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Deciding Right and Wrong: The Ethicist Speaks

This article was originally published in Related Matters, newsletter of the UMass Family Business Center.

Unafraid to be either entertaining or controversial, Randy Cohen had much of the audience roaring with laughter—at least those who didn't walk out to protest his barbs directed at the Bush White House.

Cohen, who writes the Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine and is now syndicated in 48 papers, describes himself as an "accidental ethicist"—without any formal training. He has to convince his readers "not by authority, but by argument." He spoke to the University of Massachusetts Family Business Center, April 15, 2003, in Northampton, Massachusetts, was the first time he'd spoken to any family business gathering.

He used to be a writer for Dave Letterman, and he says that was excellent training. "Late Night was an essentially moral enterprise. The show had a coherent sense of right and wrong. You could only attack someone for what they did, not because they had a big nose. I had the impression that [Letterman] was very reluctant to do anything that would embarrass his mother."

The questions Cohen receives fall primarily into a few categories. The most common are what he calls "duty to report": you become aware of someone else's unethical activity—do you tell? Society, he says, is profoundly ambivalent about these. "We love the whistleblower, but hate the squealer, the rat." His guideline: if "you can prevent future harm" to a specific person, if the threat is imminent and serious, there's no less intrusive way to deal with it, and reporting only causes minimal harm, you should report the infraction. He noted, too, that some professions do require reporting, including health professionals dealing with contagious diseases or educators who suspect child abuse.

Next most common are the rationalizations. Cohen facetiously described these questions as "'I’m thinking of stealing a car, filling the trunk with fireworks and shooting a guy. But I’m attractive and kind to animals—is it OK?' If more people would ask the OK of the New York Times before doing bad things, that whole Watergate thing never would have happened."

He criticized Deutches Bank for accepting $35 million from the City of New York, just to move downtown in the aftermath of 9/11—with no requirement to create a single job, and a time when city services were facing deep cuts.

For Cohen, questions of ethics and politics are closely intertwined. "A much more effective way of dealing with respiratory disease is not one patient at a time, but to eliminate smoking. You’re obliged to practice civic virtue, and doctors do. There are organizations of doctors opposing guns, drunk driving, war… Organized political action is seen as a moral duty of a physician. The American Medical Association codifies the duty to change an unjust law. Ethics that avoided these political questions wouldn’t be ethics at all. It’s the slave dealer who gave the correct change. But [an ethical person] condemns slavery absolutely." In other words, civic responsibility goes hand-in-hand with ethics.

The civic-minded patriot Ben Franklin is one of Cohen's favorite role models. "Franklin saw the interconnectedness. He created the first public lending library, fire department, and hospital. Franklin’s most important invention was the Franklin Stove, wildly labor saving, more efficient. He turned down a patent" because he felt his work derived heavily from others who came before. On current hands-off economic and tax policy, Franklin "would have pointed out that you made your money bringing goods to market on roads built at public expense, using workers trained in public schools.

Is Cohen himself a paragon of virtue? "Writing the column makes me acutely aware of all the ways I fall short." Still, he believes that if he can ground others in values like honesty, compassion, generosity, and fairness, he makes the world a better place. " I embrace actions that will not increase suffering, that will increase human happiness, freedom of thought and expression."

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