March 14, 2005

Noted Columnist Discusses Ethics

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When society gets right down to it, ethical issues are everywhere — from Benjamin Franklin’s decision to forego a patent on his stove to New York City’s law mandating dog-owners to clean up after their pets.

Randy Cohen, four-time Emmy Award winner and syndicated columnist for the New York Times Magazine, discussed these and other examples of ethics at work in his talk, “Everyday Ethics,” last Friday evening as part of the annual Cornell Commitment Convocation.

“I’m just an accidental ethicist,” Cohen told the Cornell and Ithaca audience occupying most of Kennedy Auditorium. “I have no ethics credentials of any kind.”

A music major who wrote for popular television shows like Late Night with David Letterman and Rosie O’Donnell, Cohen now runs a weekly column on ethics in the New York Times Magazine.

“Ethics ought not to be reserved for specialists,” Cohen said, because it encompasses a “series of questions every ordinary citizen had to address.” He speculated that perhaps his editors picked him out of the mass of writers — many holding stronger qualifications in ethics — because he was a good example of ordinary.

Cohen, the keynote speaker for the convocation, combined keen insight and witty humor to probe ethics questions that surface in day to day life. Throughout his address, he urged audience members to see moral principles in a societal rather than individual light.

“The usual approach is to focus on the individual …” Cohen said. “This seems really goofy.”

“We don’t do this in any other field,” he said, pointing out that biologists do not study just one baboon to understand the behavior of the whole species.

“It seems to me more and more you have to look at ethics ecologically,” said Cohen, because there are conditions in which people tend to act well and conditions in which people tend to act badly.

As an example, Cohen pointed to the minefield of dog waste in New York City before the city passed a law for owners to clean up after their dogs.

Now, as the dog law celebrates its 25th anniversary, “nearly everybody, nearly all the time, picks up after their dog,” he said.

According to him, the battle for taxis in the city also became an orderly process after someone painted a yellow line down the sidewalk and wrote two words, “cab line.”

“By changing the physical conditions, [they] changed the way people behaved,” he said.

More serious ethical issues are the influence of precinct environments on new police officers and the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which undergraduates playing the role of guards forced other students acting as prisoners to perform humiliating and degrading actions.

Quoting the experiment’s principal researcher, Cohen said the disturbing results did not come from placing bad apples in a good barrel but rather from placing good apples in a bad barrel.

In light of this and other similar incidents, Cohen stressed the “importance of outside oversight.”

“Yes, you have to hold people accountable for their actions,” he said. “But you can’t stop there.”

Cohen placed the burden of responsibility on everyone, not just on individuals who commit moral transgressions.

“We don’t just live in our community, we create them. If we believe ethics will only flourish in a just society, it becomes our moral obligation to build that society,” he said.

For Cohen, the distinction between ethics and politics is artificial because ethics centers around civic obligations.

The only way for people to fulfill their own moral goals is to engage in group activity, Cohen said, adding that ethics is not just what people do in a moment of crisis but what they do when they go home.

Citizens can give money to the homeless, but it is more important that they go home and write letters to the mayor about the situation or take group action to alleviate the problems of the homeless, he said.

In the last segment of his address, Cohen presented three formal systems of ethics and the relative merits and drawbacks of following these systems.

A person adhering to a system of transparency acts as if the entire community can see what he or she is doing.

This system, proposed by Jefferson, is “one that would eliminate many kinds of bad behavior and almost all showers,” Cohen said. Privacy is not symptomatic of wrongdoing, he explained. He continued that moreover, openness is not sufficient for ethical behavior, because under this system slavery would be acceptable.

The categorical imperative, which philosopher Immanuel Kant put forth, asks a person what would happen if everyone in the world were to do what the did.

The strength of the system, Cohen said, is that “it keeps us from special pleading — just one box of pens, one Xerox machine.”

On the other hand, “it forbids actions that are perfectly benign,” he said. He argued that if everyone always paid bills on time, Visa would go broke and people would live in a world without credit cards.

Formal religion is another ethical system with millions of followers.

However, many people fall into one of two traps: they are either ferociously absolute or selective about which reference they use to defend their actions.

Cohen called these systems “tools not rules.”

“All three approaches are incredibly useful, but they have limitations,” he said.

In his time as columnist, Cohen noticed that his readers’ questions fall into one of two categories: “do you tell” and “cheap rationalization.” “Why do people rationalize what they know to be dreadful behavior?” he asked the audience.

He recounted a story of young Benjamin Franklin, who took a long boat trip and soon exhausted his food supply. The vegetarian Franklin, however, saw many of his friends eating codfish taken from the waters.

“Franklin’s a vegetarian, and he’s a really hungry vegetarian,” Cohen observed. In the end Franklin realized that the codfish had smaller fish inside, and he concluded that there was no reason he should be any more moral than a cod.

“Be not too hasty to trust and admire teachers of morality,” Cohen told the audience after delivering his lecture on moral principles. “They discourse like angels but they live like men.”

Many audience members appreciated Cohen’s fresh approach to ethics.

Kristine DeLuca-Beach, director of the Cornell Commitment, said, “What really struck me is that [Cohen] really challenged us to not think of ethics in terms of individual principles but how our interactions with our communities is really the paramount arbiter of proper behavior.” Sunn Chon ’07 said, “It’s intriguing that his focus was not on the individual. He focused on the whole structure … He stuck to one point and carried that through.”

The Cornell Commitment Convocation was sponsored by three University recognition programs: The Cornell Tradition, Cornell Presidential Research Scholars and Meinig Family Cornell National Scholars (MFCNS). The speaker selection process for the convocation is a lengthy one, said Nathaniel Guest ’98, director of the Cornell Tradition.

Guest, who has been involved with every convocation, said the speaker should be “edifying and entertaining.” The selection team is wary of bringing in a guest who will simply “preach to the choir,” he said.

Chris Dieck ’06, a member of the MFCNS executive council who took part in the speaker selection process, said he and others decided Cohen “was going to bring a good mix of humor and ethics in a perspective that students could understand.”

“A lot of what we do is volunteering,” Dieck said. “What [Cohen] spoke about today shows how it takes a community to make thoughtful decisions.”

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Senior Writer