My article in today’s Jewish Ideas Daily (link):
For 13 years in the New York Times Magazine, Randy Cohen’s weekly column, “The Ethicist,” posed and answered ethical questions from readers. It was widely discussed and debated, often angrily. Cohen recently published a collection of his columns, Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything. I turned to the book for a summation of his ethical sensibility—and found evidence of both his decency and the limits of his secular approach, which in turn highlight a danger society currently faces.
Cohen’s politics are not mine, but in his book I found him fair and thoughtful. A sensible man, he thinks long and hard about the questions he faces, using the ethical tools available to him. Cohen generally demands that his questioners practice honesty, obedience to law, and sensitivity to others. He requires that they refrain from damaging other people’s property and otherwise causing financial harm. You might think that these are ethical no-brainers. Still, Cohen deserves praise for his consistent adherence to common-sense morality.
But when ethical situations become complex, Cohen grows unpredictable. Indeed, he punctuates his book with updates of some of his columns, including correspondence and other fallout that highlight debate over his conclusions. In one column, for example, he advises a company’s computer technician not to report the child pornography he found on the president’s computer. Cohen then defiantly reproduces the letters of remonstration he received from the offices of the Manhattan District Attorney and U.S. Attorney General. In another column, Cohen allows the producer of a play to alter its words to make it suitable for her small town audience. He then reprints an angry letter from a playwright: “How is it ethical to encourage people to alter and/or deface artists’ work BECAUSE IT’S NOT IMPORTANT TO YOU?” There were several more rounds to the exchange. Neither party changed his mind.
These are more than simple mistakes or differences in judgment. They demonstrate a fundamental gap in Cohen’s ethical reasoning. Please make no mistake: Randy Cohen’s ethical decisions are rarely objectionable. His problem is that while he has an excellent moral compass, he lacks a map. In the introduction to his book, Cohen describes his approach…
Read the rest here: link.