From 1999 to 2011, Randy Cohen helped millions of readers navigate sticky situations as “The Ethicist” for the New York Times. Now, the self-described “sort of ex-ethicist” has compiled his wisdom into a new book, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.”
When you were younger, were you always the go-to person for advice?
No, not at all, and landing the job at the Times was as much a surprise to me as it was to anybody who knew me. (Laughs) My friends thought this was terribly amusing — they wouldn’t have given you two cents for my opinion. … But a very short time after I had the column, these same people would call me for advice. It was the most astonishing thing. It all testifies to the enormous power of the New York Times.
Did you ever feel pressure when giving out advice? That your opinion may have some grand implications on people’s lives?
Yeah, oh, especially at the beginning, it was quite daunting, for selfish reasons. Since people read the New York Times, it seemed I had been given a chance to fail very publicly. I now had the chance to get it wrong on a very big stage — I had, what, a million subscribers and I think 2 million people [who] read the magazine every week. They were not shy about pointing out when I got it wrong.
So you got hate mail?
No one writes in to go, “good answer.” I got to feel it was a kind of salon and I would present a situation and what I think, and then the readers would weigh in, often pointing out some aspect of a question I’ve neglected. Ninety-five percent of the mail was completely civil, but the other 5 percent was deeply upsetting. Even a total stranger calling you an idiot really hurts your feelings.
Do you think America, as a society, has good morals?
One of the ways my thinking about ethics changed over the 12 years was when I started, I saw ethics as very much a decision an isolated individual made in a moment of crisis, and I came to see ethics much more as an expression of our community’s values — the communities with which we happen to be members. While I don’t think that Americans are innately better or worse than the citizens of other countries, I think there are certain aspects of social structures or political structures that produce communities where people tend to behave better or worse in various areas, and one example is organ donation. In America we use opt-in … only about 25 percent of us have said that’s OK. But in Sweden, they use the opposite, they use opt-out, and there, 85 percent of all Swedes make their organs available to transplant. I think it’s because the Swedes set up a system where people are given a chance to behave well and they do, and that if you applied that same system here we would do better. If you judge us by our potential, we’re fine, but if you judge us by how we actually behave, well, there are areas where we do fall short of other countries.
Do you recall any dilemmas that particularly stumped you?
Often I was stumped, and the questions that were the most fun were the ones where the answer wasn’t obvious. I mean in a way, if it was obvious people wouldn’t bother to send them in. I can remember one very early one: A woman’s traveling on business and in the hotel bar she sees her best friend’s spouse in the arms of another — does she have to tell her friend? That one sat for months and months and months.
What’d you tell her?
It seemed to me finally that this not a question about sexual propriety but about the duties of friendship. You have to do what your friend would like you to do. I came to think, there are many, many people who would absolutely want to know, but there are, I think, just as many people who wouldn’t want to know. This was one of the rare questions where the mail was split. … Some wanted to know, some didn’t want to know.
Why do you think people trusted you as their authority on ethical concerns?
I came to think telling people what to do wasn’t actually my job. You could see in the way the questions were structured, certainly most of the time, they knew what the right thing was to do. What they wanted from me was a logical case for why that was the right thing to do.