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One-Step Ethics

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 faces.

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 his conclusions.  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 U.S. 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 mind.

These are more than simple mistakes or differences in judgment.  They demonstrate a fundamental gap in Cohen’s ethical reasoning.  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 his approach:

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 categorical imperative?

Cohen subscribes, in sum, to dart board 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.  The greater 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.  For 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.  Both 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 his thumbs.

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 standards.

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 sphere.  Our loss of Rabbi Levine highlights our need for real ethicists to help us rediscover the virtue that society requires for its sustenance.

Rabbi Gil Student is a frequent writer on Jewish topics and maintains a popular blog at

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Carl on October 17, 2012 at 2:43 am (Reply)
On one level I agree with you. But on the other hand, I have been around secular and observant Jews all my life and to tell you the truth I find very little correlation between ethical behavior and religious observance. A good example of this is the Shas party in Israel; a religious party that has, by far, the highest amount of MKs convicted of crimes while serving in the Knesset.
    YM on October 17, 2012 at 4:22 pm (Reply)
    Why does that gap exist, between the ethical judgement process of Rabbi Levine and the alleged behavior of the MKs? My guess is that halachic analysis is somewhat neglected, and there are community standards that may tolerate behavior that is halachically suspect. Most of us are more concerned about how our peers judge our behavior than with how Hashem judges it; there is a gemara where I think Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai blesses his students that their fear of Hashem should at least be as strong as their fear of other people; I don't think anything has changed in human nature since that time.
Arthur Kaye on October 17, 2012 at 11:48 am (Reply)
It seems to me that ethics and religion are two separate realms of knowledge, even though they overlap. A religion attempts to define ethics in terms of its own belief structure, which often allows for actions that are not ethical to members of other religions or non-religious members of society. For instance, it is imperative for members of many Christian groups to attempt to convert non-believers in order to save their souls, even when the methods used are distasteful to people outside that group. For example, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints believes that it is both necessary and highly ethical to retroactively convert by proxy the deceased to their faith. Jews generally feel that having their deceased relatives converted to another religion is both distasteful and disrespectful, and I would argue, unethical since the deceased has no choice in the matter. Who is right? That the Mormon Church chose to cease their official mission to dead Jews doesn't mean they agreed to it. But it is clear to me that neither side is comfortable with the ethics of the other.

Secular based ethics offers the opportunity for disparate groups with different belief systems to find common ground. Religious based ethics does not.
    Mordechai Y. Scher on October 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm (Reply)
    Arthur Kaye, your last line sums it up but begs a question. Religious ethics will claim to be in pursuit of applied truth. Can secular ethics do that; or is it limited to simply being an accommodation for the sake of different people being able to minimally get along? That is essentially the position of secular law, and I don't see how ethics would be any different. If we say that secular ethics must be rooted in a philosophical pursuit of truth, then we haven't much a different situation between people who subscribe to different philosophical positions disagreeing and people who subscribe to different religions disagreeing. The impasse remains, and for similar reasons.
    S W on October 18, 2012 at 1:06 pm (Reply)
    I begin to wonder why some people come to read Jewish Ideas Daily and then espouse "secular" answers to Jewish themes, articles and debates.

    It is all well and good to write, "Secular based ethics offers the opportunity for disparate groups with different belief systems to find common ground. Religious based ethics does not." But then what are secular based ethics but attempts to create value judgments without reference to any of the world's long standing value-creating streams of traditional thought? What is certain that among "secular" ethics have been millions murdered at the hands of various political movements which express disdain for relgion in general, to include some religio-political movements which so easily dismiss other religions and their ethical views.

    The assertion "that ethics and religion are two separate realms of knowledge, even though they overlap" is fallacious. Knowledge as clearly defined in brain research and artificial intelligence inquiry as fully supported propositional statements. By that method and definition, any ethical statement must be provable by disparate parties. This is surely not the case, and therefore ethics is not a system of knowledge but in every case to include the so-called secular the application of a belief system, even if that belief system does away with theological traditions and tropes. Beliefs cannot be proven as fully supported knowldege, to include many political assertions.
ej on October 17, 2012 at 7:18 pm (Reply)
It seems to me much of the heavy lifting in moral apnd political philosophy has come from the secular world; people like John Rawls, Judith Thomson, T.M.Scanlon, and Philippa Foot. In many instances they begin with intuitions which form the basis of principles which are then adjusted as the cases multiply. The process is called reflective equilibrium, and has been discussed at length in the philosophy literature. Jewish ethics should rest on a stronger basis that chilul Hashem and dina demalchusa din. In this regard Sam Fleischacker's new book on Divine Revelation provides an admirable framework.
M. Thomas Murray on October 17, 2012 at 7:25 pm (Reply)
My guess is that any religious based ethical system (focusing particularly on economic systems [which are essentially ethical systems])will end up denouncing any secular based ethical system that holds "freedom of choice" as its central organizing principle. The religious system starts with a faith based conception of human beings, their purpose and their nature. Free markets and freedom of choice accepts humans as they are and permits them to choose among goals that the religious system would ofen preclude from the outset. An example--the religious system would likely urge (and I would, incidenally as a personal matter,concur)that freedom to choose has created a terrible waste of resources on football (and other spectator sports)rather than, for example, directing resources to education and reduction of poverty. We free marketers recognize that we are limited in our method to achieve change to simple persuasion. In a society which accepts and values diversity this would appear to be the most peaceful way to promote important ethical changes while accepting the different preferences that are inevitable.
Mildred Bilt on October 17, 2012 at 8:41 pm (Reply)
Stickey wicket. We're tossing words around that have different meanings and nuances for different people. Are your ethics the same as mine? (Hint-I am extraordinarily ethical and moral). Example: the flattery showered on a totally mediocre address by a rabbi as cited in the opinion piece. Well, I also have heard lavish praise for writers and speakers that deserved to be immediately forgotten. In some instances I inquired (harangued my poor colleagues) as to the why and wherefore for such a high level of appreciation. To my horror I realized they did not have the intellectual discernment, or the background or the ability to seperate the wheat from the chaff. They were sincere.
But- my long-ago rabbi once took a trip to an Ohio synagogue to hear a discourse by Martin Buber. I excitedly asked him to tell me about it and he said-"Mildred, I didn't understand one word". So- maybe when we talk about the ideology of ethics and morality we should be speaking to the Bubers of the world. For all the rest of humanity, there has got to be a way of simplifying. You know, tell everybody to do one kind deed a day and tell the recipient to pass it along. As for ethics and morality-let's have some Aristotlean reasoned analyses of what those words mean and how those actions are expressed. A universal road map if you will.
Gina on October 18, 2012 at 12:37 pm (Reply)
Dennis Praeger, in his most recent book, said much the same thing as you credit Rabbi Sacks as saying, "a secular society inevitably falls into immorality." Basically, what he contends is that when as a society we fail to call people or groups of people out for their morally reprehensible behavior, we weaken the bonds of our civilization.

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