Somewhere in the thick of “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything,” a collection of letters and responses from longtime New York Times ethics columnist Randy Cohen, I shook my head. People really are awful.
Some of the letters to Cohen involve blatant racism. Many are about contempt for neighbors and children. During his dozen years as the voice of reason at the Times magazine, Cohen dealt with issues that would make nicer readers wince.
But that’s part of the beauty of “Be Good,” which combines Cohen’s greatest hits with behind-the-scenes analysis. These letter writers are, in fact, essentially decent people. After all, they were concerned enough to write to Cohen in the first place. Clearly, they’re interested in doing the right thing.
Cohen suggests at the start of his collection, which is organized by category (animals, money, sports, arts, etc.), that these questions make a good game, that maybe you should sit around with friends and co-workers and come up with your own solutions before reading his. It’s a great idea. Some issues will make your group squirm, like the one from the anesthesiologist from Houston who wrote about a racist patient who asked for a white doctor. Should the request have been honored? (Duh, no.) But is requesting a doctor of a specific gender any more acceptable? If that doctor isn’t a gynecologist?
BE GOOD:How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything
Other questions will take you back to more troubling times. After the Sept. 11 attacks, a Brooklyn reader who feared an anthrax attack admitted to hoarding the antibiotic Cipro. Cohen put it all in perspective and allowed himself a joke or two. “Maybe a better approach is for you to become a member of Congress: You will apparently receive swift preferential treatment, obviating any need to hoard medicine. Few people in authority ever regard themselves as non-essential, particularly when it comes to the distribution of medicine or parking permits.”
Cohen is at his best in “Be Good” during his long prefaces to each category. He writes page after engaging page about his days writing for David Letterman, the epidemic of technology, and how Miley Cyrus changed the debate about the ethics of ticket scalping.
Commendably, Cohen chose some letters that show him in a less flattering light. After telling a letter writer that it’s OK to make changes to a play, even though the playwright has called for no cuts or “improvements,” Cohen winds up having an emotional back and forth with Pulitzer-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley that, quite frankly, makes Cohen appear, at least in this instance, initially glib and undeniably less than thoughtful. It’s part of what makes “Be Good” so wonderfully revealing — Cohen admits it when he’s wrong.
I’d read Cohen in one-column drips in the Times, but there’s something about reading dozens of letters in a few sittings that reminds why he did the job for so long. The Times still runs ethics columns in its magazine, and occasionally they’re quite entertaining, but Cohen had a special brand of empathy. It’s no surprise that Cohen spends part of his book talking about the great Eppie Lederer, also known as Ann Landers. Cohen says, “Now and then, an exasperated reader denounced the Ethicist as nothing more than Ann Landers — a fancy-pants Ann Landers, a pretentious Ann Landers. Just Ann Landers.”
Cohen adds: “I wish.”
Cohen says, of his advice columnist hero, that “historians of the future will read her columns not as advice but as anthropology.” One can say the same of this collection from Cohen, who takes us through an era of strange technology, human rights, war, and capitalism.
“Be Good” is something for a time capsule.
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