Last Thursday, Randy Cohen — author of "The Ethicist" in New York Times Magazine who gave a lecture hosted by the Jewish Cultural Collective on his latest book "The Good, the Bad and the Difference" at Memorial Union. He sat down for a Friday interview with The Herald's food columnist on ethics, column writing and getting it right and wrong.
Badger Herald: How do you think your educational background in music and your professional background in music have influenced your column?
Randy Cohen: The kind of humorous writing I like, and the kind of writing I try to produce, is always a critique of the culture in some way.
I also think some people see the comedy as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, although I would say the comedy is the medicine.
Presumably, my powerful overlords thought that was a plus.
BH: What kind of a response do you usually get to your columns?
RC: The people who don't like the column will say, "Who the heck are you!" because they think it's presumptuous and that I'm unqualified to write it. The people who do enjoy the column will ask, "Oh, who are you?" and it's a genuine request for information. Sometimes I think it would be handy to have a Ph.D. in philosophy.
I do, also, in my defense, point out that unlike medicine or law or plumbing, this is not a credentialed field, and it's an area of discourse that anyone is free to enter into. I'm glad airline pilot and heart surgeons are credentialed; it's reassuring. But you might even make a case that in a democracy, every adult is required to engage with ethics.
BH: What sort of strategies do you employ when looking at an ethical question?
RC: Partly out of ignorance and partly out of pragmatism, there are various philosophers I refer to as offering interesting ways to analyze a situation but not as offering a set of rules that define conduct. Any philosophical system you can name has strengths and weaknesses.
Consider the categorical imperative: Act as if you are legislating for all of humanity. Oh, good, right? But it's easy to point out ways in which that falls short. For example, there is an English philosopher named Simon Blackburn who gives a great example of where it falls short. Suppose your precept was, "Always pay your credit card bill on time." That sounds great, and it would be very difficult to argue that it's an immoral act, but there would be no interest payments if everybody lived by that rule. It would be a world without credit cards, and I don't want to live in that world. So the categorical imperative doesn't help you through that situation, and what I'm suggesting is that by using it you can justify any conduct or that you can fail to justify right conduct.
My conclusion from this and other fundamental approaches to moral reasoning is that they are interesting ways to analyze a problem. They are ways to see the situation in its fullness, not reliable rules for how to behave.
BH: You have an avowed love of the English moralist Samuel Johnson. What about him do you find appealing?
RC: It's an emotional connection I feel with him. He is wrong about at least half of what he writes about, but I think he sees deeply into the human heart. He was a solitary guy but also the most sociable guy you could imagine.
BH: In your book you talk about the exploration of ethical issues in art. Could you talk about why you find art such a compelling way to deal with these kinds of issues?
RC: Any good movie or any mediocre novel is better than what I do. I'm obliged to establish a general rule in 400 words, but a novelist or a filmmaker can look at every nuance in the situation. Sometimes, if you know everything about the history of a conflict and the particular psychologies of the people involved, you can find yourself saying, "Well, maybe you should kill the guy!" It takes 100,000 words to do that, though!
BH: What is your
favorite handling of an ethical issue in a film?
RC: I really enjoy "The Third Man" with Graham Greene and Orson Welles. I particular like the scene where Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten are on the Ferris wheel, and Welles says to Cotten, "Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?" There's a moral question for you, posed formally.
BH: I'll end on a somber note. In your book, you print five columns in which you have overturned your personal ethical ruling. Have you had any other changes of heart recently?
RC: Oh, yeah, but I don't think that's somber. Being wrong is often quite wonderful and quite liberating. It lets you see the world fresh. To be unambiguously confronted with your own bone-headedness is great, and a great thing about my job is how generous-spirited the readers are about it; you're able to be wrong.