A student asked Randy Cohen at a Calhoun College Master’s Tea yesterday if Cohen had “a moral obligation to be ethical.”
“Oh no,” responded Cohen, who writes a weekly column called “The Ethicist” in The New York Times Magazine, “I don’t make any claims to be more virtuous than anyone else.”
But virtuous or not, Cohen offers weekly doses of ethical advice in a 600-word column that usually responds to two letters from his readership per week. In it, he addresses ethical issues in a wide range of areas including family, school and the workplace.
The master’s living room was packed with people, from Judith Danovitch GRD ’06, whose academic interests lie in “what makes someone a moral authority,” to Rivky Honig ’03, who said she simply enjoys Cohen’s column.
Cohen said his column differs from “Dear Abby” in that it details the ethical reasoning behind his recommendations rather than merely prescribing a course of action.
He said his advice is not grounded in a formal background in ethics. In fact, Cohen attended numerous colleges for short periods of time, and majored in music composition.
“I made a complete hash out of my undergraduate education,” he said.
When The New York Times Magazine called him about a job opening for a columnist, Cohen said, he “thought they were discussing a column called the Anesthetist.”
He attributed landing the job to the educational background of the other applicants.
“Academics can’t write,” he said. “Apparently the Times decided to go with form over content; God bless them.”
Still, Cohen said his attitude toward professional ethicists is one of “pathetic gratitude,” adding that he finds that philosophers help “redefine” his thinking.
In fact, he is currently dating a philosopher, and he said typical dates often begin with the words “you’ve completely misapplied Kant again.”
Cohen said readers of the Times Magazine have varied feelings about his lack of formal training in ethics. He receives two kinds of letters about his background, he said: “How did you get this job?” and “who do you think you are?”
Matt Bloom ’05, however, said after the tea that he had no qualms about Cohen’s qualifications.
“I think it’s refreshing to learn that all of this building of credentials that Yalies take part in is irrelevant when compared with personal charm,” Bloom said.
“Personal charm” has often figured into Cohen’s professional life. After working as journalist in many venues involving humor, Cohen wrote for “Late Night with David Letterman” for seven years. Working for Letterman, Cohen said, was “like stumbling into the dream job.” He said the job also made him a more succinct and funnier writer.
While Cohen is not supposed to address politics in his columns, he said he often finds it impossible not to. He said the distinction between ethics and politics is often artificial since ethical behavior often requires collective action.
When prompted, Cohen was not hesitant to assert his own political beliefs.
“I believe that the views and policies [promoted by] this administration would be hard to sustain for a moral person,” he said.
He even attributed what he sees as today’s prevalent academic cheating to “too many years of Republican administration,” in which “ruthless self interest is promoted as virtuous.”
Cohen said he did not come to the tea to offer something. While he joked that “free tea, cookies, selling books and relentless self-promotion” were powerful incentives, he said he was also as curious about Yalies as they were about him.
“I was interested to see what bright people thought,” he said.