A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
Randy Cohen never set out to be a paragon of virtue. Though he spent a dozen years writing an ethics column for “The New York Times Magazine,” his previous career was as an Emmy-winning comedy writer. As “The Ethicist,” Cohen tackled questions on everything from what’s OK to hold back from your spouse to navigating the ethics of social media. Though his column addressed everyday issues, it revealed much about power, money, class and gender. His most surprising letters? He says they were the ones he didn’t receive –- from politicians and CEO’s — the people he believes need to think about ethics most. Diane talks with Randy Cohen about how to make the right choices in a less-than-clear-cut world.
- Randy Cohen creator and host of Person Place Thing, a public radio program for WAMC and original writer of "The Ethicist" for The New York Times Magazine.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Be Good: How To Navigate The Ethics Of Everything” by Randy Cohen. Copyright 2012 Randy Cohen. Reprinted here by permission of Chronicle Books. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Randy Cohen says his (word?) into the future will read Ann Landers' column not as advice, but as anthropology. One could say the same of his 614 columns. He's formally The Ethicist for the New York Times magazine. He took us through a dozen years of new technology, human rights, war and capitalism.
MS. DIANE REHMHe joins me to discuss a new collection of letters and responses from his column. His new book is titled "Be Good: How to Navigate The Ethics Of Everything." Randy Cohen is here in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning, Randy, it's good to have you here.
MR. RANDY COHENThank you so much for having me.
REHMYou know, it's interesting you remembered being on this program. You said ten years ago whereas I came in and said, it's good to meet you. Now I could have said, oh, of course, I remember. But that would not have been ethical in my view to lie to you and say, I remember.
COHENRight, and I dried my tears before we actually had to go on the air so I understand. And I believe in your integrity. I'm not so sure I agree that a certain kind of politeness involves a certain amount of lying. Oh, you look lovely in that.
COHENWell, as it happens you do, but I don't think that's a bad thing. I think the reason we have a term called white lie is because we need it. And there are studies that show people lie several times a day and certainly they tell these little social lies and no harm done. It's a kind of social lubricant and I'm for it.
REHMOf course, and I'm for it as well, but I have to tell you, as I said to you before we went on the air, my memory is so moving on to the next day that if somebody says to me, what did you do on today's show? It's gone. I'm already on to the next day. So you'll have to forgive me for not having remembered you ten years ago.
COHENYou're like a division one football coach. You are just thinking about the next game. You're not...
COHENAlso for me to do your show is like a really big deal.
REHMOh, you're very sweet, thank you.
COHENNo, it is, it really is and for you to do your show, it's what you do every day.
COHENYou're just so cool.
REHMYeah, now tell me about the ethics of everything because I think that's quite a subtitle.
COHENYou think it's a little overreaching?
REHMIt's so big, tell me about it.
COHENWell, I'd like to feel the book is worth your entertainment dollar and if it were only, you know, the ethics of this and that, I wouldn't buy one. "The Ethics of Everything," yes, I hope so and I feel I was the lucky beneficiary of that. That in the 12 years of writing the Times column, I did get to see quite a range of human perversity. I'm a little scarred. Do I look more scarred than ten years ago?
REHMA little bit, a little bit.
COHENSo having been treated to that awesome spectacle of human drudgery, I am here to report what I've seen. There are a few situations I think that the readers of the Times didn't comment on.
REHMAnd I think what I am so interested in is why a person who was a comedy writer gets to do a column on ethics for the New York Times, The Gray Lady. How come?
COHENAh, the column originated with the Times as you suggest and they asked some people to audition for it.
COHENWe were given, you know, a real audition, you know, with tap shoes. Well, all right, not tap shoes, but with sample questions much like what runs in the column. And when I say a few people, I hope you'll picture, oh, a 100 or so. My triumph will be all the more glorious.
COHENBut I gather, and it's only surmised, they're very discreet at the paper. I gather it's more like 10 or 12. Many of the candidates were more plausible than I in that they had strong philosophy backgrounds. The paper knew me and a couple of other candidates as writers.
COHENWhy comedy? Well, I should say in defense of comedy that the opposite of funny is not serious, that humor doesn't bespeak trivial, that every subject can be treated in a humorous way if you have the skill to do it. And I mustered George Bernard Shaw on my defense.
COHENHe said life doesn't cease to be serious when people laugh, any more than it ceases to be funny when people die.
REHMDo you remember that auditioning column you wrote and what it was about?
COHENI do. Well, they gave us three questions and since, you know, we are like the Iroquois nation and we waste no part of an animal we kill. We, of course, used those questions in the first few months of the column.
COHENI can remember one of them. A woman was passing a colleague's desk and noted on the screen there was an email about her, blaming her for the failure of some project. Well, she's already transgressed by reading someone else's email so what should she do? My initial impulse, spill coffee into the keyboard, but that, you know, it's the destruction of property. It gets very -- it's not easy this job.
COHENI felt she should not acknowledge her wrongdoing nor should she blame her colleague. She should go to the boss and offer positive suggestions about the project that didn't work out so well. She should say, I've been rethinking the Johnson project and here are some ways we all might have done better at that. That way, she shows a little initiative. She shows a willingness to -- unlike you who never rethinks past shows even if you leave my mangled corpse, you know, here in the studio.
COHENTo reconsider it, to think how she might do better and didn't blame a co-worker, that even when you have reason to blame someone, it's seldom seen as an attractive quality among people who have to work together.
REHMSo you did that for 12 years. You encountered everything from questions about marriage to animals, to technology, to love and sex. Did you ever get tired of doing it while you were doing it?
COHENI did not. I loved my job and when we began the column, Adam Moss was the editor of the magazine and we discussed what the future of it might be like. And we felt -- we somehow decided you could divide human treachery into, say, 50 basic activities. There would be 50 kinds of perfidy people would engage in.
COHENAnd so since we would run this thing right into the ground, we figured we could do it for two years and then we'd be pretty much done. Well, we underestimated the incredible resourcefulness of our fellow Americans when it comes to behaving horribly.
COHENPeople have unlimited imaginations doing horrible, horrible, horrible things to one another. So it was my job -- was always renewed by the particular ways in which people behaved dismally.
REHMBut, I mean, one in regard to family where a man has a mild heart attack and does not tell his wife. That was not a case for behaving in an ugly fashion. Rather what he wanted to do was save his wife the concern, the worry, but you have, perhaps a different perspective.
COHENYes, it's a particularly challenging kind of question when there is no villain in it. It's a clash of two goods. The wife really wants to know about this in order to help her husband. The husband wants to keep it a secret in order not to worry his wife. They're both acting admirably.
COHENBut the consequences are not so good. It's very important that she knows so she can respond. It's very important that she knows because these two people have decided to share a life together and to be open about all important things. Intimacy requires openness.
REHMNow intimacy is one thing, but public behavior is another.
COHENIf we're lucky. I've seen some times when people didn't make the distinction.
REHMSeveral years ago, I was in a parking lot. I was coming out of the parking lot having just parked my car. And across the way, I saw a woman and her husband get out of their car with two little children. And the woman -- clearly, the mother kicked her child and screamed at her child.
REHMAnd I, as a passerby, decided to walk over to her and say, I saw you hurt your child. Just know that you are seen. Her husband began screaming at me and saying, how dare you talk to my wife. My wife is the best mother in the whole wide world. I turned to the woman and simply said, just remember someone saw you do that and walked away.
COHENI'm not surprised at the reaction that you received, that intervening, when people are exercising their role as parents, it's not something they greet kindly. And I received many, many variations on your question because the column originates in New York.
COHENThe one I receive most often is, I've seen someone strike a child while I was on the subway. What to do? And one feels awful because there's the fear that not just that you will be yelled at, but that it will be taken out on the child when they get home. You have just a moment with this parent and child and you don't want to exacerbate the problem.
REHMRandy Cohen, his new book is titled "Be Good: How To Navigate The Ethics Of Everything."
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Randy Cohen is with me. For 12 years, he wrote The Ethicist weekly column for the New York Times magazine. He's currently the creator and host of "Person Place Thing," which we'll talk about a little later. It's a Public Radio program for WAMC. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. His new book is titled "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything." And just before the break, Randy, you and I were talking about my confrontation, if you will call it that, with a young mother who clearly had become very impatient with her child, kicked the child and I did approach.
COHENIt's deeply disturbing to see someone mistreat a child in particular 'cause your options as an outsider are so limited. And there's the great fear that if you intervene will the parent then take it out on the child later. I spoke to an expert in violence against children at the NYPD. And one thing she mentioned is, well, if you think, well, I'll call the cops. I have this license number. But what you witnessed probably does not constitute child abuse in a legal -- as a legal matter. And so the police are unlikely to be able to do anything.
COHENHer one suggestion was that to remind me that parents act this way at moments of stress, that they're overwhelmed by life. There are people who have lives a lot harder than mine and they're lashing out at their children. And that one approach is to offer help of some kind. Sometimes if you see if a mother's dealing with several children, you can, oh, let me help with that one, or boy, it's not easy being a mother these days. And then sometimes just to distract the parent.
COHENBut even then, I mean, even the expert I spoke with, to acknowledge this is a very limited kind of help you're in a position to offer.
REHMI think the reaction of the husband said as much to me about how they were dealing with those children as the mother kicking the child.
COHENYes. These are frustrated people who are lashing out.
REHMExactly, exactly. You also talk in your new book about ethics in civic life. And of course, we're talking in our prior hour about voting rights and how people may go to a polling station and be turned away. And surely, there're ethics there, but what is ethical also becomes legal or illegal.
COHENRight. Legal and ethical are not synonyms that for much of our nation's history slavery was legal, but it was never ethical. And to suppress the rights of people in a democracy to vote rises to the level of unethical behavior, if that is your interpretation of these laws. And if it's not, well, I think you're kind of a knucklehead. I mean, your guests on the previous segment were so eloquent in pointing out, this is a solution without a problem that in a democracy, the franchise is as close to a sacred act as we have.
COHENAnd the whole sort of wonderful history of America is we started out where the franchise was just white property-owning men. And it's to our credit as a nation that we -- well, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments brought in former slaves. We finally enfranchised women. We had the glorious Voting Right Acts of 1965, LBJ, his great triumph. We expanded the franchise to people who are 18.
COHENThis is our history, to have more and more people participate in our democracy. This is the first time that there's been an -- I mean, there hasn't been unbroken progress, but it's the first time there's been such a widespread effort to roll that back. And that said -- and I do perceive it as an ethical transgression.
REHMWhat did the people who wrote to you have in common?
COHENThat they did not regard me as an authority, which was a great relief, 'cause I'm not one. And I felt uncomfortable when I first had the job 'cause of the lofty title. And it wasn't even an ethicist. If it had been Ask Randy, I could've just said, well, here's what I think. And I was relieved to discover that they didn't regard me as an expert, just someone who was running a kind of salon.
COHENThat often they weren't even asking what they should do. That if you read their questions carefully, you saw they knew what the right thing to do was in this situation. They knew they shouldn't kick the dog. Of course, you shouldn't kick the dog, but they wanted to know why. My job was to give them a coherent well argued reason for why you shouldn't kick the dog, 'cause they hated that dog. The dog was peeing on the couch and waking the neighbors, you know, and chewing the shoes, just like dogs in comic books.
COHENIt was chewing the shoes so why shouldn't they kick the dog? Well, I had to explain animals have moral standing and here's why. And if I could give them a reasoned argument, that was my job.
REHMI loved that. Animals have moral standing.
COHENWell, sure. Don't you think?
REHMOf course. I have a little dog. I know he has moral standing.
COHENRight. Then an animal is not a thing. It's one of -- again, sort of talking about the progress of human history, that particularly starting at the end of the 18th, beginning of the 19th century in England when they changed this in their laws, when the laws recognized, well, just 'cause you own that horse doesn't mean you may beat that horse. It was a recognition that animals suffer, that they're our fellow creatures and that we regard them as moral beings.
REHMThink about children in that same capacity.
COHENWell, because animals have moral standing does not mean they're equivalent to people and that if it's a choice between, you know, saving a clam and saving a child as, you know -- I can't imagine the situation where I have to make the clam child decision. But it's the child that even amongst animals I think you -- Peter Singer who's the great philosopher who laid the foundation of the animal rights movement makes distinctions both among animals and that a clam is not the same as a chimpanzee as a moral being.
COHENAnd he considers the capacity to feel pain, how self aware is a creature, how much memory does a creature have. Will you remember suffering? And this gets at -- what's so interesting is it gets at what it is to be human and why we distinguish a child from a cat.
REHMHas this perspective created in you a vegetarian?
COHENI confess with some shame that it has not, that I believe that vegetarians have the moral high ground here. I'm glad there's not another guest on this show who is a vegetarian who would, well, I'd say make mincemeat of me, but they wouldn't do that, would they? I do think even if you're not a vegetarian you may not inflict certainly unnecessary suffering on a fellow creature. And that means people like me who still eat meat still really have to grapple with the way we treat the animals that we eat.
COHENYou may make the case of being an omnivore, but Temple Grandin, you're thinking of, yes.
COHENShe has a powerful point and that the way animals are raised for food and the way we're running kind of animal prisons, that's not morally tenable, even if you can't quite rise to vegetarianism.
REHMDo you or did you in your position as The Ethicist turn to others, or were you sort of operating out of your own personally developed instinct and moral ground?
COHENI often turned to others for technical expertise, or what you might say is technical expertise, that sometimes a question, as we were discussing, of ethics impinges on a matter of law. I remember a question about someone wanting to know if he should report his neighbor for growing pot apparently for his own use, a violation of law. So it was incumbent on me to at least know what the law required of this person. And as I was instructed in this jurisdiction at least there was no obligation to report wrongdoing here.
COHENThere's very seldom an obligation to come forward and report wrongdoing except for particular professions. All physicians must report suspected cases of child abuse. But in most cases, for lesser laws, ordinary citizens don't have that obligation. So I had to know that. But no matter what the law said, I could then argue what ethics dictated. They need not coincide but it was important that I knew the law.
COHENSo many questions came either from doctors, which sort of is kinda scary -- why are they asking me -- or involving doctor/patient relations. So there was a wonderful medical ethicist at the AMA and she would take me through the steps, well here is what standard medical practice would be in that situation. Here is what our code of conduct suggests. You know, really smart people have thought about these questions. I should at least be aware of that.
COHENBut then my own advice might vary so that kind of -- even when it came to religious leaders I never sought them out for moral advice but for a better understanding of what the religious law required so that -- oh, I remember one. A fellow wrote me 'cause his father was quite elderly, was an Orthodox Jew, used to drive to synagogue, although you were supposed to walk on the Sabbath as a religious obligation. He was too old to walk that far.
COHENThen they got a new hotheaded Rabbi, you know, one of these young hotshots who's going to lay down the law. He's not going to take any more nonsense. And he barricaded the parking lot so there was no place for his poor father, who just wanted to go and pray -- to say his prayers. What to do? So I had to understand what Orthodox Judaism required before I put my oar in.
COHENWell, one of the wonderful things certainly about -- I was raised in a Jewish household, although both in the column and in my life I'm quite a secular person -- but there is a disparity of opinions among Orthodox Rabbis on this matter. And I talked to several 'cause one gets contradictory advice. And the consensus, in so far as there can be one when we're talking about religious guidelines, 'cause people often are quite absolute about this -- but the consensus was that the duty to pray and to observe the Sabbath in that way superseded the duty to abstain from driving.
COHENAnd that that was a higher obligation. And if driving was the only way his father could come to the synagogue to pray, that is what he ought to do.
REHMSometimes ethics just makes sense.
COHENSometimes it does, but sometimes the road to sense is a tangled one.
REHMIt doesn't, yeah, yeah, yeah.
COHENThat's why I earn the big ethics money.
REHMBig ethics money, right.
COHENAll right. There wasn't big money, but I dreamt.
REHMHow about lawyers? Did lawyers come to you with ethical questions that sort of, you know, were on one side of the law or the other side of the law?
COHENWell, I have to say in the 12 years I wrote the column I received hundreds if not thousands of questions from doctors, but perhaps dozens from lawyers. You can make up your own jokes about lawyers if you want to.
COHENI would never sink to such a thing.
REHMRandy Cohen and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You talk in this book about sometimes you got it wrong.
COHENOh, I did. And one of the wonderful things about the New York Times was people read it. And it was a chance to be wrong incredibly publically. And the readers were not shy about disagreeing. And I thought that was a wonderful part of my job. Well, you have that pleasure on your show.
COHENThey're so civil for the most part and so courteous and I felt I was running a kind of salon. I would present an ethical quandary. I would say here is what I think constitutes right action and then the readers would just start emailing.
REHMDo you remember one?
COHENOh sure. I can remember what seems like a rather trivial question but it was the first time I felt boy, they've completely persuaded me that I was simply unambiguously just wrong. And was it may you smuggle your own food into the movies in contradiction of the rules? You know it's not allowed. And my initial position was no, you may not. You knew the rules when you bought your ticket. You should play by the rules. And, you know, it is possible to go two hours without eating. I was not raised in a Christian home but I believe many people do that in church. No snack bar. So that -- you know, play by the rules.
COHENI think I was wildly wrong and they persuaded me I was, that just because something is a rule doesn't mean it is a prudent rule or a wise rule or even a moral rule. And I felt the more powerful argument was, if you want people to buy your ten gallon tub of cola, you know, or your 500 pound small popcorn, well you have to offer people snacks they want at a price they deem reasonable. You can't throw them up against the wall and frisk them for apples. You know, no popcorn-sniffing dogs coming around your trousers.
COHENThat when I bought a ticket I just agreed to watch the movie. I did not sign on to a whole other list of regulations. And yes, I recanted and explained my initial position and explained why the readers just persuaded me that I was wrong. And as it happened the first time I did it it was right around this time of year. It was just before the High Holy Days for Jews. And Yom Kippur is a day of atonement when you're supposed to review your past conduct and acknowledge wrongdoing.
COHENIt just happened the column ran then and many people thought I was fulfilling -- admirably fulfilling a religious obligation. It was just a quirk of the calendar.
COHENBut I took credit for it to ingratiate myself for not going to synagogue.
REHMTell me about "Person Place Thing."
COHENOh, I'm so happy doing "Person Place Thing." It's a kind of interview show but built on this premise, that people are particularly interesting when they speak not directly about themselves but about something they care about passionately. And I give them a structure within which they can do that. So each guest comes prepared to speak about one of each, a person, a place and a thing that they have strong...
COHENYes. They tell three stories.
COHENAnd it was -- it's been so wonderful 'cause we were lucky enough to get great talkers who've done so many public -- well, they've done your show if they're really good. And it got them out of their groove, that it got them to tell stories they never had before. And wonderful stories like oh, Dan Savage the sex columnist. His person was Caroline Matilda, teenage sister of George III, King of England who while still 17 is married off to the King of Denmark and leads this kind of enlightenment court in Copenhagen and is dead before she's 23. What a story.
COHENAnd he told it -- really I think he's pretty terrific. But it doesn't seem like a Dan Savage story, you know, where's the sex. And I asked him about this and he goes, well, I'd rather talk about the tutors than anything, but no one ever asked me. Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, you know, again, an unbelievably eloquent guy. But as he's gotten older has gotten quite pugnacious. I was a little apprehensive about him on the show. Well, his place was his burial plot in Trinity Cemetery, a very unlikely place for someone who identified so strongly with the Jewish community.
COHENAnd he chose it because it's the last one, I've learned, to call active cemetery in New York -- in Manhattan. It's the only place in Manhattan where they can put a body in the ground and he is not leaving. And he spoke about his immortality with such grace and modesty, it was truly moving.
REHMRandy Cohen. His new book is titled "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything." He's also creator and host of "Person Place Thing."
REHMAnd welcome back to our conversation and I do mean our because you are very much included in this program this morning. Randy Cohen, for 12 years he was The Ethicist for the New York Times magazine. His column appeared weekly. Now, he's written a new book with some new ethical issues. It's called, "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything." He's currently creator and host of a new program called, "Person, Place, Thing." That's a public radio program for WAMC.
REHMHere is our first email. Says Jonathan, "Many of the problems America is suffering through can be traced back to selfish, wrong-minded decisions. With that in mind what does Mr. Cohen think about companies putting ethics into corporate policies, mission statements? Does it make a difference?"
COHENIt certainly does no harm. It's to the good that people are aware of the ethical implications of their actions, that a company where that dimension might not be obvious and the task they've set out to is just aware that they live in a moral universe, their actions have effects on others. So it's a fine thing. And maybe a necessary thing, but it's what we call -- it's necessary, but not sufficient, that it's more than we can ask of the human heart, that it police itself. I believe if we want to have corporations that behave properly, reasonable outside regulation is called for.
COHENI believe a very great man named Franklin Roosevelt understood this. And that corporations have -- like individuals in this very narrow sense -- not people, by the way -- a goal to maximize profit and that can sometimes -- the goal is not to maximize the ecological benefits to the world or to improve the lives of their workers, so things may contribute to profits. This is one of the reasons corporations are not people. So to ask them, while pursuing that goal, to do more than the law requires or to forsake that goal in the interest of ethics is maybe asking more than we've observed people are inclined to do.
COHENAnd that's where good outside regulation comes in. In a democratic society that's the function. And it works out pretty well here when we do our jobs right.
REHMWhat about ethics and telling the truth on the part of politicians?
COHENOh, it's a beautiful dream, isn't it? It's a crazy, beautiful dream. I don't think our politics are significantly less ethical than they were, say, in the early days of the republic. Remember Charles Sumner, you know, in the 1850s was beaten with a gold-handled cane on the floor of the Senate and his colleagues then carried guns and knives to protect themselves. Or in the Jefferson-Adams campaign Jefferson hired outside writers to write, essentially 18th century attack ads against Adams. I mean democracy has been historically a rough and tumble business.
COHENSo historically we're not doing badly. In the long arc of history I think we're doing pretty well.
REHMIs there a but there?
COHENYes. I would say in the post-Reagan era we've been doing worse and worse. And that to invoke FDR as someone who had a sense of we're all in it together and democracy is a moral business and is a business of us as a national community. The post-Reagan, there was a move away from that, that approach to governing was denounced and with the rise of the Tea Party more vigorously so. And there's less comity in government now. There's less willingness to compromise.
COHENAnd I'm often disturbed when I see journalist refer to this is the polarization of American politics. That doesn't seem quite accurate. It's not that each party -- I wish there were a democratic left. I sure don't see it. It's that the country's moved to the right, the Republican Party severely to the right. But Obama seems like the Rockefeller Republican, you know, some people wanted to govern. He is like a moderate Republican. The country's moved so far to the right that compromise has seemed harder, rhetoric has gotten less amiable. It's unsettling in the short term.
COHENI think, yes. And I don't think it's accurate to say that's so on both sides. I do think it's fair to say that the source of this is the right, sadly. It's the Tea Party.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Ashville, N.C. Good morning, Jonathan.
JONATHANHi, good morning, Diane. I love your program. Randy, what a delight to hear you. I have been an occasional reader of your column and I just love hearing you and Diane together. But, Diane, your story about intervening with the parent and their children was just a great opener to the program. And I'm reminded of what I recently learned, which is this, the rabbis had a lot to say about rebuke, that a society that tries to live without people rebuking each other is a society that's destined to fail.
JONATHANAnd it's also said in (word?) that when you rebuke, when you tell somebody something that they -- to intervene in something that's going on in their lives, you must make sure that they're ready to hear what you have to say. So when you intervened with that mom and I think Randy sort of addressed that in his response, that he I think suggested a way that might have been useful to acknowledge that being a parent is not an easy thing.
COHENThat's quite so. And parents are particularly reluctant to get advice from outsiders, especially at a moment of stress when they're lashing out. I have to say in Diane's defense, I'm incredibly impressed that she intervened because people are very reluctant to. Sometimes they're embarrassed, sometimes their concerned that they might make it worse, as indeed they might. There's always a feeling, well, I don't quite understand the situation. And to intervene, to help a child in peril is entirely admirable. And it wouldn't be right for me to refute Diane for not doing it more effectively.
REHMOn the other hand, considering today's gun-carrying population, one might be less inclined to do that today than I was years ago.
COHENOh, that's absolutely true. And that your duty to intervene for a minor harm, a minor danger does not require you to put yourself at a place to encounter a greater danger to get shot.
REHMExactly. Jonathan, thanks for your call. We've had a couple of emails like this one from Marie who says, "I am disgusted that Cohen likes Peter Singer or admires…
REHM…admires Peter Singer. Please ask Randy Cohen whether he agrees with Singer, that disabled babies may be killed."
COHENPeter Singer is a utilitarian and has written a very controversial argument that evokes that. I was defending Peter Singer only as the, in many ways, the intellectual father of the animal rights movement. His utilitarianism goes much further than I do.
REHMWhat does he say?
COHENI think I should leave it to Professor Singer to…
COHEN…to make what's a complex and controversial argument. And it's not my argument, it's not my position. But on animal rights, he's quite brilliant.
REHMAll right. To Nashua, N.H. Good morning, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning. I appreciate you taking my call.
MICHAELI'd like to refer first to the examined life which requires courage for most of us. I, for instance, was terrified the first few times I went to speak in a public forum. This also requires courage, even to make our voices heard. So if I may please emphasize courage. People such as Roger Williams, Louis Dearborn L'Amour, Thaddeus Kosciusko who engineered West Point for us, came here from Poland at his own expense. I feel there are excellent examples in history. And I feel we really need courage in order to implement ethics.
COHENOh, I -- oh, I’m so sorry. I didn't mean to cut you off.
MICHAELOh, no, no. Thank you very much for your work.
COHENI quite agree up to a point. I think it's also necessary to add courage in pursuit of what? That some very brave people have done very, very horrible things, that in every war in human history there were brave soldiers on both sides fighting for very contradictory goals. That sometimes our enemies, you know, ideological and political, are really brave. That courage is often necessary to put your virtues into practice, but courage by itself is morally neutral. Or shall we say it's necessary, but not sufficient? It's important to examine courage in pursuit of what.
REHMHere is an email. And it's interesting. It's anonymous, which I don't normally get on this program. The person writes, "When a man or a teenage boy uses lies professing unending love in order to have sex with a woman or a teenage girl I believe it's similar to rape. The reason is that the female would not have agreed to that degree on intimacy had she not known that she was not that important to the male. This seems to be an accepted behavior with females who've been struggling."
COHENI find the analogy to rape a little overwrought for my way of thinking, if only because it undermines the seriousness of rape as a crime. And that to treat anyone as an instrument, to use someone for your own ends, to deceive them in order to treat them like a thing, whether it's for sexual pleasure or other purposes is, of course, wrong. This is indefensible conduct. You certainly should not lie to those you are trying to become intimate with. Of course that's wrong.
REHMWhat was your reaction to Congressman Akin's use of the word legitimate or forcible?
COHENWell, that was so despicable in so many ways. Where can we begin to loathe Congressman Akin and be astonished that he's actually not just still in the race, have you no shame, sir? Well, legitimate and illegitimate rape is just an appalling misogynist concept that shows no understanding of the law or of the human heart, but we should also say that Congressman Akin seems to have a knowledge of how reproduction works that would be unacceptable among 12-year-olds.
COHENDoes he not understand how this works, how pregnancy happens and that when you reveal a heartlessness so icy, an ignorance so broad, surely ordinary decency requires you to withdraw into silence and certainly to withdraw yourself from public life?
REHMRandy Cohen, he is the author of a brand new book, it's titled, "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Los Angeles, Calif. Katie, you're on the air.
KATIEHi. Thank you for having me.
KATIEMy statement is kind of in regards to one of your first examples about the husband that had the heart attack that didn't tell his wife.
KATIEWell, personally, my father is a DEA special agent. And in his line of work there are a lot of things that are very scary and, you know, harmful and he's in danger constantly. And I remember several different occasions, but one particular when I was younger. My dad -- I don't remember if he told me or if I saw a bruise or what it was, but he told me that he got his foot run over during a car chase. And I was like oh, my gosh, are you okay? And he's yeah, I'm fine, I’m fine.
KATIEMom doesn't need to know this. And I went, okay. And that was kind of the moment that I started thinking about it and I realized that it's not that Mom doesn't need to know it, it's that she really wouldn't want to. And there's a lot of people out there that really don't want to be told the truth.
COHENI think that's sometimes true. And that every marriage is different. And this is especially because your father was engaged in work that, regardless of who he married, would require some secrecy on his part, but that's a discussion that a husband and wife must have -- and more than once, again and again and again throughout their marriage. How much ought I to tell you? You know the general nature of my work. How much do you want to know? How much am I permitted to tell you? That all seems a reasonable thing for two adults to do.
KATIEWhat seems a little disconcerting to me is that he put a child in the middle. I'm not so comfortable with his telling you something that you ought not tell your mother. That if your mother ought not know perhaps he should not have told you.
REHMThe child should not know either. And here's a lighter on to end on.
COHENI hope so. You know, the book is actually quite funny and charming, but also deals with these kind of very serious questions where levity is less appropriate.
REHMOf course. Here's Peter in Tarrytown, N.Y. who says, "Ethics are doing the right thing. Sometimes it may be a lie. If my wife asks me does this dress make my butt look big, ethics would say tell the truth, survival would suggest maybe not."
COHENI agree with his conclusion, but not with the reasoning that got him there. As you know, when we started there are often occasions when a lie is not just permitted, but required. And the sort of easy example is it's 1850 and you have a houseful of runaway slaves, you're on the underground railroad, the slave catcher comes to your door, says do you have any slaves? You not only may lie, you must lie. In this case, I think he told the right lie.
REHMRandy Cohen, he wrote "The Ethicist," a weekly column for The New York Times Magazine for 12 years. He now has a brand new book. It's titled, "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything." I'm so glad you were here.
COHENI'm glad I was here, too.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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