Long-time author of the New York Times Magazine’s ethics column Randy Cohen delivered the last convocation address of the academic year on goodness and ethical conduct. In his talk titled “How To Be Good,” Cohen emphasized what he came to learn in his twelve years writing weekly columns on ethics: “It’s our circumstances and conditions we live in that affect our behavior, not something inherent in us that we might call ‘character.’” Cohen connected well with his audience of students, faculty, and Northfield residents, congratulating them on Minnesota’s recent legislative approval of marriage equality. “This is a perfect fit for our discussion on ethics today,” he began, “because ethics in the news is certainly not a common sight.”
His talk covered two central themes of the discussion of ethics: “what is it to be good? Once we’ve established that, how do we then go about doing it?” For Cohen, there was more consensus on what is generally considered good, and much less agreement on how to behave in a virtuous way.
To trace the historical roots of what constitutes good actions, Cohen evoked Benjamin Franklin’s “personal quest for moral perfection, which needed a system.” During his journey, Franklin outlined thirteen qualities that he deemed necessary for anyone wanting to be virtuous. “The virtue lies in me -- in all of us,” Cohen emphasized, outlining the basis for the very familiar American narrative of individual self-improvement and achievement. “I argue that Franklin failed to fulfill all thirteen criteria for being a virtuous person, because he tried to fundamentally change himself,” he continued, arguing that instead, the environment and situation determines everything.
The majority of his talk thus consisted of many social and psychological experiments that highlighted how the same people behaved completely differently in varied settings. “Our communities can be seen as our circumstances and conditions,” Cohen remarked, “and the way we behave is a manifestation of our community.” His first example involved taxis in New York City; Cohen described how things could get ugly when perfectly good people all fought to get cabs.
Then the city demarcated specific areas for hailing taxis, and subsequent behavior immediately improved. “Something tiny in the environment changed how they acted, and no one was there to enforce these rules either,” Cohen emphasized. “If you believe in character, then you would think it would take more than a lick of paint to prompt a behavioral change, especially since character should be seen as durable and consistent.”
In addition, he explained how the culture of specific environments strongly disposes its inhabitants and participants to act in a particular ethical manner. “Not everyone who works at Enron is inherently evil,” Cohen pointed out, “and not everyone carries that aroma of brimstone. But the existing culture made it difficult to expose morally dubious acts that compromised profits.” Similarly for the epidemic cheating at New York’s Stuyvesant High School, “the culture that the cost of cheating very low is extremely difficult to change.”
Cohen concluded by encouraging his audience to “create virtuous communities: this does not let people off the hook, but on the contrary actually creates a bigger ‘hook.’” Individuals of these communities would be held to the standards of their environment, and you don’t even need people there to enforce rules.” In conclusion, Cohen returned to Benjamin Franklin, citing how he “didn’t just give up after failing to fulfill all thirteen criteria of virtuous people, but instead built the first hospital, college, volunteer fire department, and lending library -- civic institutions we use to engage each other and our neighbors. Today, we could do a lot worse than follow his example.”