The Beatrice Interview

Randy Cohen

"[Michael Kinsley's] piece in the book is really wonderful, even though it's completely wrong."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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Like many people, one of my favorite parts of reading the Sunday New York Times is the magazine section, especially Randy Cohen's "The Ethicist" column, wherein Cohen, a former writer for Late Night With David Letterman (who came up with the Monkeycam and the dubbed episode, among other innovations), dishes out advice on how to apply ethics to (mostly) ordinary (and always plausible) situations. But, as I quickly discover when we meet for coffee at an Upper West Side Starbucks to discuss The Good, the Bad, and the Difference, a collection of his columns, Cohen doesn't let the power of what we laughingly refer to as "a big ol' national forum" go to his head. "Having the column has certainly not made me a better person in any way," he suggests, "but the situation has made me more self-conscious, which is horrible, because now I'm ashamed of myself much more often. Thinking about these issues reminds me of all the ways I've fallen short, and that's no fun. I don't where they got the idea that self-knowledge leads to happiness; that's not my experience at all." Like any good comedy writer, he can deliver lines like this with barely any trace of a smile, and he catches me off guard a few points early in the interview, wondering where the straight answer ends and the joke begins.

RH: How did you make the transition from television writer to newspaper columnist?

RC: I had done print work for quite a long time before I wrote for TV, actually. I wrote for magazines and newspapers for about ten years, almost entirely humor pieces, before I stumbled into the Letterman show. When I left the show after seven years, I did some other television work, but I immediately went back to print and new media. In fact, just before I got the column, I was writing four days a week for Slate.

RH: And the Times courted you because...?

RC: (interrupts) Oh, that's much too grand a word, unless one phone call counts as courting. The editors at the Times had redesigned the front of the magazine, and they had several new ideas for features, of which "The Ethicist" was one. They asked several people to audition for it, which meant that we were each given the same three questions to respond to. They were very discreet about it, and never told me who the other people they approached were--to their credit, because they didn't want to embarrass or intimidate any of us. But I got the impression that at least some of the others were academics, people who had actually studied ethics and philosophy. I had a one in five shot at getting the column, and I thought of it as a lark. I liked the problem-solving aspect of it, and the questions were quite ingenious. How they made the final selection, I have no idea. You'd have to ask them. I assume it's a clerical error and that, being the Times, they don't want to admit it.

RH: What's the most popular type of question you get from readers?

RC: "Do you tell?", in all its variations. Do you tell when a coworker is stealing office supplies, when a neighbor is cheating on his taxes, when your best friend's spouse is cheating on him or her? It seems sometimes like more people are aware of other people's wickedness than are committing wicked deeds themselves. It's like Americans have grown too lazy to go out and commit unethical acts ourselves; we just sit back and watch other people. (smiles)

RH: Is there any question you're sick of by now?

RC: No. Up until recently, I was able to answer all the mail. So I'm able to see how the questions fall into certain categories, but it's the details that are really interesting, and they're what keeps the job exciting, and frustrating, too, because I have to condense each letter to fit them into the column... Sometimes it gets a little Nathaniel West- y, a little Miss Lonelyhearts, grotesque and terrifying and filled with genuine human suffering. That makes me sad, because there's very little you can do in those circumstances.

People tend to send in questions based on the model of the column, and from the beginning, the editors saw it as a column about genuine decisions that the questioner is wrestling with at that moment, and the more concrete, the better. It's not questions about what somebody elsein the public sphere is doing, or "What do you think about cloning?" Those are interesting questions, but this column is meant to be as specific as possible.

I suppose I could live if I never saw one question again. It's "I get solicitation letters from charities, and though I don't send donations, I still use the address labels they send me. Is that ethical?" That strikes me as fairly trivial, the sort of thing you could sort out for yourself if you sat down for three seconds and thought about it.

RH: You must have given some advice over the course of the column that rubbed readers the wrong way.

RC: In some ways, that's really fun. Because of the Internet, as soon as the column comes out, I start getting email that tells me just how wrong I got it. And many of those letters are actually very smart and interesting; the best ones have a sort of "we're all in this together" tone, telling me about another aspect to the problem I might not have considered, or a flaw they've perceived in my reasoning. Those letters are wonderful, and almost every week, they'll point out something I hadn't considered about the question.

There's another set of letters that question not my reasoning, but my character. They start out something like, "Dear Sir, I am appalled..." and I think, "No you're not. You may be annoyed, but you're not appalled." People say the most horrible thingss in email, things they would never say to your face in a million years. And I've found that no matter how tough I thought I was, a complete stranger calling me a jerk still hurts my feelings. I'm better about it now, though. And I've noticed that if I write them back something genial, even though my immediate reaction to getting something cruel is to write back something a hundred times crueler, they almost always apologize and backpedal immediately.

It's a lot easier now to predict which questions will generate a lot of mail. If you ever feel you're not getting enough mail, write something about an animal, and even if you think you've written something that seems a very pro-animal position, trust me, it's not pro enough. Unless you are publically embracing that animal and taking a second job to make sure that animal has its own apartment, nicer than yours, you'll find any number of people ready to tell you what a bastard you are.

Or any suggestion of rule-breaking. Americans seem remarkably docile and apparently make no distinction between the moral force of law in a democracy and a rule imposed on us by a mall manager.

RH: It was amazing to me how many people agreed with ballpark owners and theatre owners that it's wrong to change seats once the game has started or to bring your own food to the movies.

RC: I can understand why the owners feel that way. It goes against their economic interests to have people moving around and bringing their own food. They should object. What surprised me is that the patrons object, and grovel before these arbitrary rules they had no say in making. It's true that these are voluntary activities, but when you go to the movies, you didn't really agree to either buy their fifteen-gallon drum of Coke or go thirsty. I'm disappointed that the patrons are as docile as they are.

RH: I was surprised that the "bringing food to the movies" question seemed to generate more argument than your advice to the teenager that it was okay to sneak into a R-rated movie if his parents gave him permission to watch it by himself.

RC: That did get mail, but not nearly as much. The objection many people had to it was that I told him it was alright to lie to the theater manager in order to get into the movie. That's another thing--if you want more mail, suggest that there are situations in which telling a lie is a reasonable way to behave. People think they tell the truth much more often than they do, and we're reluctant to discuss the social utility of lying, sometimes the social necessity, and the moral reasonableness of certain kinds of lies in certain situations.

Not that it isn't disappointing, or that there isn't always a social consequence to lying, but given his situation, I thought that telling a small lie was the best course for him to take, or at least a reasonable course. And people didn't like that at all. But it wasn't about the rule, it was about the lie.

RH: Would you find it equally acceptable for a teen to follow that course of action with regard to an NC-17 movie?

RC: Sure. Questions that concern what's acceptable for a kid have to be settled between the kid and his or her parents. I don't see where the manager of some mall movie theater has any moral standing in the situation. It's interesting, because it's counterintuitive- -you'd think "family values" types would resent the hand of commerce interposing itself between parent and child like that. But they don't, and I got no letters in staunch defense of family rights on that issue. I only get those when the government is involved. When there's a buck to be made, people seem perfectly willing to accept family interference.

RH: It's like the reasoning behind so many people deciding to homeschool their children, because they resent the government's intrusion into the moral instruction of their children.

RC: Well, I take a slightly broader view, in that I see more people homeschooling because they have a reasonable discontent over the quality of the education their children get in the public system, but it's also true that a vast percentage of homeschooling parents are fundamentalist Christians who want to prevent their children from getting a decent education. They're religious crackpots running what in a decent society would be considered a cult, isolating their children from the most basic ideas of modern life, even the most basic understanding of science. It's sad and frightening.

RH: You got a letter a few weeks ago about that sort of situation, where you approved of a woman's desire to tell her niece about evolution at the first opportunity.

RC: I got a ton of mail about that, too--and she was only proposing something very, very modest. Her niece was being raised by fundamentalists who intended to pull the kid out of public school the minute the word 'evolution' was whispered. I don't know how they felt about 'gravity;' I guess they were okay with that. So she was going to send her niece a copy of a PBS special about evolution--hoo boy, there's a radical document for you, right?--and maybe a book. And I got as much negative mail for my advice to her as I have for anything else I've ever written, and about ninety to ninety-five percent of it was from fundamentalists. And they just didn't get why a statement of religious belief isn't scientifically valid, or that all ideas are not equally valid, or even the separation of church and state. I mean, go to it, raise your kid in any goofball religion you want, but we don't do that in the public sphere.

RH: Would you consider there to be a spiritual dimension to your ethics?

RC: None at all. It's a resolutely secular column. Though I would say that, based on the types of questions I get, and the answers I give, readers are using ethics not as a way to work out what they should believe, but to discover what they already believe and understand why it's the proper course of action. I don't think I suggest any new beliefs to people, and our ethical beliefs--mine and the readers--seem to be shaped by three things: the values of the family in which they were raised, the values of the faith in which they were raised, and the values of the time and place in which they happen to live. So even a resolutely secular person like myself is aware of how my values were shaped by being raised in a suburban Reform Jewish home. I see it all the time, and I see my parent's values whenever I sit down to write a column. It's hard to shake that stuff, not that I'm even trying.

RH: Are there any ethicists or philosophers that you felt you had to read once you got the column?

RC: I wasn't nearly as dutiful as I ought to have been, perhaps. I felt that they thought I was equipped to do this job with what I knew, so I could go forward with confidence. Although that didn't stop me from wishing that I had a Ph.D., or even that I had studied philosophy.

I answer a lot of questions that very smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about, and I'd be an idiot not to avail myself of their thoughts. So now, three years into the column, I have a list of smart, generous people willing to talk about these issues with me. If I have a question that touches on medical ethics, for example, I know an ethicist at the AMA who will tell me what their line on the issue is. I don't have to endorse their belief, but it's important that I know what it is. Similarly, with questions that touch upon the law, I have to know what the law would say about an issue, even though what's legal and what's ethical aren't always synonymous.

RH: How did you select the guest ethicists for your book?

RC: I hoped to illustrate that these were questions on which reasonable minds could differ, and that there were many different approaches to these questions, even though all I'm really interested in is what I think, of course. I was eager to have schools of thought that don't show up much in my column represented. So I have a rabbi, because many people draw upon their religious beliefs when formulating ethical responses to situations, and that should be shown. I included Peter Singer, because I felt as though I owed him a debt; his bookPractical Ethics was so useful to me--and because he's the moral father of the animal rights movement, so even though I'm not a proponent of that view, I know he can present a clear, strong argument for it.

Then there were some people...well, I knew from casual conversations with Michael Kinsley that he drives an SUV and will rigorously defend himself for doing so. He's so smart and so interesting, but he's just so wrong on that issue--even though he makes the most articulate possible argument for it. His piece in the book is really wonderful, even though it's completely wrong.

RH: Your anti-SUV stance can't go over well with a certain affluent set of Sunday Times readers.

RC: You'd think so, but I think that a lot of SUV owners drive their vehicles with a sense of wrongdoing, even shame. They'll tell me, "Oh, I have to have one for the safety of my family." Well, I could get a tank and crush every vehicle in my path if I wanted to keep my family safe at their expense. And then there's the "It's not illegal to own an SUV, so screw you" line of reasoning, which is somewhat less impressive.

RH: I don't know if you've seen the appalling anti-drug public service announcements on TV recently, where people say things like, "I supported terrorists." I think we should get a bunch of SUV owners together to say things like, "I support anti-democratic regimes in the Middle East."

RC: That's a good argument, as is the fact that there's a lot of Saudi money that funds terrorism as well. So SUV drivers are supporting terrorism, too, but we don't see those ads.

RH: There was a "Talk of the Town" piece in the New Yorker a couple months back, about how the Red Cross was handing out relief money to well-to-do residents of downtown Manhattan, near Ground Zero...

RC: Wasn't that a great story?

RH: And one of my first reactions was, "What would the Ethicist say?"

RC: Oh, I think we all knew how I'd react to the Red Cross offering $10,000 to somebody whose life was in no way inconvenienced by these tragic events, and the alacrity with which people took the money, and the ingenuity with which they rationalized why they deserved it... That was amazing. What was so terrible about it, besides the self- servedness of the people who took the money, and the utter ineptness of the Red Cross, was... Isn't it a betrayal of all those fourth-graders contributing their lunch money to the relief fund to give the money to some stockbroker in Tribeca whose subway doesn't run quite as often? Like he's taking the subway anyway. So you felt stress--that means you can take lunch money from kids?

I think the really interesting book about the aftermath of 9/11 will be when some smart person writes about where all the money went. Did you know that tens of millions of dollars in government money has been spent presuading companies to stay downtown, companies that had absolutely no intention of leaving? Companies with long-term leases in stable buildings, but you can bet they took the money when it was offered to them.

RH: In the first chapter of the book, you mention that you felt there was a strong ethical component to the humor at the Letterman show.

RC: Yeah, I thought it was a moral enterprise, with a coherent sense of right and wrong, and a clear purpose. It was actually about something, which most television shows weren't. It saw our childhoods as having been bought and sold for profit, and the consequence was that we grew up in a world of witless pop culture crap. The show's task was to offer a critique of that, especially as it manifested itself in crappy television.

Most comedy attacks--the interesting questions are who and why? We were to attack the wicked and powerful, not bully the victims, and we could only attack what was volitional. So you could call somebody a bad actor, but not talk about their bad nose, because things over which you have no control you ought not to be attacked for. And, sure, we fell short from time to time, but everybody does; what's interesting is that he lived in a moral world. On other talk shows, every movie or album the guest has made is great. Dave didn't do that. He didn't lie about reading the book. That was pretty wonderful.

RH: Do you bother staying up to watch late night TV now?

RC: Oh, it's not that it's a bother, I'm just old and asleep by 11:00. We keep agricultural hours in my house, partly because my daughter has to get up early and get ready for school, but also just out of my inclination. If I don't get fourteen to sixteen hours of sleep a night, I'm just useless the next day.

RH: Are there any advice columnists you'd read regularly before starting this?

RC: None I'd read regularly, but one I read occasionally and admire endlessly, which is Dan Savage. He's clearly the king of the form now. He has everything you look for in an advice columnist: he's direct, funny, smart, with a really strong voice. Is there anyone who comes close to him? I don't think so.

RH: So what do you read for fun?

RC: I can tell you what I'm reading now, and what I'm reading next. Right now I'm reading The Way We Live Now, a Trollope novel I'd never read before, and I'm reading it because I saw it on PBS. I have another hundred or so pages of that, and then I have the new Ian MacEwan, and then the new Robert Caro. I think he's just the greatest, and I've been waiting for the new LBJ book for a decade now.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
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