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`The Ethicist' Uncovered
for several publications, including the
New Yorker and the Washington Post,
when he began writing for the New
Former comedy writer dispenses advice on
moral issues to New York Times readers.
York Times Magazine.
In addition to his weekly column,
Cohen can be heard on National
Public Radio's All Things Considered.
Recently, Cohen talked to the Jewish
News about his book, column, experi-
ences in television and answering ques-
tions related to Judaism.
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before your mother!
he idea of giving ethical
advice every week in the
New York Times Magazine
sounded intriguing to
writer Randy Cohen.
Although he'd worked as a standup
comic and written for David
Letterman and Rosie O'Donnell,
Cohen was no philosopher. But, when
the Times asked four or five of its writ-
ers to audition for a new column of
advice on ethical issues, he decided it
was worth a try.
It seems the editors thought so, too.
For more than three years now, Cohen
has been presenting his views to
inquiring readers in the weekly "The
Ethicist" column, earning a reputation
as the aesthete's Ann Landers and
receiving more than his share of appre-
ciative, amused and angry letters to the
The column has been picked up in
syndication (under the title "Everyday
Ethics") in 40 newspapers across the
U.S. and Canada.
In his recent book, The Good The
Bad c The Difference: How to Tell
Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations
(Doubleday; $23.95), Cohen presents
some of his column's "greatest hits,"
along with explanations of how he
came to his decisions, reactions from
readers and contributions from guest
"When I got the job, it was really
scary, but now I feel lucky to think of
these kinds of problems all day long,"
In his book, Cohen highlights such
issues as what to do if you spot a
shoplifter, whether to tell on a philan-
dering spouse, what to do when you
find money that doesn't belong to you,
whether you should bring food into a
movie theater that insists on "No
Outside Food" and w:iether buying a
used German-made car is the same as
buying a new one if you are Jewish and
boycotting German-made products.
"What was great about writing the
book was that I was able to go back
and contact some of the people I gave
advice to, see if they took it and dis-
cover the consequences," he says.
Although addressing ethical dilem-
mas may be relatively new for Cohen,
writing is not. Born in Charleston,
S.C., Cohen was raised in a Reform
Jewish home in Reading, Pa. His
father, Harry, was in the paper business- JN: What do you think is the appeal
and his mother, Irma, was a nurse.
of your book and column?
Originally, Cohen thought about a
RC: People want a logical argument
career in music. He earned an under-
that justifies a particular way of think-
graduate degree from State University
ing and acting. A lot of people who
of New York in Albany and a graduate
write me don't need me to tell them
degree at the California Institute of Art what to do.
in L.A., majoring in music.
You can see in their letter that they
After graduation, he moved to New
have a sense of what's right. I think
York City and landed a
what they hope is to
job building video and
get a rational explana-
music synthesizers. He
tion of why this is the
gradually came to the
TH E GOOD
realization that he
"didn't have a good
JN: With no experi-
musical mind," and
ence in ethics or giv-
started doing standup
ing advice, how did
you prepare for your
"But I needed a day
&THE DIFFERENCE job?
job and was looking
RC: I didn't, but since
for ways to write funny
I began, I have read a
How to Tell Right
stuff and make a liv-
lot and accumulated a
From "Wrong in
ing, so I started writing
of experts who I
for newspapers and
can call on.
magazines," he says.
If it's a medical-relat-
"The stand-up was my
ed question, I call
--El. Ethicist" float
transition from music
someone at the AMA
who will make sure I
His first writing job
"When I respond to readers'
understand what stan-
was at the Village Voice, queries, I work from this
dard medical practice is
where he remained for premise: Ethics is the rational
and the AMA's ethical
determination of right
guidelines. For First
Then, in 1984, his
conduct, an attempt to answer Amendment related
career path turned to
the question 'How should I act questions, I call the
television and he land-
now?'" Cohen writes in his
head of the Civil
ed a job as writer for
introduction to "The Good,
m New York riata Magsgifte
Late Night with David
The Bad 6' The Difference."
Letterman, where he
JN: Do you have rab-
went on to win three
bis you consult?
Emmy Awards., During his seven years
RC: I have quite a list of rabbis. The
there, he was responsible for such seg-
first time I consulted a rabbi was a
ments as "Monkey Cam" and "Late
question involving Orthodox practice.
Night in Tokyo."
A guy was writing on behalf of his
Following Letterman, he wrote for
dad who had gone to the same syna-
and served as co-executive producer on
gogue for years. But his father was now
TV Nation, and then became the origi- 85 years old and was no longer able to
nal head writer for Rosie O'Donnell,
walk to services, so he drove. But the
when her talk show was just getting off synagogue got a new rabbi who barri-
caded the entrance to the parking lot,
"Because it was a start-up show, it
and his son wanted to know what his
was Fun being a part of shaping it," he
father could do.
So I consulted someone about
Cohen, who is divorced and has a
Orthodox law and a Conservative
15-year-old daughter, was writing for
rabbi, too. The answers ranged from
Slate online magazine and freelancing
saying the father should move closer to