Randy Cohen started out as a "bad musician" -- in his words -- before writing humor and essays. He penned the Ethicist, a weekly column in The New York Times Magazine, for 12 years. His new book is "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything," and last month he gave a talk on it at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center.
Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?
Yes, I'm Jewish, although I'm not observant. I was raised in a Reform Jewish household, and I was bar mitzvahed and confirmed; but I haven't been inside a synagogue for 30 years except for other people's confirmations. I'm resolutely secular in both my ordinary life and in how I produced the column when I wrote about ethics. That said, I noticed how seldom the conclusions I had reached in my column deviated from the Jewish values I was raised with. I very seldom do things that profoundly offend my mother.
In your new book, you say writing your column made you "acutely conscious of your own transgressions." What do you do with those regrets? Bottle them up? Look for forgiveness?
I'm not so interested in forgiveness. Forgiveness for whom, for what? I'm not so sure about the utility of forgiveness except for the forgiver. Bottle them up -- no, certainly not. I'm forthright; I'm a modern guy. We don't bottle up here. But I'm also an adult, and that means you live with [regrets]. Any adult who has the self-awareness to scrutinize his or her own behavior and the courage to face what he or she sees is bound to face regret. Who among us has lived a perfect life? To be an adult is to be remorseful, and the task of an adult is to live with that without being crushed by it or denying it.
What do you think is behind our ethical instincts?
Over the 12 years I wrote the column, I more and more came to believe that if we want people to behave virtuously, we have to create virtuous communities, that people tend to act more and more like their neighbors. Very few of us will be incredible, heroic, saintly figures, and very few of us will be Richard III. Most of us will be somewhere in the middle, and what's important is how we create that middle. The interesting thing about Abu Ghraib is not that five GIs acted badly -- and they did -- but that a situation was created in which that became inevitable.
What room do you see for human freedom, then, in ethical choices?
Your view of your community ought not be uncritical. Most slave owners in the 1840s felt they were virtuous people. One of our tasks is the rational evaluation of our cultures, of our own neighborhoods, and work to make them accord more with our notion of virtue. Every Saudi thinks it's fine to have a gender-segregated society. Women can't drive. It's gender Jim Crow in Saudi Arabia. So it becomes a moral duty in Saudi Arabia to think about that. Human agency is required there, and human responsibility.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
I have a fundamental belief in an egalitarian society, that I am entitled to the same dignity and respect as my neighbors, and they are entitled to the same dignity and respect that I accord to myself. And it's amazing how far you can get in moral reasoning if you start with that premise.
- Liz Essley