The Ethicist

by Jon Mandle on April 13, 2006

I admit that I’m not a regular reader of Randy Cohen’s column for the NY Times Magazine, “The Ethicist.” But the hostility that some of my colleagues express is surprising. There are many complaints, some of which are absurd on their face. What to make of the criticism that his column doesn’t give readers the opportunity to engage in a dialogue? As if our books and papers do? (As it happens, the Magazine now has an on-line forum called “You’re the Ethicist” where people can post comments.) Or the complaint that he sets himself up as an expert, instructing others how to act? He gives his opinion. I can’t believe that anyone slavishly lives their lives according to his instructions. His audience knows that they can accept or reject his judgments based on their own assessment of the reasons he gives.

I actually think there is a combination of simple, old-fashioned turf-protection and jealousy behind many of these criticisms – how dare he presume to give ethical advice without a Ph.D., or at least staying up on the latest account of agent-centered prerogatives? Cohen has the right answer to this in his book, The Good, The Bad, and the Difference: “I would, of course, feel better about the job if I had a Ph.D…. [But] looked at with perhaps excessive generosity, there is an unexpected advantage to my lack of formal training. The reader must consider not my credentials but my argument, and be persuaded – or unpersuaded – by that. I can make no appeal to my own authority.”

Elsewhere, he also gives the right answer to a different question: “Have you ever given advice and then changed your mind afterwards? It happens all the time. I make it a habit once a year doing a corrections column. It’s a result of the correspondence with the readers and the critical comments of the readers.”

One criticism that I do think holds up concerning his columns is that they are generally apolitical. Lots of discussion about informing a friend about a cheating spouse, returning the mistakenly pilfered apple, and padded resumes. Welfare reform, preventive war, and global warming – not so much. Actually, we get plenty of hints about his views on such matters, but having tip-toed up to the edge, he never dives in.

To his credit, however, Cohen is aware of all this, and in a piece from 2002, he turned it into a joke. His number 2 “best question never asked of ‘The Ethicist’”:

I write an ethics column for a prominent national magazine – you’d recognize the name. I’m specifically instructed by my editors to confine myself to ethics and not to take on politics; the paper employs many fine writers to cover that subject. But would it be so wrong to sneak in a few policy questions under the guise of ethics questions? What if a portion of the proceeds went to charity?—R.C., New York City

He also addressed the point in a column from The Nation when he wrote, “the difference between ethics and politics seems to me artificial, if there is a significant difference at all. Sometimes the distinction is a matter of scale. If one guy robs you, it’s ethics, but when 435 people rob you, it’s politics–or the House of Representatives is in session.” But as if to indicate how seriously he takes such matters, he couldn’t leave the joke alone: “But surely the deliberations of that body are subject to ethical analysis.”

And in a passage reprinted in the introduction to his book:

most of us act as our culture directs, behaving no better and no worse than our neighbors…. This is not to depreciate individual virtue, but we are unlikely to understand any behavior if it is seen only as a matter of individual moral choice detached from any social context. And we are unlikely to significantly increase honorable behavior if we rely only on individual rectitude…. Just as individual ethics can only be understood in relation to the society within which it is practiced, it is also true that individual ethical behavior is far likelier to flourish within a justice society. Indeed, it might be argued that to lead an ethical life one must work to build a just society.

He is also very concerned to distinguish his approach from that of William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, which superficially may seem similar. He makes the point in terms of a lesson that not a few philosophers could learn from:

One can’t quite shake the feeling that Bennett is inviting us readers to think of ourselves as courageous people who’d do well in a crisis. Such a flattering image allows us to go about daily life less scrupulously than we perhaps should, like an out-of-shape boxer who ambles through the early rounds, confident that he can make it all good with a knock-out in the tenth. However, real virtue lies not in heroically saving poor orphans from burning buildings but in steadfastly working for a world where orphans are not poor and buildings have decent fire codes.

The Nation column begins by claiming sarcastically, “Virtue, it turns out, is the exclusive property of the right,” and he says he was initially startled by the virulence of the attacks on his column from the right. It was “as if they objected not to how I approached any particular ethical question but that by writing about ethics at all I’d poached on a preserve of the right. This is not entirely farfetched.” Indeed, not. The right has a lot invested in presenting themselves (not least to themselves) as being morally superior. But we philosophers shouldn’t treat ethical reflection as our exclusive preserve, either.



Glenn Bridgman 04.13.06 at 9:06 pm

I’m not certain what kind of criticism you hear about him, but my beef with him is that, as an empirical matter, much of his ethical advice is *bad.* I don’t mean bad in a “the column is short so he is forced to omit the more complex elements of the analysis”, I mean straight up bad.


Bernard Yomtov 04.13.06 at 10:00 pm

but my beef with him is that, as an empirical matter, much of his ethical advice is bad.

Perhaps a few examples would help the discussion along.


Glenn Bridgman 04.13.06 at 10:10 pm

“Perhaps a few examples would help the discussion along.”

This, of course, is the rub. Reading the columns weekly, it is easy to go “well, that’s not right,” and then file it away in the mental category of incorrect stuff that doesn’t really matter. None of the examples are so egregious as to validate my assertion by themselves, so such an argument would require a sustained case built across many of his columns.


k 04.13.06 at 10:15 pm

“Perhaps a few examples would help the discussion along.”

Well, the most recent advice I heard from him was that a parent should give essentially no useful input to their child when he or she is writing a college application essay. I thought that was pretty horrible advice. A better question would be, have you ever heard him make any sense whatsoever?

I haven’t.


Vance Maverick 04.13.06 at 10:24 pm

Could the problem be simply that Cohen’s column has a pretentious name? Cary Tennis gives terrible advice at Salon, and is scourged for it on the blogs, but doesn’t excite intellectual / professional contempt in quite the same way.


k 04.13.06 at 10:34 pm

“Could the problem be simply that Cohen’s column has a pretentious name?”

The problem, I think, is that he seems to have no particular insight into ethical questions, at least, no more that the next person, but because he has the chutzpah to claim he does, he gets paid to promulgate his opinions in multiple venues. This is what people such as myself find annoying about him.


Kieran Healy 04.13.06 at 10:40 pm

Paging Jacob Levy. Prof Levy, please report to this thread.


Seth Finkelstein 04.13.06 at 11:19 pm

I have no particular animus towards his column. But I’ve thought of it like it’s “Dear Abby” for a different demographic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


lalala 04.13.06 at 11:39 pm

I’ve heard from someone who apparently knew him that Randy Cohen is in fact wildly unethical in his own life. Now, I can’t really claim that the person I heard this rumor from was necessarily the most reliable source, but it is at least interesting.


Matt Weiner 04.13.06 at 11:47 pm

My pal washerdreyer has some discussions of the column, if you want to use that as a store of examples.


joe o 04.13.06 at 11:51 pm

Here is Levy’s Reason article on the Ethicist. It is pretty persuasive. I think that the Ethicist has gotten better since 1999 without reaching good.


weichi 04.13.06 at 11:54 pm

Am I the only one who remembers his old New Quiz columns in Slate so fondly? Very funny stuff.


a 04.14.06 at 12:05 am

I read the Ethicist a few years back when I was buying the paper edition of the Sunday Times. My beef with him at the time was that his ethics came down to, “If I’ve done it, it’s okay to do.” That is, there seemed to be similar ethical situations, which were decided inconsistently, and the only way of making sense of how he came down to decide was he considered his own personal choices an infallible guide what was okay or not. For instance, if I remember correctly, he considered the situation where you are in a ballpark in a bad seat, and there is a better, empty seat avaiable. For the Ethicist it was okay to go take the empty seat – because that’s what he used to do. But there were very similar situations, written about at pretty much the same time – I wish I could remember them now – where he say “Not Okay.”


Kelly 04.14.06 at 12:49 am

“I have no particular animus towards his column. But I’ve thought of it like it’s “Dear Abby” for a different demographic.”

Yeah, that’s generally been my impression, and as such the name sort of irks. I’d rather read Carolyn Hax…at least when she covers ethical issues, she’s consistent and gives good advice.


Jacob T. Levy 04.14.06 at 6:55 am

Wha… huh? My pager went…

oh. this again.

[Nothing new below, for those who’ve read what I resurface to say about Cohen every year or two.]

I’ve long since stopped reading the column. I don’t know whether Cohen still does what I accused him of doing, way back in Reason in (egad) 1999.

But, as I said in a follow-up post here, I think Cohen knowingly lies about the character of this alleged right-wing hit on him (which consisted of four independent pieces, mine among them).

I charged that he was telling people that their individual moral choices didn’t matter against a background of (as he took it) radical social and economic injustice.

This was not, as he has it, maintaining that “Virtue […] is the exclusive property of the right,” or that “by writing about ethics at all [he]’d poached on a preserve of the right.” He says he offended us mean right-wingers “by suggesting that public education was worthwhile, or perhaps by favoring breathable air. Or air.”

On Jon’s other point, while I don’t think a column by someone with no background in ethics as either a field of study or a vocation should be called “The Ethicist,” I also don’t think that professionally-trained ethicists have much special insight into the moral dilemmas of daily life. Good moral judgment isn’t the exclusive domain of ethicists and probably isn’t even in any disproportionate supply among that group. I have no objection to a moral advice columnist without a Ph.D.

And finally, I, too, fondly remember News Quiz. Comedy is Cohen’s metier…


Noumenon 04.14.06 at 7:49 am

Yay for Carolyn Hax!


Steve 04.14.06 at 7:54 am

Frankly, this whole post doesn’t make sense.
I agree with post number one. The problem with the Ethical column has nothing to do with whether I can respond to him (which, as you pointed out, is impossible outside of the web), nor with the fact that he set himself up as an expert (??), nor with the bizarre (and self-serving) claim that he’s not qualified because he doesn’t have a PhD (was this serious or were you mocking academics?). Its that I disagree with his ethical advice very very frequently. His claim that the Right is disturbed because they think only the Right is allowed to give ethical advice? Preposterous. The Right is disturbed because the Right thinks he’s wrong in that ethical advice-not that he’s not ‘allowed’ to give it.
Randy Cohen’s column reminds me of John Rawls (and the movie American Beauty-yeah, its stream of consciousness-so I’m channeling Belle). Throw in lots of pretention (Harvard and the New York Times) and big words, and a style that presumes what should really be proved and proves what’s really secondary, and poof; the ethical man happens to be a northeastern liberal who votes Democratic. You half expect a smug storm to form over the northeastern seaboard ;)



harry b 04.14.06 at 8:20 am

Well, that’s interesting. I’ve read him occasionally and speedily for the past year or so, and got the impression that he was a not-very-thoughtful moderately libertarianish right winger. I can’t give chapter and verse, or even more tha a vague impression. Maybe a lot of self-styled liberals appear that way to me; maybe he’s changed. I’m surprised to see that he has written in the Nation, and disturbed if liberals see him as any sort of ally. That said, I realise that on lots of the non-social questions of personal ethics he deals with leftwingers like me and thoughtful right-wingers converge somewhat. (“thoughtful” here might seem to mean “inclined to agree with me a bit”. I hope I’m more reflective than that, but maybe I’m not).


Hektor Bim 04.14.06 at 8:32 am

Lots of hate on for the Ethicist.

If you spend some time studying the judicial system in this country, it is hard to avoid that this society is fundamentally unjust. At least some of the people who read the Ethicist, it seems to me, don’t like being reminded of that fact, or the rapaciousness of capitalism.

The other thing that bothers people about the Ethicist seems to be that he doesn’t operate according to God-given commandments – a lot of his ethical advice is situational and depends on weighing the specific circumstances of each case. For reasons I have never been completely able to understand, this bothers many people. There seems to be a great need for inflexible moral codes so that people don’t have to think in their daily lives.


Richard Bellamy 04.14.06 at 10:09 am

I will give a specific example of where I disagreed with The Ethicist. It was in his book (The Good, the Bad, and the Difference), and it was essentially a series of questions that all took the form,

“A mistake was made in my favor, how much effort must I take to correct it.” The answer was “All that it takes.”

Example: A bank error led to an extra $50 in my bank account. Do I have to go the bank, wait in line, and get it all fixed, or can I keep the $50.

Answer: Wait in line, etc. If they don’t clear it up the first time, send them a check. You are ethically responsible to give back money given to you in error.

My Response: This (and all of his comparable answers) does not take into the monetary value of your time. If I am a lawyer, and can bill, say, $200 an hour, then spending an hour in the middle of the day fixing someone else’s banking mistake gives them their $50 back, and costs me $200 that I could have either spent working, or with my family (which I value at over $200 per hour, or else I could spend evenings working too.) The bank will not reimburse me for my time, so acting “Ethically” doesn’t make things even, it just puts me out $200, instead of up $50. Maybe the right answer is really “You have to be out $200,” but the column doesn’t even address the topic.

The ethics (or at least the ethical calculations) of a writer who is paid by column, not by hour, and is necessarily different from that of a lawyer or carpenter or other hourly wage slave.


Bernard Yomtov 04.14.06 at 10:23 am

I’ve heard from someone who apparently knew him that Randy Cohen is in fact wildly unethical in his own life.

Now there’s a solid criticism.


washerdreyer 04.14.06 at 11:11 am

Thanks for the link, Matt. Thanks everyone else for clicking on Matt’s link. Sorry if my “analysis” is frequently nothing but conclusory assertions that he’s wrong. A lot of those posts were better when they had comments, but Haloscan apparently stops keeping them up after four months.


paul 04.14.06 at 11:34 am

I’ve always had the impression that his advice was mediocre at best (but not enough so that I would bother braving the futility of writing corrections), but if he had some kind of serious qualifications or made formal arguments I’d be much more at ease with a column that dubs itself “The Ethicist” rather than “A Guy Who’s Thought a Little About What’s Right” or (as someone above put it) “Dear Abby Yuppie Edition”.

There’s also of course something that grates when a paper with the NYT’s record of unrepentant misrepresentation runs a column titled “The Ethicist” with a brief that is designed never to be even remotely applicable to its own behavior (either as a corporate body or as instantiated in the work of individual employees). It just reinforces the “We only write about motes” impression.


FXKLM 04.14.06 at 11:54 am

harryb: Does this look like a description of a libertarianish right-winger? (from Jacob’s Reason article):

But there is something chronically strange about Cohen’s items on the ethics of the workplace and commercial life. He has told readers that giving to or raising funds for charity isn’t worthwhile, because the more charitable activity there is, the more easily the state abandons public projects. He has told a supervisor that it’s unethical to fire or report a temp worker whose shoddy performance makes everyone look bad.

He has even gone out of his way to take swipes at the country’s political economy when by his own admission it is irrelevant to the advice he gives, as in this reply to a question about not reporting income to the Internal Revenue Service: “When New York City offers corporations multi-million-dollar tax breaks to do nothing and the Federal tax code is the least progressive it has been in decades (making it ever more possible for a housekeeper and Bill Gates to pay the same rate), it would be churlish to chide someone so hard-working and modestly paid. However, while working off the books might be justified ethically, working on the books is actually a better policy financially, thanks to the Earned Income Credit and the Child Tax Credit.”


FXKLM 04.14.06 at 11:58 am

I posted that last comment too soon. Here’s an even better quote to demonstrate how far removed Cohen is from libertarianism, and this one includes a direct quote from Cohen:

For example: In response to the question about how to handle a poorly performing temp, Cohen declared, “if anyone’s acting unethically here, it’s your boss; it is ignoble to force people into soul-deadening, pointless, poorly paid jobs….Organizing work into tedious, repetitive tasks, while profitable for the few, makes life miserable for the many; some political economists have called it a crime against humanity.” In other words, as long as we have a division of labor, ethics is inapplicable to decisions we face about who does what job. In the face of “a crime against humanity,” how could there be anything wrong with submitting fraudulent resumés, evaluations, or timecards?


Barbar 04.14.06 at 3:50 pm

Cohen’s biggest sin as an advice writer is that he is not very entertaining or provocative. Even the anti-libertarian stuff posted above, wrong as it may be, could be entertaining if he applied in a consistent and challenging way — you know, as if he knew he was going to piss some people off with what he wrote. Instead, I just walk away from his columns (which I actually stopped reading a while ago) thinking, “That was wrong and lame.”


Dan Kervick 04.14.06 at 5:58 pm

Apparently I live in a bubble. Until today, I was blissfully ignorant of the existence of Mister Cohen. I guess I’ll have to buy the New York Times more often.

If I may play psychologist, it sounds to me like some of Jon Mandle’s colleagues have made of Cohen a displaced object of their own self-doubt. Could it be that the spectacle of a man hanging out an “Ethicist” shingle at the New York Times, and dispensing free advice – or close to free, at least – helps to heighten the uncomfortable suspicion that a professional Ethicist, credentialed or not, is an alleged master of a science that doesn’t really exist?

It’s fine to say that what Cohen in only dispensing his “opinion”. But I assume he asserts propositions in such a way as to suggest that they express certain kinds of knowledge, does he not?


harry b 04.14.06 at 7:20 pm


no, of course, I read jacob’s piece, and was surprised, because his characterisation (with actual textual support) was quite different from my vague impression (for which I can give no support whatsoever, as I admit). That’s why I said “that’s interesting”. If I had the energy I could certainly go back and find a bunch of places where he is downright wrong (whether right or left) but I don’t know if they’d support my vague impression (which is, I’d add, more recent than jacob’s careful study!). But… I can’t be bothered, I really don’t care about him!


mykej 04.16.06 at 12:02 pm

Richard Bellamy wrote, “If I am a lawyer, and can bill, say, $200 an hour, then spending an hour in the middle of the day fixing someone else’s banking mistake gives them their $50….”

You have an interesting theory of ethics. The lawyer that makes $200/hr is only obligated for 1/40th of the effort of someone on minimum wage.

Which way does it work exactly? People who earn more don’t have to be ethical or unethical people will naturally earn more?


P.G. 04.17.06 at 9:36 am

Steve sez: Randy Cohen’s column reminds me of John Rawls

What, huh?? Was that an attack on Cohen, an attack on Rawls, or praise for Cohen? Justify that assertion?


Karen 04.17.06 at 2:28 pm

$200 an hour is a “wage slave”? Sorry – lawyers are “professional people” not “wage slaves”. And that banking mistake will come out of a teller’s check. I will personally never forget the look on the teller’s face when I walked back into a bank with the $100 extra I’d been given when the teller forgot to subtract my money order from my cash … She was on the hook for that money.

Of course, I take home $28 an hour, so maybe that $50 seems like more to me.


agm 04.17.06 at 4:18 pm

He’s right about the lack of a PhD not affecting the quality of his advice. I’ve heard his NPR schtik regularly for the last year, and it’s just. So. Wrong. Or, if Peter Woit will forgive the unattributed quoting of whoever he took the name from, it’s not even wrong.


agm 04.17.06 at 7:13 pm

Someone asked for examples of bad advice:

The most recent thing I heard is where someone with an advanced college degree wanted to discuss the ethics of helping her niece with college admissions essays. He basically said that anything beyond the most basic tossing around of ideas was out of bounds — no editing, no phrasing, no spellchecking, no anything involving a pen (I’m not kidding, he actually said that if it involved a pen, it’s out of bounds). This ignores the fact that if multiple people in the house have earned multiple college degrees, they have much more of a clue about what helps than someone in even the best high school there is. His argument was that it was unfair to all the kids who didn’t have such help available to them. I say phooey. If/when I have kids, my allegiance is to my offspring and/or spawn, not the next person over’s. This is not a level-playing-field issue, it’s a get-into-the-best-school-possible issue, and if he doesn’t understand the difference, he should refrain from shooting his mouth off.

Pretty much all of his advice that I’ve heard is of this quality.

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