Smart Ethical Advice With a Smile

If you liked Randy Cohen’s “Ethicist” columns in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, you’re sure to love his two collections of the columns, the recently published Be Good and the 2002 volume, The Good, The Bad & The Difference. The books are a natural choice for our first review because Cohen and his column had so much to do with inspiring Talking Ethics. I never miss the column, which is now in its fifteenth year, with Chuck Klosterman currently holding the “Ethicist” mantle. (Cohen held it for an astonishing twelve years.)

As he explained in the first collection, Cohen was an “accidental ethicist” with no formal credentials when he was tapped for the column in 1999. That’s the way the Times wanted it. Ethics, the paper’s editors felt, should be the concern of every citizen; no advanced degree bestows the right to tell others how to behave. Some form of that philosophy also guides Talking Ethics.

It’s no surprise, then, that Cohen provides very down-to-earth advice, with little in the way of complicated academic theory. You won’t find a discussion of Kant, Aristotle, or Mill in these pages, though you will find mention of William Bennett, Atticus Finch, Sarah Palin, and Charles Dickens.

Cohen begins the first book, which I actually preferred, with a coherent look at what it means to be ethical, how he approaches the subject, and how others might differ. He stresses the need for balance when good principles collide, how relationships matter (being ethical with your father is different from dealing with a stranger), the difference between the law and ethics, and the role of religion.

Both books are organized under broad subject areas such as family, civic life, community, and school. The second collection is updated with a few additional sections, including one on 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan. Each section begins with a brief overview and then excerpts from published columns, often with updates or replies received after the columns were published. It’s refreshing to see that in some instances, Cohen decided that his initial advice was wrong, having been persuaded otherwise by letter writers.

Cohen has obviously picked the most popular questions, and they make for fun and lively reading, especially if you missed them the first time around. And there’s plenty to argue with. In fact, the greatest strength of these two books may be in driving home the fact that doing the right thing is more art than science, with few clear-cut answers. They range from the classic, should you tell a woman her husband is cheating, to more modern dilemmas, such as whether it’s okay to post anonymous criticism of a business on a Web site. Most situations involve some kind of compromise, and people with good intentions will often disagree (and both may have a valid point). That, too, will be a key feature of this blog. At least, I hope so.

Cohen is a former writer for Late Night with David Letterman and other television shows, and he brings a lot of his humor to his column. At first I found that refreshing, but over time, I became a bit annoyed. Too often it seemed that Cohen was more intent on being funny than on giving thoughtful, well-reasoned answers to his questioners. It may be that taken one or even a few at a time, the humor is refreshing, but when clumped together as they are, it becomes harder to take.

Be Good, Randy Cohen, Chronicle Books, 2012, 318 pages.
The Good, The Bad & The Difference, Randy Cohen, Doubleday, 2002, 277 pages.


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