By Kathleen McCarthy
Be Inkandescent Magazine
Many parents’ parting words to their children as they head off to school or over to a friend’s house are, “Be good!”
Meaning don’t take the last cookie, clean up after yourself, and take your little sister to the movies with you and your friends when she’s feeling lonely.
What about when the situation is more complicated?
Treating others the way you would like to be treated is a reliable approach much of the time, but following the Golden Rule doesn’t always make it easy to know what is the right thing to do.
And moral reasoning based on doing the greatest good for the greatest number has its drawbacks: “It has a discomfiting way of allowing a majority to bully a minority,” observes author Randy Cohen.
Fortunately, we have Cohen’s book to use as a resource.
In Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything, the former New York Times ethicist for 12 years provides a compendium of letters from the public asking for advice on an ethical problem.
Like a “Dear Abby” for applied ethics, the book includes letters from the public and Cohen’s responses, in columns that were initially published in the Times between 2001 and 2011. Some responses even include an update about whether the letter-writer took Cohen’s advice, and how it turned out.
The book is divided into 16 chapters (plus an introduction and epilogue) based on areas of life where ethical dilemmas typically arise: Family; Home; Doctors & Nurses; Civic Life; Money; Animals; Sports; 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan; Work; Arts; Technology; Community; School; In Transit; Love & Sex; and Religion.
Though Cohen (pictured above) considers his approach to ethics “resolutely secular,” he did consult members of the clergy “for their technical expertise when a question impinged on religious doctrine. For instance, must you warn an observant Jewish in-law that, contrary to what he supposes, the soup he’s about to eat is not kosher?”
Acting on Our Best Instincts
When my husband and I were expecting our first child, one of his sisters told me that having children would make us better people, because we would want to be the best we could for the sake of our child. I love that idea, but being my better self 24 hours a day hasn’t happened.
Cohen’s book reassures me that many parents and fellow Americans also struggle with what he calls, “everyday ethics: May you move to high-priced unoccupied seats at a ball game? 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,” Cohen writes.
Practice Makes Perfect—Well, at Least Improvement
Now a parent of three children, some days I feel sure that like most jobs, my parenting has improved over time. Other days, I’m not so sure; my responses feel reactive rather than thoughtful.
Cohen believes moral decision-making improves with effort. “We can get better at this process of confronting a moral dilemma, noting our initial response, and then subjecting it to ethical analysis,” Cohen says.
Readers told him that they liked to bring his column to the breakfast table, have one family member read the question aloud, then go around the table and have each person answer it before reading Cohen’s published response.
Scroll down to play that game with these three excerpts from “Be Good.”
from the “Family” chapter
- Question from a reader in Maryland: Our 15-year-old daughter has a “boyfriend” a year older whose parents forbid their children to have such relationsiops or even attend mixed-gender parties. So this boy does so on the sly; that is, he’ll call home from our house and say he is elsewhere. We see his parents at school events, exchange pleasantries, but do not let on that our children are more than “just friends.” Are we guilty of an ethical lapse?
- Randy Cohen: You are not an agent of his parents and do not have to enforce their rules in your home. But whatever your opinion of his parents’ ideas … the boy’s lying is wrong, and you ought not abet it. Beyond the boy’s dishonesty, you should consider the effect of your own behavior on your daughter. By tolerating her boyfriend’s deceit, you suggest to her that it is okay to lie when you disagree with the regulations made by others. … And while you need not inform on the boy to his parents, you should talk to the kids. Let them know that you respect their feelings for one another, but unless the boy can be honest with his family, the kids will have to see each other at school or elsewhere in public, but can no longer use your home as a hipster haven.
from the “Sports” chapter
- Question from Steve Fram, Palo Alto, CA: At my son’s Little League game, a foul ball sailed over the fence and shattered the window of a parked car. Signs at the ball field specify that the league is not responsible. One parent argued that the hitter’s family should replace the window. Our family thinks the player and his parents have no such obligation: foul balls are part of the game. Who is right?
- Randy Cohen: Posting a sign doesn’t shield you. If it did, I’d post one waiving my resonsibility for, well, nearly everything. As an ethical matter, the car’s owner should pay for his own window. He knew he was parking beside a ball field and that foul balls are a routine part of the game. By choosing to park there, he assumed the risk of such a mishap. The city did nothing wrong by providing convenient parking and a fence around the field … . And the player did just what he is meant to do on a ball field: play ball. Although he might want to choke up on the bat, follow through, and hit only standard softballs.
from the “Work” chapter
- Question from James J. Stranko, New York: Is it ethical to order food for delivery during a thunderstorm? If I’m doing it to avoid going outside and getting wet or struck by lightning, isn’t it wrong to have somebody else (with little agency to refuse) do it in my place?
- Randy Cohen: As someone who seldom mines his own coal, I’m in no position to condemn those who consign difficult, dangerous, or simply miserably uncomfortable jobs to others. Here is how you can do so ethically—support efforts to ensure that those who do such jobs toil in decent conditions, with their health and safety protected, and that they earn decent wages and receive the benefits we all want … . You can’t always know such things, but you can make some effort to educate yourself about those you employ, and you can tip generously when someone works for you under unusually rough conditions.
Taking the High Road
Let’s say that, armed with the ability to tell right from wrong, you (or your child) is on the receiving end of someone’s anger. What’s the most ethical and, not incidentally, most effective way to respond to anger?
Cohen’s advice echoes that found in a perennially bestselling book, something along the lines of turning the other cheek. But he didn’t start out so generous hearted. “Parents and teachers tell us that we’ll feel bad if we respond brutally to someone who is brutal to us. It’s not true,” Cohen observes.
“When I sent one of my tormenters a savage response, I felt great. It is a pleasure to thrash a bully. (And by ‘bully,’ I mean anyone who is unkind to me.)
“But it is an ineffectual pleasure, one that solidifies disagreement, makes enduring enemies, changes nobody’s thinking, garners no dinner invitations. And so eventually I forsook the pleasures of the punch-up for another strategy: a soft answer turneth away wrath (Proverbs 15:1). Turns out it doth.”
It also helps to remember that “there is seldom only one right answer; these are questions about which honorable people can differ.
And incidentally, he says, be wary if something you desire appears to be within your grasp if only you deviate for a moment—and just a tad—from what you know is right.
“When you hear the universe speaking, a bit of skepticism is appropriate,” Cohen advises. “It may well be a crank call from your self-interest.”
For more information, check out Cohen’s book here.
For information on the Ethics Toolkit, visit www.ethics.org.
About Kathleen McCarthy
A freelance editor and writer in the mental health field for the last 20 years, Kathleen McCarthy is the senior editor for Be Inkandescent Magazine, and also writes the magazine’s Parenting column.
In 2012, Kathleen became the manager of the new speakers bureau, InkandescentSpeakers.com, an international organization of small business experts who travel around the globe to provide best practices to entrepreneurs.
Have an idea for an upcoming Parenting column? Send Kathleen an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.