Randy Cohen: Great ethicist and speaker, for a luddite

Last night, Amanda took me to see Randy Cohen at the Theatre on the Square in downtown Tacoma. Don't worry, I had no idea who Randy was either until I Googled him. He's The Ethicist columnist for the NY Times and was a staff writer on Letterman for seven years where he won three Emmys.

Randy's lecture was about ethics, of course, and he argued that people should blame circumstance more than character for unfavorable ethical decisions.  One of his examples:  If you take a rookie cop and put him in a corrupt precinct, he'll likely become a corrupt cop. If you put the same rookie cop in a clean precinct, he'll become a good cop. It's not about the cop's character, it's about his circumstance. At a macro scale, he used this ideology to explain how Germany was taken over by Nazis. It's not that all Germans were bad people, they just became conditioned to dislike Jews, thus most of them accepted what the Nazis did, or didn't stop them. There was only one Schindler, right?  Randy explained test cheating in high schools and a plethora of other societal anecdotes this way. He wove humor throughout these anecdotes and it was all very entertaining.

Don't worry, I won't bore you with more examples or some deep analysis of his arguments. Rather, I'll point out what Randy didn't:

The lecture circumstance: 98 percent of the audience was white, old and Jewish. The other 2 percent was me and Amanda. I felt like a lot of his jokes and anecdotes worked because he was speaking to his demographic peers. His arguments were sound, but I don't know if he would have received the same admiration if he was speaking to an audience that better reflects Tacoma - mixed races and religions, and not so affluent.

The Internet: All of Randy's examples were from the physical world. He talked about a phonebooth experiment where people were more likely to help strangers who dropped their purses if the phonebooth they were at dispensed a quarter shortly before the incident. WHO USES A PHONEBOOTH?  His examples were no less impactful, but let's just say they would have been a lot more relevant in 1992. One woman asked Randy about how Twitter creates a circumstance where people are frequently reporting to their peers. He dismissed it with a joke. Obviously, these were murky waters for Randy. However, for a guy who talks about circumstance being a primary driver for behavior, wouldn't you think that if, oh say, A WHOLE GENERATION of teens and tweens were broadcasting everything they do online, THAT would be a circumstance to affect behavior? C'mon.

Aside from those slight ommisions of demographics and THE INTERNET, I really enjoyed Randy's talk and would seriously recommend it.