BOOK REVIEW: 'Be Good': Many of Randy Cohen's 'Ethicist' Columns Collected in a New Book

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: 'Be Good': Many of Randy Cohen's 'Ethicist' Columns Collected in a New Book
Be good and you will be lonesome -- Mark Twain, quoted by Randy Cohen in "Be Good"

I discovered Randy Cohen's "Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything" (Chronicle Books, 320 pages, illustrated by Dave Hopkins, $24.95, also available in a Kindle edition for $9.99) in one of those serendipitous accidents that occur once in a blue moon. In fact it actually was in the blue moon month of August 2012, which had a full moon on Aug. 1 and another one on Aug. 31. Blue moon months are those with two full moons.

Actually, they aren't: Friday's full moon was the second one to rise during the month of August, following the full moon of Aug. 1. This qualifies it as a blue moon, according to the popularly accepted (but incorrect) definition of the term, according to a story I found in Huffington Post. "Blue moon" orginally referred to the third full moon in a season that has four full moons instead of the usual three. But in 1946, a writer for Sky and Telescope magazine erroneously reported the second-full-moon-in-month meaning, and the definition stuck. That's my photo of the Aug. 31 blue moon over Port Lavaca, TX, made with a 500 mm lens on my Canon 5D digital SLR.

Randy Cohen
Randy Cohen

I had just written an ethics column, modeled roughly on "The Ethicist" columns that Cohen penned for The New York Times Magazine for twelve years, ending in 2011. It was about the sacking of Gary Friedman, 54, the chairman and co-CEO of Corte Madera, CA-based Restoration Hardware, for an intimate relationship he had with a female employee. Link:

In the column, I wrote that I was inspired by Randy Cohen's columns. I was more than a little surprised when Cohen emailed me, saying he covered the subject in his new book, "Be Good" published Aug. 22 by San Francisco-based Chronicle Books. He sent me a review copy and -- lo and behold! -- there it was, beginning on Page 273. Only his "Gary Friedman" was none other than David Letterman, his boss for several years. Most people know that Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel and the other late night personalities have writers on staff -- or they should know this; these personalities no more make up the stuff as they go along than do movie actors.

In his entertaining and enlightening collection of updated columns Cohen helps readers negotiate the complex ethical landscape. What do you do if your property line oleanders are missing a tree or two and the house next door, in foreclosure, and uninhabited, has some choice trees that will -- if carefully transplanted -- fill in the gaps? Are the oleanders yours for the taking? Cohen answers that question from an Arizona reader, where foreclosed houses are more common than oleanders.

In another example, Jewish cruise passengers going to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates with Christians are "converted" in visas. Is this ethical? Randy says no and gives his reasons why we shouldn't give in to prejudices of any religion. In another question, he takes on Judaism of the Orthodox variety, where adherents believe it it is against their beliefs to shake hands with a woman.
BOOK REVIEW: 'Be Good': Many of Randy Cohen's 'Ethicist' Columns Collected in a New Book

This particular column, he writes, generated the biggest response of his career, with many Jews calling him a "self-hating Jew" (he's a nonobservant Jew) for saying the practice disrespects women. In Cohen's ethical universe, religion doesn't get a pass; he spares no sect in the section on religion, saying that ethics outranks religious beliefs. After all, he writes, slavery was OK in the Old Testament and in the mostly Christian Old South. (I might add that Confederate cabinet member Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana, a Jew, was a slaveowner, as were American Indians like Cherokee planter and slaveowner Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, the only Indian to hold such high a rank during the Civil War. A number of free Blacks in the Confederate States of America were also slaveowners).

Cohen notes that women are forbidden to drive in Saudi Arabia, on religious grounds, but they're free to take to the highway in more enlightened countries, like the USA. And that's a good thing.

Organized into question and answer sections covering everything from the family, doctors and nurses, the workplace, technology, school and many other subjects, "Be Good" is easy to navigate, especially since there is no index. Consider it an ethical instruction book in a world fraught with questions that challenge your beliefs. You have an instruction book for your appliances, your car, your computer: why not one for ethics?

"Be Good" is beautifully printed on quality paper in China, so it will be useful for years to come.

About the Author

Randy Cohen established himself as the author of the popular "The Ethicist" column in the The New York Times Magazine, which he wrote from 1999 to 2011. He has appeared regularly on NPR, and is host of the radio series Person Place Thing. Born in Charleston, SC, he lives in New York City.

Cohen was a writer on Late Night with David Letterman for 950 episodes over seven years, starting in 1984. He shared in three Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing for his work on the show. Perhaps his biggest contribution was the invention of Letterman's famous feature the "Top Ten List."

Cohen wrote "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine between 1999 and 2011. From 2001 to 2005, he also answered listeners' questions on ethics for the National Public Radio radio news program, All Things Considered.

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