Problem: A woman is doing business with another person, who happens to be Orthodox Jew. The woman finds this person to be completely competent and courteous, until she goes to shake his hand. He refuses because his religion prohibits him from touching women. She’s offended and feels discriminated against, but torn because she supports religious freedom and expression.

Paul Wong
New York Times columnist Randy Cohen speaks at Angell Hall last night about everyday ethics.

Question: What should she do – continue doing business with the man, or find someone else?

According to Randy Cohen, the self-proclaimed “accidental ethicist” from The New York Times Magazine, the woman should find someone else.

“Calling an offensive action religious doesn’t make it right,” he wrote in his most recent article.

Cohen, a former writer for Late Night with David Letterman and The Rosie O’Donnell Show, now spends his days providing answers to ethical questions and moral dilemmas for a living. He visited the University yesterday to give students and professors his thoughts on everyday ethics, as well as to dispense some free advice.

But the beginning of his lecture, sponsored by the Career Center, started with a disclaimer.

“I have no credentials of any kind,” he said, adding that he believes ethics is a subject best practiced by the ordinary person. “The reader must not consider my credentials, but my argument.”

Cohen said his job, though interesting, comes with some drawbacks.

“I’m definitely not a better person and make no claims to be better than anyone else,” he said, adding that he does not believe self-awareness necessarily leads to happiness. “It has made me a self-conscious person. It has made me acutely aware of my own shortcomings.”

He spoke to students about the moral implications of telling, the different methods to approaching ethical questions, his work on David Letterman, the Enron and the Roman Catholic Church scandals, as well as how changing social circumstances can create an ethical society.

For instance, he said, the invention of the Pooper Scooper changed the world because people who had never picked up after their dog began to take responsibility for their actions. Although the laws and enforcement of those laws had not changed, people began to feel morally obligated to change their ways.

“The world was transformed,” Cohen said. “Ninety percent of people pick up after their dogs. It’s like a utopia.”

Students and faculty members asked him to solve personal dilemmas, such as whether it is okay to download MP3s, as well as his stance on social issues and policies.

He praised the University’s argument for the use of race-based admissions, which he summed up as “affirmative action is something that is done to benefit the entire University.”

“I think that is beautiful,” he added.

Several students said they appreciated Cohen’s sense of humor and everyday take on ethics.

“His big point was that ethics should be something determined by the common person,” LSA senior Lisa Yang said.

“I think it’s funny that he is just an ordinary guy and people are asking him, ‘What should I do?'” LSA senior Sarika Khare added. “You should ask yourself those questions.”

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