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'The Ethicist' Explains How To 'Be Good'

Randy Cohen served as <a href="">"The Ethicist"</a> for <em>The New York Times Magazine </em>for 12 years.
Courtesy Chronicle Books
Randy Cohen served as "The Ethicist" for The New York Times Magazine for 12 years.

After 12 years writing a column on ethics, Randy Cohen is convinced ethics is not a moving target, unique to time or place.

"I believe there are a set of principles that are so profound and so essentially moral that if I were just slightly smarter and slightly more eloquent, I could travel everywhere and persuade everyone that they should apply," he tells Weekend Edition guest host Linda Wertheimer.

Cohen's column, "The Ethicist," was featured in The New York Times Magazine. He answers more questions of scruples in his new book, Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.

Interview Highlights

On how cultural advances change ethics

"Over the 12 years I wrote the column, the biggest changes in the kinds of questions people asked all drew on new media. And I would say the moral principles remain the same, but how to apply them in a new landscape changes. And it takes time for our customary behavior to evolve."

On the most common contemporary ethical questions

"The question I would receive the most was duty to report, as a class of question. People who had done nothing wrong themselves were aware of the wrongdoing in others, and they wanted to know when they had an obligation to come forward. The guideline for me is this: When someone is acting in a way that presents an imminent, serious threat to other people, you have an absolute duty to come forward.

"If you found out that your friend was a pirate and 50 years ago looted a ship and buried pirate gold, you don't have a duty to the community to set that matter right, to dig up that treasure chest and report your pirate friend. If your friend is about to attack another ship, then you have a duty to come forward."

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