN: You grew up in a Reform Jewish household. Do you have any kind of relationship with Judaism today? Are you ever guided by Jewish ethical teachings or thinkers, like Maimonides or Ethics of the Fathers?
Cohen: I don't use Jewish teachings in my work. I had a bar mitzva, and I was confirmed. But since then I have not been in a synagogue except to attend other people's celebrations or for sad occasions. I'm resolutely secular, in my column and in my life.
Even so, as I say that, my life and my conduct are not so different from the world view I grew up with and the values of my mother. That kind of upbringing is profoundly part of my thinking. There was a time before the column that I would have thought – not being an observant person – that [Judaism] had no place in my life. But my day job compels me to reason morally, and this sometimes flows right from the Judaism I learned as a child. For instance, Judaism involves a sense of self as a member of a community and not just a community of fellow Jews. The moral obligation extends to the larger community, and non-Jews are entitled to be treated with respect.
NJJN: As you point out, being secular doesn't mean you don't express yourself Jewishly. Is there any way in your personal life that you express your Jewish identity?
Cohen: I guess I'm Jewish culturally. And I go to a seder every year – that's my only form of ritual observance. I'm also aware of a kind of cultural Judaism because I spent time as a comedy writer; I'm aware of the centrality of a certain Jewish perspective that utterly shapes American comedy and is dying out.
NJJN: When Judaism comes up in your columns, your answers tend to elicit plenty of criticism; in fact, if you Google "Randy Cohen ethicist Jewish," a 2002 real estate case is still the first thing that comes up. In that case, a woman sought advice on how to handle an Orthodox real estate agent, otherwise courteous and competent, who declined to shake her hand after signing a contract, based on his observance of negiah (rules regarding physical contact with the opposite sex). You urged her to find another agent, saying, "You're entitled to work with someone who will treat you with the dignity and respect he shows his male clients."
Want to offer any final words on that case for the record?
Cohen: When I write a column that people disagree with, disagreeing usually means I get 200 or 300 e-mails. I stopped counting at 4,000 on that case. The Orthodox Union called the Times and asked for a meeting and got it. I was invited to the meeting.
The thing is, I like speaking with my critics and interacting with my critics. Almost invariably, really interesting, smart people read the Times. My job is to oversimplify and flatten out the fullness and complexity of nuanced questions and answer in 600 words. The responses are usually smart and worth engaging. Sometimes, arguments are so persuasive that I change my position. Once a year or so I revisit one of these questions in my column and renounce my former foolishness. But in this case, I stand by my answer. I think I got this just right.
NJJN: You're a writer, not a philosopher. You started your career as a comedy writer. So how do you come by your ethical bona fides?
Cohen: I can tell you how I became the Ethicist. The idea for the column started in-house at The New York Times Magazine. The editors there invited a bunch of people [to apply] – I like to picture hundreds so my victory is all the more glorious, but I think it is closer to a dozen. We were each given the same three questions to answer. I suspect I was thrown into the mix because a comedy writer takes a critical view of culture and helps people see things in a fresh way. If I could bring that to this task, all the better.
NJJN: Is it ever uncomfortable for you, given your background, to be thought of as "the Ethicist"?
Cohen: Yes. The name is so grandiose. I wish it was something different, like Ask Randy. Still, ethics is not a credentialed profession like medicine or plumbing. These are questions you can turn to anyone for help. Yes, I am uneasy. But in the end, people come to my column to the extent that they do because it is engaging, entertaining, and illuminating. It's not mandatory reading.
NJJN: You get hundreds of questions each week. How do you choose which ones to answer in print?
Cohen: I pick the questions I think my readers will find most interesting. Hopefully the questions I find most interesting will appeal to my readers. Also, the longer you're at this, the easier it gets. Questions come in that are related to ones I've already answered, so I don't take those.
NJJN: What are the most difficult kinds of questions you are asked?
Cohen: The ones where there is a clash between two goods. Should you shoot the dog? The answer is obvious. You shouldn't shoot the dog even if it's a very wicked dog. But when two goods are in conflict and you have to weigh which one to give priority, this case is hard. I have a question on my desk now from a physician asking whether or not to withhold information from a patient. The physician has utter certainty that if he gives the patient the information, she'll behave in a self-destructive way. If the physician tells the family, they might be able to influence her, but the physician is not allowed to tell the family. Everyone is well intentioned and everyone wants what is best. It's difficult.
Often, I seek outside expertise for help – medical ethicists or lawyers. But I don't always follow what the expert advice is because I have to answer the question based on moral reasoning, not professional or legal reasoning.