Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist"

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column for The New York Times Magazine.

"The Ethicist" responds to individuals who write in with everyday ethical questions: should a D.J. return the records he liberated from the radio station where he worked 20 years ago?; should a teacher report kids whose parents have forged the vaccination records necessary for the kids to attend public school?; may a doctor ethically sell shares in a company using his physician's knowledge of the CEO's serious and publicly-undisclosed illness?

Cohen handles reader's questions with dispatch and insight, and often with humor. Occasionally his answer is not the one that I would have expected (which makes me wonder about my own ethical sense).

In light of my previous posts (here and here and here) about novels that are useful for exploring some philosophical issue, I asked "The Ethicist" if there were a novel or two which illuminated ethical issues for him.

His answer:
I'm afraid I can't think of a particular work of fiction to suggest. Pretty much any good novel does a better job than I do in presenting ethical conundrums, if only because I have fewer than 600 words to respond to what can be quite a nuanced question, but a novelist can take 600 pages to explore the complex relationships, the tangled histories, the mitigating factors that might lead you to the conclusion that in this case, it is right to kill a guy.

But if I'm allowed to suggest something I read for pleasure that presents ethical questions with unrivaled brilliance, I'd pick Boswell's Life of Johnson, which, while not a novel, teems with life.
An on-line edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson is available here. A free eBook Life of Johnson may be downloaded from Project Gutenberg.

Thanks to Randy Cohen for the input.

--Marshal Zeringue