A Shocking Farewell Confession From “The Ethicist”

In Randy Cohen’s farewell column for “The Ethicist” today—he was sacked by the new editor of The New York Times despite providing an entertaining, well-written and provocative column for many years— he makes a statement that I find shocking, and one that challenges the core assumption of this blog and indeed my occupation.

Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. 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. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.
What spending my workday thinking about ethics did do was make me acutely conscious of my own transgressions, of the times I fell short. It is deeply demoralizing.

Amazing. Randy, we hardly knew ye, and we sure didn’t understand ye, either. How can someone possibly spend one’s working day “thinking about ethics” and not become more virtuous in his daily conduct?

As I have mentioned before, behavioral economist Dan Ariely created an experiment to test this exact issue. In his best-selling book “Predictably Irrational,” Ariely describes giving Harvard Business School students a test that had an obvious way to cheat built into it, offering a cash reward for the students who got the highest scores. He tracked how many students cheated. He also varied the experiment by asking some students to do simple tasks before they took the test: name five baseball teams, or state capitals, or U.S. Presidents. None of these pre-test questions had any effect on the students’ likelihood of cheating, except for one question, which had a dramatic effect.  He discovered that students who were asked to recite a few of the Ten Commandments, unlike any of the other groups, never cheated at all. Never. None of them. Ariely recently told an interviewer that he has periodically repeated the experiment elsewhere, with the same results. No individual who was asked to search his memory for a few of the Ten Commandments has ever cheated on Ariely’s test, though the percentage of cheaters among the rest of the testees is consistently in double figures. This is true regardless of the individual’s faith, ethnic background, or even whether they could name one Commandment correctly.

Like a slap in the face, the classic moral rules remind the students to consider right and wrong. It wasn’t the content of the Commandments that affect  them, but what they represent: being good, or one culture’s formula for doing good. The phenomenon is called priming.

Priming is a superb way to make sure your ethics alarms are turned on and in working order. All of us go through life focused on what ethicist call “non-ethical considerations,” the human motivations, emotions, needs and desires that drive us in everything they do—love, lust, greed, ambition, fear, ego, anger, passion…wanting that promotion, the new car, the compliment, fame, power. Good people do bad things because at the moment they are unethical, they aren’t thinking about ethics. If they were, then they wouldn’t engage in the misconduct, because they would be “primed” and their ethics alarms would sound in time to stop them.

Yet Randy Cohen says that thinking about ethics didn’t change his behavior at all. I can say, with absolute certainty, that working as a full-time ethics trainer, writer and consultant affects my conduct every single day, and to an aggravating degree. Sometimes I long for those blithe days of the past when I could solve a problem with a well-constructed and undetectable lie, or  crush a fool with a torrent of debilitating personal insults, or ignore a clear conflict of interest that should stop me from taking a lucrative contract. I can’t do any of these things any more, because me ethics alarms are ringing so loudly that it’s impossible.

The whole reason I do what I do is built on the belief that talking about ethics, arguing about ethics (regardless of whether one’s argument is “right” or not), training oneself to realize when there is an ethical component to a decision or a problem, makes all of us more ethical in our daily lives.

But apparently not Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist,” soon to be the ex-Ethicist. I don’t know whether to envy him, pity him, or just conclude he’s not being truthful, an especially damning verdict for someone in the ethics business. Maybe the explanation is simple. Maybe, in writing that thinking about ethics hasn’t made him more virtuous, Randy Cohen is just plain wrong.

It wouldn’t be the first time.


8 thoughts on “A Shocking Farewell Confession From “The Ethicist”

  1. “Priming” is a term I never heard in conjunction with this. I’ll bear it in mind. I can also relate to your story, in part, through my own experience. Re-enforcing the concept of ethics to people is a continual process. That’s- in good measure- what churches are for. But who preaches to the preacher? And who talks ethics to the “ethicist”? When it devolves into just a “job”, an ego trip or an intellectual diversion, by what authority can these persons speak to us? As self-absorbed evangelists have fallen from grace, so has Randy Cohen. The question is; was that “grace” ever there in his case? His own words render this doubtful.

  2. As I may have mentioned on this site before (certainly on my own), one of my favorite sayings is “if you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” Sentences that begin “I’m not a racist, but…,” for example, tend to be spoken by people who really are racists. And a teacher who has to tell her class, “I’m in charge here,” isn’t.

    Mr. Cohen’s assertion that he has become “acutely conscious of his own transgressions” means, inexorably, that he has in fact come to act in a more consistently ethical manner, for precisely the reasons you articulate. That he doesn’t say so explicitly strikes me as more a function of modesty (real or assumed) than of deception or a failure of self-cognition.

    • It could well be. It makes no sense to say that the job made him think back on past transgressions but didn’t change his behavior in the present. That is what he said however, and I have no problem judging his actual words. It may well have been Cohen’s way of making a point I have made, which is that an analyst’s ethical imperfection doesn’t invalidate the legitimacy of the analysis. If so, it was a particularly clumsy way to do it.

      • I think it’s likely that his behavior has changed, but that since he’s more aware of the bad behaviors, he doesn’t realize that this has occurred.

        To him, he’s still committing acts of unethical level 3, but he’s upgrading more level 1’s to level 3 and noticing more of all the acts than he was previously.

  3. Jack,
    I’ve had the 10 Commandments memorized since before I could read and I cheat, lie, and steal all the time. I don’t buy it.


    • All you’re doing, Neil, is emphasizing the point that it’s not enough to memorize words or figures. You have to understand their meaning, their wisdom and their application in both practical and moral terms. It’s like any number of Congressmen today who can quote you the Constitution verbatim… but see it only in terms of how it can be evaded for their own interests. A number of false Christians see the Commandments in this light. In your case, however, the fact that you can openly admit that you’ve fallen short (as we all have and do!) places you above those others.

    • That’s not the test, and that’s not priming. The point is that if you recently thought about the Ten Commandments, you are less likely to be unethical. Having them memorized doesn’t count. I memorized “The Highwayman” in 1960, and can still recite it…it doesn’t mean I ever think about it any more.

    • I’m going to go with Neil on this one for a few steps. I went to a Catholic school for a few years, I’d be interested in knowing how his test results shake out after “priming” a Catholic school class in their own environment.

      I think if you take people out of their environment so that they are “suspicious” of their surroundings and you “prime” them with “be good”, I think you do get the result he experienced.

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