Friday, February 25, 2011

The NY Fishwrap's Ethicist Is Hoist By His Own Petard?

A public scold often lacks honor in his own land. Randy Cohen was unceremoniously (and unethically?) sacked by the powers that be at the NY Fishwrap. What is the ethical response to a firing? Ethicist Cohen has taken his act to NPR — “A Question of Ethics." Some of those who have been sacked turn to blogging. If this is a (fair & balanced) sapper's petard, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap Magazine]
By Randy Cohen

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I loved this job, especially the interaction with the readers. I admired the moral seriousness of their questions and the astuteness of their criticism — often fierce, occasionally discourteous, never sufficiently threatening to report to the police. But close. And that’s fine. Ethics is a subject about which honorable people may differ. I was less sanguine about readers who disparaged not my argument but my character or my shoes or my nose, attacks that generally concluded, “You should be ashamed.” I blame the anonymity of e-mail. And underprescribed medication.

From time to time, readers persuaded me that I was — what’s that ugly word? — wrong. Then I would revisit a column and recant my folly. I first did so when readers powerfully asserted that yes, you could honorably take your own food to the movies, despite a theater’s prohibition. Another mea culpa ran close to Yom Kippur, Judaism’s day of atonement, leading some readers to infer that I was fulfilling a religious obligation. Not so. Sheer coincidence. I’ve taken a resolutely secular approach to ethics in the column and in my life.

Neither on nor off duty did I seek moral guidance from a spiritual leader of any faith. I did consult members of the clergy for their technical expertise when a question impinged on religious doctrine. For instance, must you warn an observant Jewish in-law that, contrary to what he supposes, the soup he’s about to eat is not kosher? I am grateful for their erudition and generosity and that of others who advised me — nurses and doctors, lawyers and librarians, scholars in dozens of disciplines and the odd interior decorator, whose profession is indeed governed by a formal code of conduct. Apparently it is possible to do wicked things with fabric swatches­. We should not.

At first I was disconcerted to be asked about religious law or medical ethics, being trained in neither. But I came to see that what readers often sought was not a ruling on what to do — they seemed to know — but an argument for why to do it. They sensed that they shouldn’t shoot the dog — but it is a horrible dog: it barks incessantly; it befouls the couch. My task was to provide a reasoned case for treating it with kindness. We should.

I received many questions about animals and even more duty-to-report questions: must you blow the whistle on a friend’s adulterous spouse, a tax-dodging repairman, an undocumented employee? The column did not focus on lofty public policy but everyday ethics: may you move to high-priced unoccupied seats at a ball game? May you pocket lots of motel soap and donate it to the homeless? Modest problems, perhaps, but when dissected they revealed much about power, money, race, class, gender, the mutual obligations and unspoken assumptions that connect us — the very things that public policy so often must deal with.

These 12 years brought no radical shift in the sort of queries I received, unsurprisingly; real social change and its attendant moral uncertainty occur slowly. There have been sudden flurries of questions responding to newsworthy events. Immediately after 9/11, many people sent disheartening variations on a query that began, “My neighbor might be Pakistani...,” and ended, “Should I call the FBI?” Happily, such paranoia (with its maladroit crime-fighting tips) was ephemeral, in the column if not entirely in the larger world.

A more gradual and persistent change has been the emergence of queries sparked by the Internet. Some involved intellectual property: illegal music downloads, students’ failure to cite online sources. Others concerned evolving ideas of privacy, derived from experiences with Facebook and Google.

I say with some shame, there has been no such gradual change in my own behavior. Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.

What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing. I presume it qualifies me for some sort of workers’ comp. This was a particular hazard of my job, but it is also something every adult endures — every self-aware adult — as was noted by my great hero, Samuel Johnson, the person I most quoted in the column: “He that in the latter part of his life too strictly inquires what he has done, can very seldom receive from his own heart such an account as will give him satisfaction.” To grow old is to grow remorseful, both on and off duty.

I am sorry to leave The Ethicist but eager to work on “A Question of Ethics,” a program in development for public radio. If you’d like to find out about my next endeavors, please “like” me on Facebook. That sounds so desperately Sally Field, and I don’t mean it that way. Or do I? Ω

[Randy Cohen is an Emmy Award-winning writer and humorist known since 1999 as the author of "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. Cohen graduated from the University at Albany-SUNY with a Bachelor of Arts in music. Cohen was a writer on "Late Night with David Letterman" for 7 years, beginning in 1984. In a surprise move, the NY Fishwrap ended Cohn's stint as "The Ethicist," making his final column Sunday, February 27, 2011. The column remains, in a new voice.]

Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company

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