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Randy Cohen: The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How To Tell Right From Wrong In Everyday Situations


The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How To Tell Right From Wrong In Everyday Situations

Author: Randy Cohen
Publisher: Doubleday

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From an outside perspective, handling an advice column looks relatively easy—all responses, no research; all reaction, no proaction. But the simple-yet-knotty problems New York Times Magazine writer Randy Cohen regularly addresses in his column "The Ethicist" argue otherwise. In one of several introductions to The Good, The Bad & The Difference, a collection of "The Ethicist" questions and responses, Cohen points out that he has no special ethical qualifications, his most prominent previous job having been as a writer on Late Night With David Letterman. Unlike William Bennett (whom he discusses at one point), he doesn't seem to feel qualified to preach, which explains a lot about his egalitarian approach. The Good, The Bad & The Difference addresses ethical quandaries ranging from the purchase of ideologically suspect products to the medical treatment of animals. Many of the questions Cohen fields are variations on "Should I tattle?" or "Should I intervene?" Neither question is easily answered, as he notes; an honest society demands that its citizens not ignore wrongdoing, but a civilized society demands respect for other people's privacy. Because of these contradictions, Cohen's responses don't always seem consistent, and his readers periodically take him to task. Their reactions and his follow-ups are scattered throughout the book, along with opinions from "guest ethicists" like McSweeney's editor Dave Eggers (who gets silly and seems to forget the question he's supposedly addressing). Cohen even prefaces each chapter with hypothetical ethics questions, inviting readers to send in their responses for inclusion in the book's paperback version. With all this democratic back-and-forth, The Good, The Bad & The Difference sometimes feels like an Internet chat forum. In spite of the weighty topics, the book is lightweight and lively, which makes Cohen's frequent stabs at humor a notably unnecessary flaw. His flippant comments (such as his advice that an intern concerned about the exact length of his lunch breaks "consider that meal-in-a-pill that space guys enjoy in science-fiction stories") are often cloying and awkward, especially when they stand in for actual answers. Jokes aside, The Good, The Bad & The Difference seems incomplete—which it is, since the debate will continue in the paperback edition, in The New York Times Magazine, and in readers' heads. The Good, The Bad & The Difference is a reasonably entertaining read, if no more so than an average handful of "Dear Abby" columns. Mostly, however, it's an invitation to join Cohen in an ongoing, involving argument, which readers can ethically do without paying $25 for a book that they know will be available in an expanded form in about a year.