2004_10_askrandycohen.jpgWith the possible exception of the wedding announcements, few pages in The New York Times are looked at, picked over and discussed as much as Randy Cohen's weekly column. As The Ethicist, Cohen answers questions on everything from whether or not it's okay to access the Internet using a stray Wi-Fi connection to how to deal with conflicting feelings about a Curves membership.

Randy Cohen is an Emmy Award winner for his work on Late Night With David Letterman, wrote for Michael Moore's TV Nation, and was the first head writer on Rosie O'Donnell's talk show. His advice is collected in a book, The Good, The Bad and The Difference which is currently available in paperback. He lives in New York and spoke to Gothamist from his home via phone.

How does the fact that you live in New York affect your ethics or affect the advice you give on the pages of the Sunday magazine?

It's reinforced an implacable hostility to the private car, which I believe is an immoral object. You know, somewhere along the way a fatal decision was made in Western culture in choosing the private car and nowhere does that reveal itself more starkly than in NY where one can get around perfectly fine without it. The fact that you can get around without a car reinforces its utter uselessness in general. Because most New Yorkers don't depend on a car, were privileged to social transactions that happen a million times a day and bring into focus how we act as members of a community. Ethics is really just the sum total of all these tiny social transactions we have on a daily basis. And New Yorkers have more than most, I'd say because we simply see so many people.

I often say that we see more people before 9 AM than most people see all day.

Right. In LA you go around in a car and remain isolated. You might pass people on the street, but here you encounter more people. And that's one of the things I love about New York. Its also why were not fat. People in St. Paul dont take their cars to the grocery store because of poor character but because its too far.

How would your advice be different if you were Randy Cohen from, say, Duluth?

I might suffer the delusion that Rudolph Giuliani was a good mayor. There are all sorts of notions you can have when you don't live here.

Could someone who didn't live in New York dish out advice to New Yorkers?

I love my job and hope my bosses know that but believe that a hundred different people could do it and do it well. You wouldnt have to live in New York to write it nor would you have to be me to write it. Unfortunately.

Your column is labeled "The Ethicist" and I would bet that there are far more people who know you by that name than by Randy Cohen. When people find out who you are, do they hold you to a higher standard than they might otherwise?

I find that when people find out who I am or what I do the fun immediately stops. I always think that incredibly licentious things were going on before I got there and then suddenly when I show up everyone wants to be on the up and up. Id love to have some sort of off-duty sign. Interstingly, most of these reactions I believe have to do with the power of the Times and the credibility that is associated with it. So I think it has more to do with that than who I am. I certainly dont feel indispensable in this job. I mean, does anyone feel like they are the only person who could do their job? Michael Jordan, perhaps, but me? A cocker spaniel off the street could do this job and the fact that he worked for the Times would make him credible. I'm just lucky to be that dog.

Religion, values and ethics are often spoken about as if those three things have the same meaning. How has your religious background affected the advice you give and is it possible to lead an ethical life without a religious background?

I grew up in a Reform Jewish house and that upbringing affected way I see the world, absolutely. But other than for Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, I havent been inside a synagogue in thirty years. But to say that one needs relgion to be ethical? Organized religion doesn't have a lock on ethics and doesn't have much to brag about if you look at world history. Still, I often wish there were a comparative religion class for children. Religious teachings are so much a part of our culture that you can't read a 19th century novel without having some previous knowledge of the Bible or these stories. As far as my writing, however, I take a resolutely secular approach to ethics.

From reality TV and going back to early advice columns, it seems as if we've always been fascinated with peeking into the lives of other people and their problems. Why?

You could have stopped that sentence before "and their problems" because what we're really fascinated with are other people. There is this nice glimpse into what is actually going on in the mundane details of life that reveal real truths about what people are actually doing from day to day. The questions that provoke the most response are the ones where people have the most direct experience whether or not it's okay to smuggle food into the movies, for example as opposed to questions about stem cell research. For example, I was shocked to find out that Penthouse Letters were made up. Isnt the only good part supposed to be that that they are from real people?

So why the obsession with ethical dilemmas?

The letters I get are intriguing little puzzles to solve. I like that about it and I think the readers like that about it too because here's this puzzle were all trying to sort out together. When I get e-mails in response to my column, some people attack my character. But most people dont and instead say "Heres another way to look at it." I find an incredibly generous spirit in readers emails. And its really fascinating. A lot turn into interesting dialogues far more often than they turn into angry exchanges; the tone of most of it is collaborative and playful. We are a contentious letter-writing people two qualities I endorse and thats terrific. It's the way to refine ones own thinking to get nearer to what is true.