From 1999 to 2011, Randy Cohen was “The Ethicist,” the New York Times’ resident moral philosopher. Each week he responded to readers’ letters about ethical conundrums by offering his thinking on the rightness and wrongness of various actions or proposed courses of action. Cohen’s reasoning was usually convincing, his style witty (and sometimes wisecracking), and his advice commonsensical, progressive and humane. Here’s a typical letter from “Be Good,” his new collection of these columns:
“My daughter plays soccer where opportunities are uneven. Some teams have better facilities and coaching and draw on a larger player pool. Weaker teams have difficulty competing and sometimes compensate by adjusting the playing field for home games. They grow the grass extra long or hose down the turf to create mud, neutralizing the superior ball-handling skills of the stronger team’s players. My daughter’s team has encountered such tactics. Are they ethical?”
So how would you respond to this question? Cohen writes in his introduction that “many people told me that they treated ‘The Ethicist’ as a family game played at breakfast each Sunday morning. One family member read the question aloud, then they went around the table and each person answered it. Only after did they read my reply and go on to discuss it. And pay off any side bets.”
An old poem by James Russell Lowell goes, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.” In fact, as Cohen shows, most of us are repeatedly faced with small and large questions about how we should behave, what Cohen calls issues of “everyday ethics.” For example, “May you move to high-priced unoccupied seats at a ball game? May you pocket lots of motel soap and donate it to the homeless?” Even modest problems, as Cohen says, reveal much “about power, money, race, class, gender, the mutual obligations and unspoken assumptions that connect — the very things that public policy so often must deal with.”
In this light, consider Cohen’s answer to the soccer field question:
“A certain amount of gamesmanship is okay in any sport, but there are limits, ambiguous but genuine, and your daughter’s rivals have transgressed them.
“Here’s one guideline: you ought not manipulate the field of play so as to destroy a fundamental part of the game.”
He goes on to suggest asking the officials to judge whether a team has gone too far in altering the field conditions. But in an update to his original answer, he adds: “Several readers believed that I took too narrow a view of this situation. They’re right. It is insufficient to evaluate only the onfield response to inequality. . . . The daughter’s team should press the league to become more egalitarian, instituting measures to even up the facilities and coaching among all teams. Indeed, we all should consider this broader question among teams in an amateur soccer league, public schools in neighboring towns, or in the broader inequities that exist throughout America. Ethics concerns not just how we act at a moment of decision but how we respond to the conditions that engendered that moment; ethics demands not just individual rectitude but civic virtue.”
As every fan of Miss Manners or Carolyn Hax knows, uncertainty about how to act sensibly is now endemic, traditional standards of etiquette and ethical behavior have been forgotten, and people’s erotic, social and moral confusions are a lot of fun to read about. “Be Good” gathers scores of perplexing letters to Cohen, along with his answers, and gathers them under such rubrics as “Family,” “Civic Life,” “Money,” “Love & Sex” and “Religion.” Each of these chapters opens with a short introductory essay, sometimes autobiographical, Cohen frequently referring back to his time as a writer working for David Letterman and to his dealings with the New York Times.
Occasionally, the answers to the individual questions require more than a few paragraphs. Consider the following: An Internet technician discovers that the president of his company stores pornographic pictures, some of young children, in his personal computer directory. Must the technician tell the police?
Cohen answers, somewhat surprisingly, that the man has “no legal duty” to call the cops and probably shouldn’t. Why? Because, Cohen argues, “the punishment for mere possession of these images is grossly disproportional to the crime. We should act vigorously against anyone who endangers a child, but we should seek a more appropriate response to those who are only remotely connected to such heinous acts, whose only crime is looking at a forbidden picture.” He continues for several pages to explore this question, including the opinions of law professors and censorship experts, as well as reprinting counter-arguments from the Manhattan district attorney and the then-U.S. attorney general.
In general, Cohen emphasizes that we should do the right thing even if it won’t seem to have any effect or make a difference. “To fail to resist what you see as injustice simply because you fear that you cannot win this fight assures the very defeat you dread.” As the elegant rhythm of that sentence indicates, Cohen often channels the spirit of Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century moral philosopher. And like Johnson, he’s sensible rather than legalistic. A young philosophy professor may have the right to throw his bachelor party at a strip club, but he really shouldn’t. Just because you’ve tired of a pet gerbil, raised in captivity, doesn’t mean you can set it free in the wild, hoping that it won’t immediately get eaten by predators. You’ll want to read “Be Good” to find out Cohen’s full reasoning on these tricky issues.
Here’s one last example: There’s a long line in the Amtrak dining car, and a guy offers $5 to anyone who will buy him two beers. You’re near the head of the line: Would it be all right to take his money and buy him the beer?
Cohen answers that the beer-seeker is trying to violate “the fundamental law of the line — first come, first served — by leaping to the front on the springboard of his wallet. . . . Having money can spare us some hassles, and that’s fine. But should every vexation in life be curable with cash, exempting those with money, and afflicting those without? True, this sort of thing happens often, first-class air travelers can avoid long security lines and inhumanly cramped seats. But do we want our country organized on the model of air travel?”
In his introduction to “Be Good,” Cohen writes that people don’t usually want “a ruling on what to do” — deep in their hearts, they usually do know the right course of action — but rather “an argument for why to do it.” One may not always agree with Cohen’s own arguments, but what matters is that he won’t let us get away with always acting, however subtly, in our own self-interest. He makes us think about our behavior and, more often than not, shows us how to follow what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room.
How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything
By Randy Cohen
Chronicle. 318 pp. $24.95