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Ethics and Politics: A Conversation with Randy Cohen

December 1, 2011

Randy Cohen has been best known since 1999 as the writer of a weekly column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine in which he responds with acuity and humor to the ethical dilemmas of real-life people. For seven years, Cohen was a staff writer for Late Night with David Letterman, for which he shared three Emmy Awards. A fourth Emmy came his way for his work on Michael Moore’s TV Nation. His essays on ethics and other subjects have appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, and his books include The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations. Cohen’s play, The Punishing Blow, about the 18th-century British boxing champion, Daniel Mendoza, was recently staged at the Clurman Theater in New York. Jewish Currents caught up with him in his New York apartment at the end of October.

Jewish Currents: Many of your columns seem to reveal that you have a commitment to full disclosure and honesty — not for so much as values in their own right but because they preserve people’s autonomy, dignity and right to make their own decisions, rather than being manipulated.

Randy Cohen: I have a fundamental belief in an egalitarian society, which requires people to have information so they can make their own decisions. If you assert that belief, a whole lot of moral reasoning flows from it.

JC: And what do you mean by an egalitarian society?

RC: I don’t see why I’m entitled to greater claims to dignity, to prosperity, to comfort, than you are, or anybody else is. One question that comes to the column frequently is about cultural relativism, people observing that I’m not so much reasoning morally as expressing the values of my time and place. But I think that if I were slightly more eloquent I should be able to convince people in Saudi Arabia that this not-letting-women-drive thing is wrong; I should be able to go to ancient Rome, or to not-so-ancient America, and convince them that slavery is untenable.

JC: Because egalitarianism is rooted in a human nature? One could argue instead that many animals, including human beings, have hierarchical tendencies wired into us — that we have evolved both as cooperators and as hierarchy-builders.

RC: I’m not arguing that hierarchies might not emerge under conditions of egalitarianism. I don’t have a problem with there being some variation in income — that doesn’t seem of itself morally offensive. But how much of a discrepancy will there be? What will be the consequences for people who have less and for people who have more? Those are the things subject to moral scrutiny.

It seems to me that evolutionary biologists have a lot to say about moral reasoning these days. I’m not sure who made this point — perhaps it was Frans de Waal, the primatologist — but he analogized a moral response to an aesthetic response. When you hear a piece of music or see a painting, you immmediately respond. Only later do you work out why you responded that way, and sometimes you start to think through your aesthetic response and perhaps change it or deepen it. This person said that moral response is the same: You witness some conduct and you immediately have a response to it, which is probably your DNA at work. But that’s not where it stops — that’s where moral reasoning should begin.

JC: When you began the “Ethicist” column, a lot of this evolutionary research was not around. Has its emergence influenced your thinking about ethics and human beings?

RC: I find the stuff interesting and persuasive, but what has really changed for me is less about evolution than about community. When I began the column, I conceived of ethics as an individual’s response in a moment of crisis. That’s still what I deal with a lot, but ethics now seems to me to be very much a manifestation of the communities we build. There are conditions in which people will act really, really well, and conditions in which people will act just terribly. From my perspective that’s good news, since I think we do better at constructing just societies than we do at trying to reconfigure someone’s character. If we want to get people do to the right thing — and that’s the point of this, to be about ethical behavior, not just moral reasoning — we have to build an ethical community.

Abu Ghraib is a quick and easy example. The soldiers who acted so terribly there were not the most wicked soldiers in the army, they were just regular kids. But they were placed in a closed community in which that sort of conduct is all but inevitable. There were also military physicians at the prison who had obligations as officers and as physicians to report the misconduct, but none of them came forward — not because they were the most wicked doctors in the army, but because in that sort of closed community that’s what people do. That’s the biggest shift in my thinking: that without social justice, ethics is impossible.

JC: You’re expressing a very Jewish view of the human being. Judaism makes a fairly big deal out of the yetzer hara, the evil urge, and seeks to establish a system of mitzvot, actual deeds meant to channel our urges towards the good.

RC: The urges are the urges — we want what we want — but we have some say about our conduct, and there are communities in which we tend to manifest good conduct, and communities in which we do really, really badly.

JC: What about issues of power and ethics? There’s a biblical injunction not to favor the rich in front of a court, and not to favor the poor, either. “Blind justice,” that’s the ideal. Yet there are also folk stories in which the rabbi looks at the chicken of a wealthy person and declares it not kosher, and then gives the chicken to a poor person, saying, For so-and-so, it’s kosher.

In one of your columns, for example, you responded to a bodega owner who was collecting his debts from his customers by periodically hiking up prices at the cash register. It seemed that he was afraid of his customers, who sometimes lied to him, denied owing him money, perhaps even intimidated him (although he didn’t say as much to you). What about the balance of power in that situation? To what extent is your concept of ethics one of blind justice, and to what extent do you think it acceptable to remedy a situation by manipulating reality because otherwise you don’t have power?

RC: I have a friend who was a public defender for years, and one of the valuable things he taught me was that while the law about marijuana applies to everybody, if you’re a poor Black kid in the Bronx you’re a hundred times more likely to get picked up by the cops (I’m making these numbers up, but I’m not far off the mark — the New York Civil Liberties Union just sued to get these numbers). And the consequences of an arrest for pot for a middle-class person like me would be trivial — I’d get a lawyer, get bailed out — while for people whose perch in society is more precarious, the consequences are devastating: You don’t have bail, so you’re in Rikers; you can’t go to work so you lose your job; then you can’t pay your rent, so you have the landlord-tenant thing; then maybe the state comes to take your kids away or there’s an immigration problem . . . So while the law is nominally equal, the consequences of that law on people’s lives aren’t remotely equal.

JC: Another of your columns responded to a doctor who had mentioned in his notes a patient’s recreational drug use. Because of this, the patient was denied a job. Given that most of laws regarding recreational drugs incur a whole lot of misery, are we entitled to lie to deal with unjust laws? Or when we apply for health insurance, given the unfairness of the insurance system, are we entitled not to tell about our previously existing conditions and such?

RC: The better solution, though it may be quasi-utopian, is systemic change. There’s always a steady stream of mail when I have occasion to justify breaking the law in the column. If I propose an illegal course of action, people are astonished and say: You have a moral duty to change the law! But yes, there are lots of cases in which I think a lie is justified — not just justified, but you have an obligation to lie. It’s 1850, and you have a houseful of runaway slaves and you’re working for the Underground Railroad (which we all would have done because we all would have been good in 1850). There’s a knock at the door: slavecatchers. In this situation, you have to lie because it’s altruistic, it’s for the benefit of many people, and the consequences of telling the truth would be dire.

Once the benefits are for you and not others, it gets harder, and once the consequences are more minor, it gets harder still.

The doctor who included the recreational drug use in his report could have told his patient, “Here’s what I’m going to have to say in my notes; here’s what you shouldn’t tell me. Here’s what medical privacy guarantees us; here’s what I have to tell.” He could have made clear to the patient the path of navigation.

JC: Do you find ethical variance among folks who are liberal or conservative or radical politically?

RC: It’s hard for me to know, because the people I’m hoping will write to me don’t — nothing from a member of Congress, nothing from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Instead, it’s people dealing with everyday, personal decisions.

I will say that it is a constant source of astonishment that people who I think are ideologically wrong about everything, in serious ways that have consequences for other people, are often utterly decent people on a personal level. They’re warm, generous, honest in their dealings, you couldn’t ask for nicer friends — except that everything they do in the semi-public realm makes you sick.

JC: Would that imply a certain lack of introspection on their part?

RC: We’re all guilty of that to a certain degree. Utopia has not arrived, yet I go through my day, most of the time, without weeping.

My friends and I used to conjecture about what things our great-grandchildren, a hundred years from now, will find intolerable about our time, the way we find it intolerable today to think of having human slaves. I believe that one will be our treatment of animals — not that we kill them and eat them, but that we run these weird internment camps where they live these horrific, suffering lives. Certainly you can argue about how much moral standing animals have, but we agree that they have some moral standing, and that the willful infliction of suffering when there’s an alternative is immoral.

The other is the domination of the private car, which I think will be seen the way we today see the dank, satanic industrial mills of the 19th century. Forty thousand driving deaths a year. Imagine if we had a new transportation system and its inventors said, Well it’s only going to kill forty thousand people a year. And the environmental damage is incalculable. There’s the cost of the infrastructure, which utterly distorts our economy; the cost of the oil, which distorts our foreign policy and almost requires us to be militaristic . . .

JC: But the autonomy that comes with driving, and that glorious privacy, are very compelling. Capitalism has produced its most surprising product of all: our happy isolation. Between Netflix and take-out food and Facebook, people can spend tons of time alone, with most of their needs met. Our ties to community are so voluntaristic . . .

RC: Which leads us to the gated community — a really interesting model that explains a lot. Say you’re a particularly cold-hearted kind of Republican. You don’t give a damn about some 12-year-old kid in a crummy school, but as a practical matter, you should, because this kid’s going to become a drain on our society. He might get incarcerated and that’s expensive, and he’s not buying a lot of crap that your factory’s making while he’s in jail, and even if he avoids jail he’ll require all sorts of expensive social services. Whereas if he get the best education possible, we’ll be a nation of innovation again. Or he’ll get a great job and be able to buy all this stuff. As a cold-hearted Republican, it’s absolutely in your self-interest that for this kid to go to graduate school. So why are you cutting Pell grants, letting tuition rise, cutting all kinds of state aid? You’re not serving your class interest by doing this. I’m sure Karl Marx is scratching his head!

I think the answer is the gated community. You can say, This won’t affect me in this walled estate. I can insulate myself from the effects of these policies and in the short term I do better. As a consequence, with greater and greater disparities of wealth and poverty, we’re foreclosing the future of millions of our young citizens — and then our own. I’m saying all of this without any appeal to social justice as an ideal, but just in the name of self-interest.

JC: Has Peter Singer influenced your thinking regarding animals and ethics?

RC: Singer is very insistent about people giving away their money, but he aggressively turns his back on political action. There are times when giving money to candidates who will advocate for health care has a lot more impact than giving to some clinic in Alabama. He’s an interesting and thoughtful guy, a moral guy who lives in a moral universe, but I don’t have that much confidence in the charitable impulse as a way to solve really big problems. It often leaves the status quo intact.

I have made this point in the column, that charity is a vestige of an aristocratic society. Why should the solution to our problems depend on the goodwill of people like me and Oprah? We’re very unstable people! You can’t count on us for full transparency or for consistency in policy. In a decent society, we’d have these social organizations called government, and we’d identify problems together, we’d work out solutions together, and then we all pay for it — it’s called taxes.

But while I’m waiting for that to be fully manifested, there’s no denying the fact that there are certain kinds of suffering that the government is not addressing and that individual NGOs seem to be addressing with some success. So I curse charity in theory and write my checks every year.

JC: The Talmud says that the one who asks for tsedoke does more for the one who gives than the other way around. Saying no to the outstretched hand involves shutting down your humanity — you have to walk by and ignore the person — while giving a quarter or a dollar is a humanizing thing. So the one who asks is keeping our humanity alive.

RC: But I found it more overwhelming and soul- crushing to give the dollar and then see the same person the next day, and his life hasn’t changed in any way. It makes me feel hopeless, while giving my money to an organization that has a coherent view makes more hopeful.

JC: In an article at Slate, you posed an ethical question from Madame Bovary: Is it okay to cheat on my boring husband? Can we assume that marital fidelity is not, per se, an ethical value to you?

RC: That’s right. It’s something to be worked out between people.

JC: There are many compromised marriages that people stay in because breaking up seems worse for everyone in the family. In the case of Emma Bovary, might her fibbing and nondisclosure be ethically her best solution?

RC: One of the reasons novelists are superior to me is that they have eight hundred pages in which to lay out all the particulars that count for so much. Who are these people? What is their actual situation? What are the forces that come to bear on them? I have only four hundred words in which to sort this all out.

In the first year of the column, I got a letter from a guy who, while traveling on business, saw his best friend’s spouse in the arms of another, in a hotel bar. Was he supposed to tell his friend? My conclusion was this was not a question about sexual morality but about the duties of friendship. If the best friend wanted to know, the writer had to tell — to withhold that information would have been to conspire in the deception of the friend. But if the friend didn’t want to know, then the writer had to keep silent, because to force that information on the couple meant compelling a confrontation they might not have wanted.

E-mail responses to my column are rarely split. I have my say and the readers have theirs, and usually it coalesces around a position contrary to mine. But in this case it was very much that half the people would want to know, half would not.

JC: Has writing “The Ethicist” made you into a better person?

RC: I don’t think it’s made me any more virtuous. My job is not to personify virtue, any more than a sportswriter has to be able to hit a fastball.

JC: Doesn’t writing on these issues make you contemplate your own behavior?

RC: Yes, but what I feel is not so much change as regret. When I spend the day thinking about moral questions, it makes me aware of how I’ve fallen short from time to time, and I’m filled with remorse and shame. I should get workers comp for this.

JC: Do you queries from rabbis, ministers, professional ethicists?

RC: I get critical mail from them; these are people who approach issues with a set of assumptions or a path of moral reasoning different from mine, and it’s great to hear from them. What’s surprising is when I get questions from them about their own conduct. I think, ‘Aren’t you operating in a moral tradition where you can find consultation? Why are you asking me?’ I sometimes feel that with doctors, too: I’m not a doctor or a medical ethicist, I’m just some guy.

JC: So how did “just some guy” come to be the New York Times Ethicist?

RC: The editors invited a bunch of people to audition. And when I say a bunch, I hope you picture hundreds, the triumph is all the more glorious, but my impression is that we’re talking about a dozen people, most of whom were more plausible candidates than I. But I had written for the magazine and other parts of the paper, and that’s how I got thrown in the pot. They gave us each three questions, very much like the ones that run in the column, to which we were supposed to provide answers. The questions were cunning and challenging, like little puzzles. It was fun to try to solve them, and I like to write, but I never thought I’d get the job.

Mostly what I’d done before was humor writing, and the ability to write a funny line is a plus on a subject that might seem daunting. I sometimes think that my job isn’t so much to tell people what to do as to help them see the situation in a fresh way, which is the kind of humor I like.

JC: Let’s do that now with some very old texts. We brought some excerpts from the Pirkei Avot, the Talmudic book called The Ethics of the Fathers. Here’s one we’d like you to comment on, from Hillel: “At five years old, a person should study the scriptures, at 10 for the Mishnah, at 13 for the commandments, at 15 for the Talmud, at 18 for the bride chamber, at 20 for one’s life pursuit, at 30 for authority, at 40 for discernment, at 50 for counsel, at 60 to be an elder, at 70 for grey hairs, at 80 for special strength, at 90 for decrepitude, at 100 a man is as has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world.”

RC: So then you can take up smoking, right?

A lot of my readers read my columns out loud to their kids. But I think it’s true that the moral eyes of children are different from the moral eyes of adults. As a guiding precept for most adults, the golden rule wouldn’t be bad; but for kids, it would be “That’s not fair,” which means, “The outcome is different from what I would like.” This gradually shifts as their reasoning takes in larger and larger groups of people and greater and greater abstraction. Moral maturity involves being able to relate to people who are far from you, literally and metaphorically.

JC: Why do you think 50 is the “age of counsel”?

RC: I don’t know. These are questions that every single adult has to think about, at every age. Ethics does not require certification. If the readers find my column engaging, I’m qualified. Though I do feel that the name of the column, “The Ethicist,” is slightly misleading, self-aggrandizing, a little pretentious. It implies a body of learning that I do not have. The title bothers some readers, and I think they have a point. Not enough of a point for me to quit my job, but a point.

JC: Here’s another passage from Ethics of the Fathers. “There are four types among men. He who says What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours — this is the common type, though some say that this is the type of Sodom. He who says, What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine — he is an ignorant man. He who says, What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours — he is a saintly man. He who says, What is yours is mine and what is mine is mine — he is a wicked man.” Isn’t it interesting how the Talmud is dismissive of socialist economics as “ignorant”?

RC: And yet Jews have produced a disproportionate number of leftwingers, despite the Talmud’s injunction. The passage brings me back to the notion of the autonomous individual, which is a curiously childish idea. People who say, This is my factory and I can run it any way I want, who are you or who is the government to tell me? — well, that’s insane. You’re a social creature, and the workers in your factory were educated at public schools and your goods travel on public roads and the air is clean because of public policies to keep it that way, and the way you got these machines is because brilliant people designed them and they’re part of the larger community. This notion of seeing yourself as detached from others just seems perversely false.

JC: Yet many of the letters you receive testify to a basic antagonism that exists among people. As Sholem Aleichem said, people love each other — from a distance.

RC: We still have to ask what kind of society are we going to have, and how do we govern our relations with one another and have an abiding feeling of being connected to other people — even if you don’t want them in your house. It’s really helpful to think of these as questions about social groups, not about autonomous individuals.

JC: One more, also from Hillel: “The more flesh the more worms, the more possessions the more anxiety.” How do you think class affects our ethical lives and perceptions?

RC: We reflect the values of our communities, I absolutely believe that. And part of what defines our communities is economic class. But why, then, was there such support for eliminating the inheritance tax, when nobody pays it except incredibly wealthy people! The only explanation I can offer is that when you ask people how they stack up economically, they overwhelmingly overestimate their status. And when you ask people about the future, they believe in the myth of American social mobility: I’m not rich now, but boy, I have a really good chance of getting rich. It’s one of our cherished national myths, so people vote their aspirations rather than their class.

JC: We understand that the Times is pretty explicit about you not being political in your column — but you’ve just laid out a very political motivation and sensibility. How do you dance that dance?

RC: Badly. It’s a source of continuing friction, although in an amiable and collegial way. Seriously, the people at the Times are a pleasure to work with and I count myself really lucky to be writing for them. But I believe they define politics much too narrowly. Interpersonal ethics is small-scale ethics — and to a certain extent it’s etiquette — but once it involves the actions of large numbers of people, that’s politics, and I don’t understand how to distinguish politics and ethics.