Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called “The Ethicist”?

Stop means “stop,’ unless Randy decides it means “yield”—after all, he knows best.

Randy Cohen was the original author of the New York Times Magazine’s column “The Ethicist.” During his tenure he made a name for himself with lively and sometimes witty prose, and on Ethics Alarms, at least, a disturbing tendency to rationalize clearly unethical conduct when it suited his political agenda, which was unapologetically left of center. In one notorious example, he told a student whose wealthy and famous father was paying her college tuition that it would be ethical for her to cash a partial tuition refund check she received from the university to her mother and stepfather, who believed that the father had not paid his fair share of child support. Cash that check, advised Cohen….“You are entitled to this money not because he is successful while you struggle. Such rough justice would also encourage you to sneak into his house, swipe his sofa and sell it on some kind of furniture black market. That would be stealing; this is merely claiming what he owes you.”  Of course, this is also stealing: cashing a check not intended for you because you believe it should be used to settle a disputed debt between the owner and someone else is not honest or fair, regardless of the merits of that belief. But Randy is a class warrior: as “The Ethicist,” he routinely took the position that it was “ethical” for people to use dubious means to get an edge on the evil rich, which in his world apparently means anyone richer than him.

I don’t know what Cohen has been doing since the Times sacked him; it isn’t practicing ethics, as he didn’t do this before his tenure, and confessed when he left the job that writing about ethics didn’t make him practice ethics while he was “The Ethicist” either, something I found and still find incomprehensible. Now, he tells us in a recent Times piece, the Ex-Ethicist is riding around New York City on his bicycle, running stop signs and red lights.

He tells us, moreover, that this is ethical, though it is certainly illegal. “I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else, ” Cohen says. “To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”

This is arrogant, fatuous, reckless and wrong. But that’s Randy.

Even Coehn’s reading of Kant is wrong. The categorical imperative says that an action is ethical only if it could be the universal rule without harm, and this, despite Cohen’s rationalizations, could not. Who says the cyclist’s judgment of when it is safe to run a red light or stop sign is correct or reasonable in every instance? Why couldn’t motorists also use this same justification for running red lights at will?

Cohen has an answer for that, virtuous liberal guerrilla that he is: bicycles can play by different rules because they are virtuous, and cars are bad. He writes…

“…It is cars and trucks that menace us. In the last quarter of 2011, bicyclists in New York City killed no pedestrians and injured 26. During the same period, drivers killed 43 pedestrians and injured 3,607. Cars also harm us insidiously, in slow motion. Auto emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, erode the facades of buildings, abet global warming. To keep the oil flowing, we make dubious foreign policy decisions. Cars promote sprawl and discourage walking, contributing to obesity and other health problems. And then there’s the noise.”

I’m convinced: that makes it okay for cyclists to break the law at will. Actually, I’m not, though Cohen has another argument: what he does is legal…in Idaho.

What is really going on here is that Cohen doesn’t like a law, and is just violating it. He’s doing this because 1) he thinks he can get away with it: don’t think that whether or not one of New York’s finest happens to be watching also factors in to his “ethical” decision to be a scofflaw, and 2) he thinks he’s smarter and more virtuous than the duly elected officials who enacted the law. This is no different, however, than the logic employed by those who want to traffic in illegal drugs, those convinced that a bad man “needs killing,” or someone who thinks they have a right to cash their father’s check and give the money to someone else.

Commenting on Cohen’s lawbreaking, attorney Ann Althouse wrote,

“If there’s a system of rules, individuals can always subjectively, flexibly, pragmatically spin out all sorts of applicable exceptions that let them do what they want. Randy Cohen has used his big brain to determine that he’s right about the unnecessary severity of the rule in this case, but he’s promoting a style of thinking, an approach to ethics, that others will use in all sorts of self-serving ways. If we’re not going to follow the rules anymore… then what?”

Easy answer: Then chaos and anarchy. If Cohen was being ethical instead of dishonest, he would recognize that his duty as a citizen is the follow the rules of the community he belongs to, challenging them in court, try to change them through political action, or move to Idaho. His red light conduct and his rationalization for it give the green light to people who will do a lot more harm than run down the occasional pedestrian on their Schwinn.

Pointer: Ann Althouse

Source: New York Times

Graphic: Freefoto


21 thoughts on “Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called “The Ethicist”?

  1. Pingback: Randy Cohen's Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy … – Ethics Alarms « Ethics Find

  2. This has always bothered me about cyclists. They all do this and they all claim that it is only a small group that does. After the last self-righteous cyclist told me that, I thought I would keep track. That was over 3 months ago. In that time, I have seen 3-4 bicyclists/day run stop signs/red lights. In that time, I have seen 0 stop. That’s right. Not one. I don’t just mean when no one else is waiting either. The ones that really bug me are the ones that filter through on the right and make you pass them several times in traffic. They also place me in violation of my state’s laws because when they filter through on the right at a light or stop sign, they don’t keep a 2 foot distance between me and their bicycle. I can technically get a $100 ticket for that.

    Bicyclists don’t do this for safety, but because it is faster and it is more work to stop and start than it is to ignore the law and everyone waiting their turn. It is the very definition of selfishness. These arguments apply moreso to cars, however. If I made a rolling stop at every stop sign and red light I come to in the average day, I would decrease my fuel usage by 30-40%. That reduces pollution , our dependence on foreign oil, reduces the need to drill for oil in risky places (nature preserve, the Gulf of Mexico, etc), and reduces the greenhouse effect.

    I think every bicyclist who runs a stop sign should be ticketed for the offense. Eveyr bicyclist who filters through traffic on the right should be given the $100 ticket for not maintaining 2 feet between them and the car next to them. I think every bicyclist wearing black with no reflectors and using no lights at night while riding the wrong way on an unlit road in the rain should be arrested for reckless driving (you have no idea how lucky you are that I didn’t hit you). It is the law, after all. Why do we allow people like this to put themselves above the law and everyone else and get away with it?

  3. Its “Mike Day” at Ethics Alarms…. I guess Randy Cohen missed the memo about judging a person by what he does when no one is looking.

    And the ecologically pure bicycle: has he given thought how that bicycle got to the store where he bought it? Or how the materials it contains got to the person who built it? He has some very convenient compartments in his life, including his neglecting the injuries TO bicyclists when he cites those statistics..

    PS. ticketing a bicyclist for such things (stop lights and stop signs) was a real “make my day” event.

  4. Of course, I wonder what Randy would say to a rich guy who rationalized dodging his taxes by saying, “if I paid this to the government, I’m hurting the economy”.

  5. Please forgive/erase possible double post…

    “I guess Randy Cohen missed the memo about judging a person by what he does when no one is looking.”

    Thanks for that reminder, Randy. I needed that.

  6. If you break the law because it’s more convenient, then use the law if you get hurt or if you benefit from it you are one of the reasons we’re in the legal mess we’re in now. People don’t experience natural consequences until they’re too big to ignore. Pity the driver of the car when the bicyclist experiences the natural consequences of dodging around in traffic. It’s the driver of the car that always looks like the bad guy.

  7. On a couple of Cohen’s actions: Everyone is going someplace, so Cohen’s self-centered idea that it’s OK for HIM to ride on the sidewalk is an impractical “ethical” rule: if applied to others, the sidewalks would be (and are becoming) filled with jerks riding just those last few feet. Second, his strange idea that running red lights is OK but salmoning (never use a word in a sentence you have to explain, Randy) is somehow wrong. Making up arbitrary rules as you go along is leads to exactly the “chaos and anarchy” referred to in the blog.

  8. (1) Had an acquaintance, car driver, who habitually ignored stop signs. Finally got ticketed; told judge, “But judge, I came to a rolling stop.”

    Judge asked, “What the hell is a ‘rollng stop’?”, and charged him a hefty fine.

    He still thought he’d been foully dealt with.

    (2) Recently was passener in a car. Driver made a right turn out of middle lane, in front of a bus stopped for passengers. I called him on it; e said, “Oh, it’s legal if it’s in front of a stopped bus.”

    He’s a lawyer, should know better.

    (3) Most places, yellow light means, Light about to change, prepare to stop.

    In L.A. apparently most think it means, Light about to change, hurry up and beat the red light.

  9. I live in Madison, WI where the bike path system is plowed before many residential streets. Curious how one actually is expected to get their bike through inclement conditions to access the bike path system, but that’s neither an allowable question nor the point.

    Our fair city has been engaged in a nearly six year effort to acquire the L.A.B.’s coveted Platinum Biking designation. While this is little more than a scouting badge to us the benighted, it is still $ought with really no end point in sight and no public accounting for how much taxpayer money has been whizzed away. Someone somewhere is confusing effort with results.

    That $2.7 in A.R.R.A. funds where spent on a bike *bridge* is an indication of a very vocal local minority’s priorities. Law enforcement of scoff-law bikers is an absolute joke, allowing them to zig-zag in and out of traffic with no concern other than for themselves. Defined as a *vehicle* in the state of WI, bikers are subject to the same privileges and immunities and required to observe all the same traffic ordinances as motor vehicles.

    Bikers treat these laws as less than mere suggestions. A required quadrennial registration fee (a financially suffocating $10) boasts a laughable ~9 % compliance rate. It doesn’t even pay the part-time position overseeing it.

    Biking infrastructure improvements have been ramrodded through the implementation process with little to no concern for residents in the impact zones. A recent ‘improvement’ was opposed by more than 92 % of the nearby residents. They rewrote a 25 year-old covenant between the neighborhood and adjacent U.W. Research Park to allow it.

    I own a registered bike and have used it for excercise, commuting, and, at an ealier stage of development (paper routes), vocationally. It’s not asking too much to insist that people comply with ordinances that are designed to protect everyone.

    There have been a number of high profile pedestrian deaths caused by bikers recently in the Bay Area. The 92 year-old aunt of a my former Alder was killed by a reckless biker. The smuggly sanctimonious entitlement mentality has got to stop, or at least be dialed down a notch or two.

    Forgive me if I’m less than optimistic.

  10. Terrible article. You shamelessly failed to engage with any of Cohen’s arguments and totally misrepresented him to what appear to be a group like-minded apologists for New York’s car dominated mess of a transport system.

    • Irrelevant. Go back to Ethics 101. Cycling and cars are beside the point entirely. He is rationalizing breaking laws according to what he thinks is appropriate. Nobody has the right to do that in a community, and those who do are, by definition 1) unethical and 2) advocating a system where anyone can choose their own rules as long as they can make up a justification. The post and the topic were over your head, and I’m sorry about that. On the other hand, being this ethically clueless is a burden on everyone who has to deal with you, and you need to address the problem. I mean it.

  11. Couldn’t disagree more. If laws are inappropriate then it is an ethical responsibility to break them when necessary. Otherwise you are saying that in pre-94 SouthAfrica opposing apartheid laws was wrong because you would be breaking the law. This may be a fairly extreme comparison but you’re making a fairly extreme statement. In his article Cohen neatly explains how traffic laws are inappropriate for cyclists and goes on to make a reasoned argument for why it’s justifiable to break these laws which I think is entirely valid.

    Am I really way out of my depth here, Jack?

    • Yup. You break the law and get arrested, and challenge it in court. That’s what civil disobedience is all about. Or you work to change the law. Your formula would assert that a OWS street type who thinks there should be open season on brokers and shoots them om sight is being ethical. When our community decides on rules, we are obligated to follow them. We don’t get to decide that the rules are for everyone else.

      Actually, this is Civic 101 AND Ethics 101.

  12. Ok, so you concede that it can be ethical to break the law? I’m not suggesting that that won’t result in sanction but I think it unlikely that you’d be arrested for jumping a red light. And certainly you would want to avoid that as challenging a law in court is rarely successful, a very lengthy process and often very expensive. I think it’s implied in what Cohen writes that he would think the law should be changed and writing a op-Ed is a good first step in achieving this. And indeed he is quite reasonably advocating for civil disobedience on ethical grounds.

    I don’t quite see why you think I want to murder brokers from what I’ve written but I’ll leave that one alone.

    • Basically, the problem with Cohen’s logic is if people start extending it to all sorts of laws (see my analogy about tax dodging for more details). Also, the point of challenging a law in court is not always to get the judge to change the law (that won’t happen unless said law is outright unconstitutional), but to win publicity and sympathy for one’s cause.

      To explain this a little more, here are my own thoughts on the matter; if you live under a dictatorship, a Jim Crow or apartheid-type state, or a nation that continually flouts its own constitution, you have my support if you want to engage in constructive law-breaking. However, if you live in a modern democratic state that at least tries to grant equal rights and protection, the ethical policy should generally be to obey even the laws you don’t like, unless you’re willing to either change them legally or accept the consequences of breaking them; to do otherwise is a recipe for anarchy.

  13. Fine. Essentially, I agree with you in the majority of cases and what you say is pretty uncontroversial but to re-contextualise this argument we are talking about just nipping across the road when there aren’t any cars coming! This is something pedestrians do more often than not. It hardly amounts to the crime of the century and would not get you arrested or taken to court in any jurisdiction.

    In fact I think that the strongest argument is that it’s much safer to carefully jump the light to get ahead of the traffic which will otherwise be accelerating past you. As cyclists are clearly much more vulnerable on the roads they ought to have no obligation to obey inappropriate traffic rules that make no account for them and jeopardize their safety. It seems that the status quo in all but the most progressive cycle friendly cities is to treat a cyclist as a car rather than make allowances for a third category in between car and pedestrian which is clearly what is demanded. Because of this failing the traffic laws are a very poor fit. I don’t think cyclists should devolve into a permanent state of anarchy instead I think there needs to be widespread reform of the transport system – especially New York’s – and should this occur the new appropriate laws should be respected.

    This does not amount to slippery slope problem. I think there is a strong justification concerning safety and this issue heralds necessary reforms. Law should be dynamic and reflect norms of behaviour. All we are seeing is cyclists behaving rationally with an instinct for self-preservation. They should not be demonized for it.

  14. –My letter to the editor did not get run (too long? too snarky?)

    Dear Mr Cohen,

    Unlike you, I stop my bicycle at every red. I wait in line with the cars until the light turns green. Drivers who see this odd behavior immediately understand what I am – I’m a vehicle on the road. I’m not a car, but I behave just as predictably. By using the street in the same way as other road users, I project a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. I am never forced off the road, I am never honked at. Most days, after a successful interaction with another vehicle such as a lane change negotiation, we part, with a thumbs-up or a nod, as friends.

    The smooth flow of traffic is enabled by the concept of predictability. In traffic, drivers quickly incur the wrath, if not the front ends of other vehicles if they; stop without warning, make turns from the wrong lane, make rights-on-reds in NYC (also legal in Idaho). Why the anger? Because these unpredictable behaviors violate the contract, they announce a sense of disregard, and because they off-load responsibility for avoiding a collision onto others.

    You state that you’re ok with rolling through red lights if it will not endanger yourself or anyone else. I don’t trust your ability to make that judgment. Cars, who you may not perceive as being “in the intersection”, may unexpectedly pull away from the curb. Pedestrians run to cross when the light is about to change. Stealth-colored urban cyclists fly into the intersection. Things happen suddenly and without warning. And there you are, doing something unexpected and unpredictable too. After the collision – what will you do, apologize?

    You started your essay stating that you routinely run red lights. You wrongly assume that I do too. So clearly, your essay is not speaking to me, as I do not run reds. So in response, let me speak not to you, but to other NYC cyclists; to beginners who are considering cycling but are unsure of just what rules, if any, they are to follow. Let me address even those who bike routinely, but start each ride as if preparing to enter a war-zone. Bikers – it doesn’t have to be that way! You can earn the respect you deserve as a legitimate roadway participant. Drivers do not hate us. But they do resent our unpredictable behaviors. They didn’t ask for, nor do they accept the burden of responsibility for our safety.

    Cyclists – You should not ride like Mr Cohen, in spite of his admonishment that you do so. When riding amongst roadway users you should behave as a full member of that community. Assert your legal rights. Work within the flow of traffic to reduce friction. Signal to, and thank drivers who let you move into their lane. Respect your fellow road users and the respect will be returned to you. Your daily ride will become 5 minutes longer, stress-free, and truly ethical.

    Lance Jacobs
    LCI 3507
    Bike New York Instructor

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