Ethicist no more virtuous after dozen years on job


The Ethicist is retiring. Randy Cohen’s last column appeared in the NY Times Magazine this past Sunday. What most interested me were his closing comments. “Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous . . . Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes.”

Has dispensing ethical advise for 12 years made any difference in his life? “What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do,” Cohen writes, “was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing . . . To grow old is to grow remorseful, both on and off duty.”

How sad for him, if he is truthful and not falsely modest, that the outcome of his immersion in ethics is feeling bad. If ethics is about human flourishing, as Aristotle and others have said, then something has gone very badly when the outcome isn’t a happier life. Thinking about right and wrong and good and bad should make you more enriched, not (de)moral(ized).

I once overheard the chair of a philosophy department scoff at a student who thought that studying ethics should make him a better person. Ethics, in this philosopher’s view, isn’t meant to make you a better person, only a better a deeper thinker. This approach to ethics is like being Cohen’s sports reporters, people who knows the rules of the game but can’t or won’t to play themselves.

I think a better analogy is to that of a judge. A judge knows the law and its application to particular cases. It is more than reasonable to expect that with that knowledge judges will be more law-abiding that the average individual. While some judges do break the law, this is an aberration.

Then, why after a dozen years of thinking and writing about everyday ethics, would someone not be more virtuous than when they started? We expect people to feel remorseful when they do something that they know they shouldn’t have done. Several factors can stand in the way between knowing and doing. One is a matter of desire. The sports writer may find the game interesting but have no interest in getting onto the field to play.

Another factor may be self-interest. I enjoy watching basketball but hung up my sneakers years ago since I decided that the pain of my injuries outweighed the pleasure of playing.

Another reason why people don’t do the right thing is fear. We give in to group pressure or are afraid of risking too much. This is why Aristotle lists courage as a necessary component of being a virtuous person.

I’m glad that the NY Times Magazine published more than 600 columns dedicated to everyday ethics. I hope that for most it meant something more than another form of entertainment, like the crossword puzzle that also appears weekly. I don’t expect those who like filling in words in blank boxes to become better writers because of it, but I do hope that those who read about ethical problems in The Ethicist did become more virtuous people.

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2 thoughts on “Ethicist no more virtuous after dozen years on job

  1. One would think that ethics are like any other field of study; the more you know, the better you do. Randy Cohen’s response is a bit sad. Aren’t we teaching a Children’s Ethics Program to help kids learn how to decipher problems through a lens that helps them make more just and humane decisions?

    Well, Arthur, if the job is open, I hope you’d apply!

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