How does it feel to have millions of people depend upon your ethical decisions?

You may be confusing me with Dear Abby. Or the President. Which was the one that thought the way to improve Yosemite National Park was to have lots of snowmobiles driving around?

I'm not sure that anyone actually does anything I suggest. On a good day, however, I hope I've helped the readers reach their own conclusions. My job is to make the discussion illuminating, the analysis thoughtful, and the prose lively. At least, that's what I try to do, and if I can present the questions in a way that lets the reader see them fresh, I'm pleased.



How did you come to be The Ethicist?

The idea for the column originated with the editors of The New York Times Magazine. Early in 1999, they invited me to audition for the job, along with several other people whose names they, tactfully, would not disclose. We were each given the same three ethical questions to answer. After that, I assume there was some kind of clerical error, and I was lucky enough to get the column.



Having read about thousands of ethical dilemmas, do you think people are innately ethical? Has your opinion changed since you've been on the job?

I've been impressed with how seriously people, my readers at least, think about the ethical questions of daily life. Of course, I also receive a steady flow of letters from those who know they are contemplating doing something very bad indeed, but want me to endorse it: I'm planning to embezzle some money at work, but my company is stinking rich, and my boss wears unattractive jackets, and I myself am a very handsome fellow, so isn't it okay? Well, no, it's not. But it is heartening that even these self-justifiers want to think of themselves as honorable people. Perhaps, eventually, they'll want to actually behave honorably.

More and more I've come to feel that people will be about as virtuous as the society in which they live. Most of us will be neither heroes nor villains, but just average folks. So it increasingly seems essential to work toward the building of a just society if we are to have any hope at all of being fair and honest individuals. I suppose this means that I've come to make less of a distinction between ethics and politics. I believe that we must often seek common ground with other people as a way to achieve those goals dictated by our individual values. That's one reason why democracy seems an essentially ethical system: It gives us the means to create a better society in which we can become better individuals.



In The Good, The Bad & The Difference, you distinguish between different kinds of ethics: Mafia ethics, law school ethics, etc, all influenced by a different purpose. Are there cultural influences at the root of your answers as The Ethicist?

Sure - of mine and everyone else's. I grew up in a suburban reform Jewish household, and while I am not at all a religious person - I take a resolutely secular approach to ethics - I believe that my values were significantly influenced by those of my religion, my family, and my country.

Ethical ideas do change. The behavior that would have made you an impressive moral figure if you rode with Attila the Hun in the fifth century would not make you a figure of towering majestic virtue if you rode with the AARP today. My task, when I talk about ethics, is not only to describe what I regard as right behavior here and now, but also to make a rational argument for why it is right.



What's your writing process like? Any secrets on how to come to an ethical solution?

An awful lot of people far more sophisticated than I have thought about these questions for thousands of years, so I don't suppose there are many secrets. Don't let the coffee sit on that warmer thing all day? Use a thermos instead? (Or did Aristotle already say that?)

One thing I find helpful is to consult available experts. If I'm asked a question that touches on medical ethics, for example, I'll call a medical ethicist at the American Medical Association. Hers isn't the final word, but she is knowledgeable about the current thinking and standard practice. Similarly, if an ethical question runs up against a matter of law, I'd better know what the law is. The legal and the ethical are not always synonymous, of course -- slavery used to be legal - but knowing the law is a good place to start.

There is much to be said for ordinary conversation, for discussing the question with one's friends. Dialog turns out to be an effective way of thinking through an argument, as I believe Plato may have noticed.

In addition, after a question has run in the Ethics column, many readers write to let me know just how wrong I got it - very wrong, apparently. I reply to most of this mail, and in doing so I have a chance to rethink the question This sets up another kind of dialog, and a particularly interesting one.

And if I'm stuck, it never hurts to call my mom.



Doing what's right isn't always fun. Do you ever have the urge to tell readers to go with the unethical decision anyway?

Well sure, really charming readers who show up at my apartment and invite me out to dinner in Hawaii! I get urges; I'm only human. But I resist them.



What's the most ethical thing you've ever done personally?

Modesty forbids my getting all braggy, assuming I had anything to brag about, which I may not. Remember what Dr. Johnson wrote: "Be not too hasty ... to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality; they discourse like angels, but they live like men."



For the Academy Awards, many movie companies try to sway votes by large advertising campaigns. Is this ethical? And who do you think should win for Best Picture?

Wait, wait - You're putting the words "movie companies" and "ethical" in the same paragraph; You're making me dizzy. I've got to lie down and put a cold compress on my forehead.

OK. I'm back. You know, I've heard that some Cola companies also use advertising to sway customers, as do some political candidates. It seems a bit unfair to expect Russell Crowe to act better than Coca-Cola.

But Best Picture? Have they instituted that "None of the Above Rule" for the Oscars? How about for Presidential elections? Is Carole Lombard in anything this year?




THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE DIFFERENCE
How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations
By: RANDY COHEN - "The Ethicist" from The New York Times Magazine.
TheEthicist@RandomHouse.com

Special thanks to illustrator Christoph Niemann.

 


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