The Arty Semite

Randy Cohen on Being Secular and Getting Fired

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

For 614 weeks over a 12-year period, Randy Cohen was a latter-day Dear Abby. As author of The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine, he provided a moral compass for readers facing quandaries large and small.

He collected many of those efforts in a just-published book, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.” Cohen spoke to The Arty Semite about how he got the gig, why he left it, and how to be “resolutely secular.”

Curt Schleier: Before The Times column, you wrote for David Letterman and Rosie O’Donnell, winning four Emmys. That seems like an unlikely resume for an ethics columnist.

Randy Cohen: My background does seem unlikely for doing this job. Readers asked quite reasonably, “Who are you to write this column?” They expected it would be written by someone with a philosophical background. That was fair and it used to make me uneasy. Even the name of the column, The Ethicist, makes it sound like [it was written by] someone who studied ethics. It would have been easier for me if it was called Ask Randy or What the Heck Randy Thinks. Once I’d written it for a couple of years I felt more at ease with it. Readers knew what they were getting into.

How did you get the job?

The idea for the column originated with the editors. They asked a bunch of people to audition. I hope you are imagining that 100 or so tried out, making my triumph more glorious, but I think it was closer to eight, 10 or 12 people, who were given the same three questions to answer. I think most of the other candidates were more plausible, in the sense that they had a more philosophical background. I heard one teaches legal ethics at some Ivy League university. They knew me as a writer. I’d written for the magazine and Book Review. I never thought I’d get the job. It was just fun to do the audition.

It is one of the great freelance gigs of journalism. Why did you give it up?

I was fired. A new editor came in, took over and just cleaned house. He let every one from the front of the book go, including people like Deborah Solomon who wrote the Questions For… column. I should say I don’t feel I was treated unfairly. An editor should get to create the magazine he wants. I loved my job and would not choose to give it up. Was it a wise move? I can’t answer that.

Are people by nature good or bad?

I think neither good nor bad. It seems that the latest research by evolutionary biologists leads us to believe that we all have certain tendencies towards selfishness and certain tendencies towards altruism. How they play out largely depends on our circumstances. People who live in groups that behave selfishly behave selfishly. And the opposite is true. Our challenge is to design communities that encourage good behavior.

You describe yourself as resolutely secular. Yet it seems ethics and your responses are rooted in Jewish thought.

I never referred to Jewish ethical tradition or the teachings of any other faith. I’m quite secular in my old life. I grew up in a Reform household and was bar mitzvahed and confirmed, and went to services Friday night. And I haven’t been in a synagogue since I was confirmed. Yet I have often noticed that I never took a position that was at odds with Jewish moral thought. Fundamental ideas I think of as Jewish resonate throughout the column. I guess you can take the boy out of the shul, but you can’t take the shul out of the Jewish boy.

You don’t observe any Jewish holidays?

The only Jewish holiday I continue to observe — because the social aspect is so deeply engaging — is that I still go to a Seder most years. A particular group of friends put it together — the main guy who organizes it for most of his life was a public defender — [in such a way that] for every line of the Seder questions are raised and discussion is engaged in.

On the subject discussion, how do you think politics has evolved ethically?

I think the country has moved so far to the right that I am deeply disheartened. I am vigorously pro-choice, but there is nothing essentially unethical in holding a position that disagrees with me. But what Todd Akin did was perpetuate a bone-faced lie when he said a woman couldn’t get pregnant after a rape. This guy is running for Senate. This is something every 22-year-old knows. It is something he should have known and to perpetuate something so blatantly false is unethical. But to just reach a different conclusion from mine, that’s just politics.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Ethicist, Randy Cohen, Interviews, Curt Schleier, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.