One-Step Ethics

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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.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

21 comments

  1. Ironically, most of followed Halacha today follows Cohen’s example and not Levin’s.

  2. You quote R. Sacks as writing that “a secular society inevitably falls into immorality”. Whilst this is a pretty broad claim, and obviously depends on how you define ‘morality’, I am sceptical of its truth in any event. There are several very secular northern European countries; I’m not sure they are noticeably less moral (i.e. by secular standards – otherwise the claim is circular) than elsewhere. If anything, in many respects (murder and crime rates etc.), the reverse may be the case. Not that this proves anything either.

  3. ” There are several very secular northern European countries; ”

    How long have they been around?

  4. I found your critique a bit confusing. On the one hand you seem to be saying that if he had been a principled and thoroughgoing Kantian or Utilitarian from start to finish that would have been fine. Then you seem to say per Sacks that you need religiously based morality?

    Frankly I think that neither approach works (particularly when the latter approach equates Halakhic jurisprudence with moral reasoning). Many in the field of ethics have been arguing (and I think our religious tradition would very much agree) that practical morality is not merely the application of rules, but the cultivation of an individual’s ability to apprehend the moral features of a situation and respond appropriately – and to modify responses given new considerations.

    There isn’t anything particularly suspicious about Cohen’s description of a process by which moral intuitions are tried, tested, and refined based on experience, the application of competing principles, and perhaps most importantly dialogue with others.

    Given more space and the proclivity to appear more “principled” I’m sure Cohen could have begun every analysis by first laying out various principles derived from systems of moral reasoning and those that emerge from common sense morality and then applying them, and he could have come to the same conclusions. But he explicitly refuses to play that kind of game, and I think his willingness to be clear about his non-method ought to be commended.

    That said, I never particularly liked The Ethicist column, though it was not the kind of reasoning that Cohen used that usually bothered me; rather, it was his lack of sensitivity to some of the finer moral considerations at play.

  5. Was there ever a representation that The Ethicist was a professional endeavor or was it more akin to an advice and etiquette column? One would expect that a practicing Rabbi, on the other hand, would engage in such issues as a professional endeavor.

  6. What was R. Levine’s conclusion about wages?

  7. IH-Perhaps, Randy Cohen was focusing primarily on advice and etiquette, but from the title of his column,and the tenor of the same, that he equated what he perceived as advice and etiquette as ethical in nature.

  8. I remember one mussar shmuze given in the main YU beis medrash by R’ Willig ~10 years ago, when he quoted a column of “The Ethicist” and proceeded to rip it to shreds.

  9. My main problem with The Ethicist and the reason I never read it is because the author has no credentiasls — zero!

    Is he a professor of ethics? Is he channeling Aristotelian ethics? Kantian ethics? Confucian ethics? Not a word is said about any of this. He basically “shoots from the hip,” as it were.

    I find it stagerring that the NYTimes publishes a column by someone who has no more claim to be an ethicist than me.

  10. this article is linked on realclearreligion.

  11. I used to read Cohen’s column, and as far as I could tell Cohen’s ethics were entirely devoted to conforming to the talking points of liberal American academics. I stopped reading it because I finally got tired of the gratuitous, over the top bashing of anyone identified as religious (either Jew or Christian). I won’t list examples, it would be too unpleasant. But in answer to Baruch, it appears that being reflexively anti-religious is all the qualification one needs to write for the NYT.

  12. Like Ross Douthat?

  13. IH-Aside from their positive views on religion, Ross Douhat and David Brooks are for many people the only reasons why the NYT op ed page is worth reading. Like it or not, for many of us who don’t view the NYT as Toras Emes, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, Paul Klugman and Bill Keller suffer from an inability to write in comprehensible English and a use of rhetoric that refuses to consider the merits of an opposing perspective.

  14. MiMedinat HaYam

    baruch — professor of ethics? are you kidding? jim mcgreevy was hired by kean university as a professor of ethics after he was ?forced? to resign.

  15. MiMedinat HaYam,

    I’m not saying I like professors of ethics. But at least they have qualifications. They’ve actually studied ethics and the major ethical systems and writers.

    What qualifications does the NYTimes Ethicist have? If he has any, we are not told about them.

  16. MiMedinat HaYam

    mcreevey never studied ethics or ethical systems. do hospital ethics panels study it? not. its a political appointment. ditto legal ethics panels, etc. (i mean poltics in the profession, not public political background / responsibility.)

    rhetorical — why should nyt be any different?

  17. I haven’t read R. Levine’s book so I can’t comment on how he discusses ethics. But many of the halachic discussions of ethics that I have read end up as legal discussions — the gemarah says this, this rishon says that and this acharon says that — with no mention of fair, just, honesty, sensitivity; no probing of the underlying statements for the ethical and moral values they are based on. Maps are good in this area, but blindly following them often gives the questioner or reader no sense that ethical values rather than legal analysis lies at the heart of the decision.

  18. Good article. I remember seeing one of Randy Cohen’s columns in which a woman wrote to ask if she could/should stop doing business with an Orthodox Jew because he wouldn’t shake his hand. If I remember correctly, Cohen said yes, that would be a reasonable thing to do to someone with such an obvious bias/disrespect toward woman. Of course, not shaking women’s hands has nothing to do with anti-woman values and rather is a rationally defensible “fence” around the prohibition of adultery (much like the laws of yichud). Not sure if Cohen ever recanted on that one.

  19. Y: Cohen included that in his book with a long postscript about the letters he received and the OU delegation with whom he met. He did not recant but at least spoke nicely about the OU delegation and its erudite rabbi (R. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb).

  20. Thanks, Gil.

    Yoav: Good question. I think R’ Gil is ultimately right about secular ethics, but the difficulty is trying to show that he is right in practice. It would be nice to do this in a very systematic and evidence-based way. Even the Lubavitcher Rebbe endorsed using social science to support the benefits of a halachic lifestyle.

    The government and population of Scandinavian countries are highly secular (despite, or rather probably because of, the existence of an official state church), but they are not that different from several other Western European countries with low levels of traditional religious belief and involvement. A few things indicate possibly lower levels of morality: a high rate of single-parent families (indicating that men are not sticking around to take care of their children, harming both the mother and children), rising anti-semitism which is inadequately addressed by the government (particularly in Scandinavia), and near-official government support for terrorist groups such as Hamas (again, especially in Scandinavia).

    Single motherhood is even higher in the US, but this has less to do with secularism than with poverty and lower-class subcultures of dead-beat dads. Americans tend to have strong religious beliefs but ignore religious teachings about pre-marital sex (not surprising since the totality of popular culture turns these teachings upside down.)

    Societies around the world have a lot to learn from Judaism’s detailed restrictions on sexuality (tzniut, yichud, guarding one’s eyes, prohibition of seeing even one’s spouse’s unclothed body, etc.) — they have the potential to make life (especially but not limited to one’s teenage years) a lot more pleasant and predictable and less traumatizing all around, compared to modern American culture.

  21. I haven’t read the book or columns referenced by this article, so my comment only relates to the argument raised in the article.

    The thrust of the article appears to me to be that despite Man’s – represented by Randy Cohen – best efforts, without a Torah to guide him, Man’s ethical stances will, at times, be flawed.

    However, doesn’t the halacha of “dina d’malchusa dina” indicate that such admittedly flawed ethical systems are good enough in most cases?

    Yes, I am equating legal and ethical systems and I realize that it’s an imperfect analogy.

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