By Tess Koman
On Monday, Oct. 3, former New York Times writer Randy Cohen spoke at Memorial Chapel. For twelve years, Cohen was the columnist behind “The Ethicist,” a column in which Cohen would determine the ethically-sound decision in what could be considered a morally challenging situation.
In addition to his career at the Times, Cohen served as a writer on the Late Show with David Letterman, during which he won three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing.
When asked about his undergraduate degree in music, Cohen explained that “this isn’t just vocational training, although that does serve a purpose. You’re here to get educated, in the full sense of the word.”
Cohen did not believe he would ever get the job as The Ethicist when he applied for it, and does not have any formal background in philosophy or ethics.
He received intense feedback as soon as he started writing. The column was often criticized because of his personal stance on ethics; Cohen believes that people are not inherently good or bad, but that it is the situations people are placed in that determines how they will react to a situation.
He also believes that “ethics are only involved when the situation pertains to other people. There is no such thing as an obligation to yourself—that goes beyond the realm of ethics.”
“Of course it was hard!” Cohen remarked when asked about the difficulty of answering and dealing with other people’s moral dilemmas. “If the answer was obvious to the public, then I didn’t want to read it. It would be boring.”
What fascinated Cohen the most about his position was examining the way people reacted to difficult situations.
“Here’s the thing about moral thinking: you have an immediate visceral response,” he said, likening it to a person’s reaction to a piece of music or art. “But you’re not stuck with it. That’s the great thing.”
That being said, Cohen’s job allowed him to gain insight into the way many people think.
Some comments led Cohen to realize that “people are awful and they’ll do horrible, wicked things… I found that with a lot of the readers they knew exactly what to do in their situations, but they didn’t know why.”
Many were curious as to Cohen’s motives for advising people about ethics.
One student asked, “Are you saying that if everyone follows a certain code of conduct and behaves a certain way, that you would like to eliminate diversity?”
“If by eliminating all sorts of wicked conduct is what you mean by diversity, then yes, I would hope it would make the world less diverse, yes,” he responded. “If I could impose my will, the world would be harsh, but fair and a lot less diverse. That being said, harmony is a dubious value, I think.”
Another platform in which Cohen was allowed to express his opinion was as a writer for the Late Show with David Letterman. He looks back on this position very fondly and recalled, “It was like your dream come true. I felt like a rookie at the Superbowl who scores a touchdown. And on top of that, you come to work everyday and it’s televised. What more could you ask for?”