Books: The Good, The Bad, & The Difference

I’ve just about had it with advice columns. Especially those sex columns that now appear in every newspaper, weekly, and quilting magazine in America. All they do (it seems) is answer the same question month after month after month, namely “Is it okay to cheat on my partner under the following circumstances?” And the columnists usually say no, and sometimes say yes, but inevitably respond in terms of consequences: your husband will leave you, you life will improve, etc. They rarely talk about the more fundamental question of whether such action is ethical in the first place.

Randy Cohen, on the other hand, tackles nothing but these puzzlers in his column The Ethicist. Not only does he dispense advice a bit more practical than “don’t sleep around,” he also tackles just about any dilemma that could cause a person distress, and does so with aplomb and humor.

I have been an avid reader of The Ethicist ever since I came across it in The New York Times Magazine about a year ago. So when I saw that Cohen had released The Good, The Bad, And The Difference — a compendium of his writings for The Ethicist — I snapped it up as quickly as I could. And I found it to be an enjoyable read, despite the fact that, Ethicist addict that I am, I had read most of it before.

I say “enjoyable read” rather than “enlightening read,” because most the time Cohen only tells you what you already know, although you often don’t realize (or want to admit) this fact. Indeed, Cohen is an expert at discussing everyday ethics in a manner which feels comfortable; it’s not as if he is some omniscient being handing down moral edicts but that he’s only pointing out the ethical nuances that you already sensed but couldn’t quite articulate. In this way he is unlike, say, a manners columnist, who looks each question up in Ye Big Book Of Correct Behavior and announces which fork to use for the salad. Cohen freely acknowledges that there is no guidebook when it comes to these matters, and that he’s just a guy whose gotten good and mulling over and writing about these commonplace conundrums.

This accessibility is not by accident. Cohen does not have a degree in philosophy or, you know, ethicsology or whatever. He was, in point of fact, a writer for Late Night With David Letterman prior to becoming a columnist. The New Yorks Times Magazine hired him for the job not despite his credentials, but because of them: because he was a guy who could (and would) think about ethical qualms in the same way you and I do. His dual roles as “Ethicist” and “Everyday Joe” make him a figure you can immediately relate to.

Furthermore, Cohen clearly thinks these questions all the way through, instead of just offering the pat answers. Take this question, found in the chapter Civic Life

My neighbor, a 20-something and quite good looking, never draws his blinds. The view from my apartment is extraordinary. Every night at 8:15 he returns from jogging to shower and prepare for bed, which I enjoy watching. What should I do?

Of course the obvious (unthinking) answer is “Never look,” and that’s certainly the one that most columnists would provide. But Cohen takes a different stance.
If the dreamboat across the way forgot one night to draw his blinds, you should respect his privacy: it would not be right to exploit a moment’s carelessness. However, if he leaves them open every night in a big city where he obviously has neighbors, you can assume he knows what he’s doing … So enjoy! It would be almost insulting to avert your glance.

It’s this “going beyond the easy answer” that sets this advice book apart from the countless others on the market.

Of course, I don’t always agree with his answers. Cohen, recognizing that reasonable people can disagree on some of the thornier issues, provides space in his book for rebuttal and “Guest Ethicists” to weigh in. All this makes The Good, The Bad, & The Difference vastly more interesting than a dry compendium of dos and don’ts, and makes for one of the more entertaining books I’ve read all year.

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5 comments.

  1. You might actually enjoy Miss Manners; her tone may be high but she’s very witty and charming as well…

  2. For the record, I have a crush on Miss Manners and enjoy her books quite a bit.

  3. Look, is it my fault that JC Penney has backordered my blinds?

  4. Actually, I am both your neighbor and JCPenney sales girl, and your blinds aren’t on backorder.

  5. Ooooh. I hate that column with a passion. Whenever anyone asks a question and there is a rule involved his answer always seems to be: Follow the Rule. Steve Martin did a very funny parody of it in the New Yorker sometime…I don’t remember when.