Ethicist shares insights on right, wrong and questionable behaviors

When the New York Times decided to launch a weekly ethics column for its Sunday magazine, the newspaper turned to the most obvious candidate to opine on moral matters: a comedy writer for David Letterman.

Don’t laugh. For 12 years, Randy Cohen turned out a popular, thought-provoking and hilarious discourse on right and wrong. Cohen compiled the best of his queries in a new book, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.”

Cohen, who left the Times last year, will be in the Bay Area to talk about his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Taking a Dear Abby approach to ethical problem-solving, Cohen touched on everything from illegal music downloading and underage smoking, to feeding cats a vegetarian diet. On a more serious note, he also tackled plenty of life and death questions as well.

Randy Cohen

Throughout his tenure as the Ethicist, Cohen relied on reason, reflection and common sense to shape his answers.

“I had no predisposition to write about ethics,” said the 63-year-old, four-time Emmy award winner. “I was not really meant to write from a position of authority, but be a kind of stand-in for the reader, and together we would reason our way to a conclusion to what I regarded as right action.”

Though raised in a Reform Jewish household, Cohen maintained a strictly secular perspective in his column. He occasionally consulted religious experts (as well as other outside experts), but never quoted any of them.

“I didn’t refer to Jewish moral thought,” Cohen said. “I had an ordinary Jewish education, but I didn’t refer to that in the column. I gradually saw a set of moral principles that underpin everything, a belief in an egalitarian

society and a notion of social justice.”

He took queries seriously, but with his comedy background Cohen couldn’t help slipping in the quips.

For instance, responding to a writer who wondered about the ethics of swimming with captive dolphins, he wrote, “It’s been my lifelong dream to swim with Meg Ryan.”

To another questioning the ethics of first-class flyers jumping the security line, Cohen wrote, “If we must have a caste system in America, let’s make our Brahmins not those with fat wallets but those who gave joy to millions. At the Randyland International Airport, Aretha Franklin would sashay through security. Billionaire Walmart Waltons… we thank you for your patience.”

One of his most turbulent exchanges took place when he responded to a female letter-writer appalled that an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent wouldn’t shake her hand.

Rather than explaining that strict Jewish law forbids men physical contact with any women other than wives and immediate family, Cohen excoriated the man’s behavior, calling it “sexism,” and he recommended she tear up her real estate contract.

That triggered a firestorm of criticism, most of it from fellow Jews, some of whom demanded the Times fire Cohen.

In a follow-up, Cohen acknowledged that the man’s behavior was grounded in Jewish family purity laws, but added, “So do many proscriptions in sexually segregated societies, from the chador [veil Muslim women must wear] to allowing only men to vote.”

“I would say I have a fundamental belief in egalitarian society,” Cohen told j. “Segregation by race or gender is wrong.”

Cohen often blasted what he saw as unethical behavior by those who wrote in, but says he never judged them wholly as good or bad human beings. Ethics, he asserted, is strictly about actions.

“Ethics isn’t concerned with hearts and minds,” Cohen said. “I regard ethics as primarily concerned with the affects of our actions on other people. There can be solitary sin, sitting at home coveting an ox. That’s thought crime. You have to go out and steal the ox for it to be unethical.”

Following Cohen’s departure — he is currently the creator and host of the public radio program “Person Place Thing” — guest writers such as poet laureate Phillip Levine filled in until Chuck Klosterman came aboard as the Times permanent ethics columnist in June.

Over 12 years and 614 columns, Cohen believes he became more ethical himself because of his job.

That doesn’t mean he always got it right, at least not according to his readers.

“One of the truly wonderful things about the job was that five seconds after the column came out I would get letters pointing out how wrong I was,” he said, referring to online comments. “I felt I was kind of running a salon.”

“Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything” by Randy Cohen ($24.95, Chronicle Books, 318 pages)

Randy Cohen will talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13 at JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$15.  (415) 292-1200

“Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything” by Randy Cohen ($24.95, Chronicle Books, 318 pages).


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at