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The good, the bad and the difference: New York Times columnist
Randy Cohen addresses ethical dilemmas

A student in the audience wanted to know the ethics of using MP3s, and he acknowledged he probably knew the answer but was hoping for justification of his free music downloads.

It was the kind of question Randy Cohen had heard many times. As the writer of "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Magazine, he regularly is called upon to answer such inquiries.
Cohen (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

"The short version is, you're not allowed to steal things from other people," Cohen said to the student and the rest of the packed audience at Angell Hall Wednesday night in an event sponsored by The Career Center. But he added that it wasn't the worst kind of crime, and that the music industry should change the way it distributes music. "Yeah, it's wrong, but the solution isn't to throw you in jail," he said.

Cohen, a comedy writer who worked for "Late Night with David Letterman" and "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," calls himself the "accidental ethicist." He stumbled into the job in 1999, he said, and found many opportunities to point out that he has "no ethicist credentials of any kind."

"I can't really say why the Times chose me," said Cohen, who this year published the book "The Good, the Bad & the Difference: How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations." "Their ways are as shrouded in mystery as the Kremlin."

Not that a Ph.D. or other formal training is necessary, he said. "I take some comfort in reminding myself that Cat Fancy magazine isn't written by a cat," he said.

The audience was filled mostly with students, and Cohen addressed some of his speech directly to them. He said he often hears from students who want to know if they should turn in the same paper for two classes, or how much help they should take from other students or their parents.

The problem with such questions, he said, is that they focus on getting good grades. "Shouldn't learning factor in there somewhere?" he said.

He often receives questions from people who want him to endorse their inappropriate behavior. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, he said.

"It's a kind of heartening trend," he said. "If more people would ask the New York Times' permission before doing wicked deeds, the world would be a much tidier place. That whole Watergate thing could have just been avoided."

He touched on some well-publicized ethical situations, such as the Enron collapse and Martha Stewart's business dealings. The Enron debacle happened in part because of a government dismantling of business regulations that affected not just one company but the entire corporate culture, he said.

"It's really, really hard to drive 65 when everyone is whizzing by you at 110," he said.

When it comes to personal ethics, he said one way for people to make moral choices for themselves is to live by the rule of transparency. He quoted a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote that said if you plan to do something in secret, ask yourself if it is something you would do in public.

"It's an incredibly useful ethical tool and would no doubt eradicate a great deal of bad behavior," he said, "and nearly all showers."

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