One-Step Ethics

By Gil Student
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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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