For the past twelve years Randy Cohen has written a column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine called The Ethicist.
Last Sunday he wrote his 614th piece to say Goodbye. I was sorry to read that he will no longer be responding to the moral dilemmas presented to him by folks from all walks of life. It was a one-page piece, usually there were two situations presented. He offered serious, thoughtful responses, with alight touch. He had a well-balanced sense of humor.
He wrote, “I came to see that what readers often sought was not a ruling on what to do – they seemed to know – but an argument for why to do it.” He said that his approach to the column and in his personal life was ‘resolutely secular,’ not religious. I found it secular humanistic, which gives it a religious flavor, at least in the generic sense of what religion really is.
His column had a down-to-earth touch with questions like, “May you move to high-priced unoccupied seats at a ball game; must you warn an observant Jewish in-law that, contrary to what he supposes, the soup heʼs about to eat is not kosher? May you pocket lots of motel soap and donate it to the homeless?”
“Modest problems, perhaps, but when dissected they revealed much about power, money, race, class,gender, the mutual obligations and unspoken assumptions that connect us.”
He says, “I wasnʼt hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging.” He adds, “What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short.” See what I mean about bridging the gap between a religious confession and a simple, matter-of-fact secular comment?
The column itself, aside from what he might say, offered a reminder that we make decisions every day and whether we’re conscious of it or not we are guided in the decision-making process by an underlying sense of morality, which is at once highly personal and at the same time part of a larger social structure.
I hope the Times will keep the column, but after twelve years it wasn’t simply another column but it was uniquely him. Sure, someone else can do it – and I hope they will – but I’ll miss his special touch – his private brand of humor and willingness to be vulnerable.
I was glad to learn that he’s working on a new program for public radio, “A Question of Ethics.” We’ll be hearing, rather than reading him. For me his departure will leave an empty space in my Sunday Times magazine.
Now I invite you to turn this page over and read a couple of old, familiar poems that contain little hints about our ethical lives, about the decision-making process and what’s behind those little, day-to-day decisions – the expressed or implied promises we’ve made and are determined to keep, as best we can.