To do good or not, that is the question

Five-time Emmy winner and columnist Randy Cohen discusses ethics in today's society at Hendricks Chapel.

Randy Cohen writes “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times Magazine, but said he is not an expert in ethics and sometimes wonders how he got his job.

But after writing the weekly column for 11 years, he must be doing something right.  

“I was not hired to personify virtue, but rather to analyze it,” Cohen told a Hendricks Chapel audience Tuesday night as part of the University Lectures series.

Photo: Allie Hootnick
Randy Cohen, author of "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine, spoke at Hendricks Chapel Tuesday night.

Cohen, who won five Emmy Awards while writing for Late Night with David Letterman, TV Nation and The Rosie O’Donnell Show, explained ethics is separated into two concepts: the right thing to do and having people act on doing the right thing.

For the most part, Cohen said, people can agree on what is the right thing to do, but getting people to follow and pursue the right thing is the problem.

“If we want to change people’s behavior, the best way to do it, is to address ourselves to the question of community rather than character,” he said.

Cohen used the Enron scandal as a prime example of ethics. Cohen said the executives at Enron are not bad people with questionable character. The environment of Enron, one that condones corrupt behavior, caused the executives to act with unethical intentions. Cohen said ethics is not an extension of a person’s character because a person's character does not really change to a large extent.

“If we want to change people’s behavior, and that’s the whole point of ethics, it is important we recognize there are conditions in which people tend to act really well and when people act very, very poorly,” he said. “Outside oversight transforms the way we act.”

Economics and public policy senior Melanie Zilora attended a dinner with Cohen, who also wrote for The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic and Young Love Comics, before his Hendricks Chapel talk.

“He actually said at the dinner that he wishes his column were called ‘Dear Randy,” Zilora said. “He says he’s not here to preach but he’s here to help inform people who have questions but from the perspective of a common person." 

Following his speech, Cohen answered questions from members of the audience concerning ethics, and many students asked Cohen what his views were on ethical situations.  Some students challenged his ethical theory about the outside character being the main influence for unethical behavior. 

“I was very amused by people asking him ethical and philosophical questions because he doesn’t report to be an ethicist,” Zilora said.  

Cohen acknowledged that the perception he is an ethicist has influenced him personally.

“Doing this kind of work, its made me enormously self-conscious about the way in which my own conduct has fallen short.”

My two cents, for what it's worth...

Good article! I heard he was lecturing at SU but I didn't know when. Too bad I missed it!

It's important to always try to do the right thing. After all, if you don't, who will? If you see someone dumping bio-hazardous waste in the environment, you are obligated to alarm the proper authorities. If that's not possible, or the authorities don't take action, take things into your own hands if you feel it is safe to do so.

A good rule is to be vigilant, and be prepared for anything in any given environment. Use your own discretion, pass good judgments, take everything in moderation.

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