September/October 2002 -- In Atlas Shrugged , Ayn Rand laid out the essential values and virtues that a coherent, rational system of ethics requires. Her followers have, over the course of the last forty years, worked at justifying, exploring, and developing those values and virtues. And some virtues have even been added to Rand's list, most notably benevolence and tolerance. The next step is to learn how best to apply the Objectivist morality to our lives.
That is the field of moral wisdom, and it is the professional concern of Randy Cohen.
Cohen has a unique job. Every week, as "The Ethicist" for The New York Times Magazine, he answers questions on ethical topics, giving advice on how to be good and admonishing against being bad. Recently, Cohen collected his answers and the questions that prompted them into a new book: The Good, the Bad, & the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations . Going beyond the etiquette pronouncements of Miss Manners, the down-home moralism of Ann Landers, and the didactic commandments of Dr. Laura, Cohen's Ethicist provides readers with a very public example of moral wisdom in action.
The idea of moral wisdom goes back to Aristotle and the ancient Greek moral thinkers. The concept arose in order to distinguish between the abstract knowledge of right and wrong and the practical ability to choose the right courses of action in the concrete situations that one faces. For example, we know that honesty is a virtue and that purpose is a value, but how do we go about making sure we are integrating these into our lives in the proper manner? How do we pursue purpose with the vigor and determination of a Howard Roark? How do we practice honesty in a way that best serves our lives? The answer is: through moral wisdom.
Moral wisdom is not a form of intuition. An individual with moral wisdom is not expected to "just know" what to do. He still must weigh the value of each course of action and find the preferable one. Individuals with moral wisdom are those who have developed the skills that make them characteristically better than others at this deliberative process.
Two skills are particularly significant. First, moral wisdom involves the skill of picking out the features of a given situation that are relevant to moral deliberation. Secondly, it involves the skill of deliberating correctly about the principles that apply to a situation with those features.
The following example illustrates the need for moral wisdom. Spenser is a fictional private detective, created by Robert Parker. In one book, Early Autumn , he is hired to find a teenage boy named Paul. When Spenser finds Paul, he realizes that returning Paul to his parents would do the boy more harm than good.
Spenser needs to decide whether or not to give the information about the boy's location to the client. To resolve this dilemma, Spenser must first isolate the morally relevant facts. He must focus on the parents' apparent lack of concern for the boy, not on what their careers are. He has to come to see and understand the reasons that Paul ran away, not the fact that Paul wants to be a professional dancer. Then he must consider how the relevant moral principles—honesty, justice, fairness, and benevolence—apply to these facts and how they can be integrated. In short, Spenser needs moral wisdom. He is concerned about Paul's well-being, because he practices the virtue of benevolence. But he has a contract with his clients that he is obliged to fill; that follows from the virtue of justice. Whether or not he fulfills his contract, he must decide what he will say to them; that raises issues of honesty. Lastly, in fairness to himself, Spenser needs to consider his reputation as a private detective and what course of action would better his reputation.
His moral wisdom helps Spenser weigh these features of his situation and determine how best to apply his ethical principles. It by no means guarantees correct action or right behavior, but it does give him the tools for putting his principles into practice.
Like Spenser, Randy Cohen deals with questions concerning concrete dilemmas and conflicts. Rarely if ever does he take up abstract or technical moral theory; The New York Times Magazine is not a philosophy journal, after all. Unlike Spenser's, of course, most of Cohen's dilemmas are ones that ordinary people deal with every day. "Should I return the money the bank incorrectly credited to my account?" "Should I report my co-worker's petty theft?" "Should I tell my friend that her husband is cheating on her?"
In answering these questions, Cohen takes great effort to balance the different goals, values, and interests of those involved. He enunciates and weighs the different issues, and then attempts to justify a conclusion by reference to his principles.
Some of the answers are rather easy: Of course, you should return the money incorrectly credited to your account. In the stickier dilemmas, like the husband's infidelity, there is more to consider, and Cohen's answers are peppered with a lot of "ifs" and counter-examples. Maybe your friend and her husband have an open marriage; or possibly she would prefer to live in ignorance; or maybe you should first confront the husband and demand that he come clean. So far as such moral reasoning goes, it is sincere, thoughtful advice on how to deal with sometimes difficult and murky circumstances.
But though he is sincere and thoughtful, Cohen often goes badly wrong when dealing with the more complicated questions. And he goes wrong both because of his altruistic/collectivist premises and because of a faulty methodology.
One of the clearest examples of Cohen's altruistic outlook is in his response to a letter from a young man who realizes that it is time to end his romantic relationship with his current girlfriend. He is concerned, however, because this woman's father is very ill and that is causing her a lot of emotional pain. The young man doesn't want to burden his girlfriend with additional sadness, but he also wants to be honest with her and himself by ending the relationship. Cohen tells the young man that regardless of his lack of romantic feelings for this woman, he should not end the relationship yet, asserting an obligation to stay with a no-longer-loved girlfriend because of her father's severe illness.
Cohen is at his collectivist worst in his railings against private charity. He argues that having private charity instead of public assistance breaks down a community's social ties and shared sense of responsibility. First, he believes, a democracy should deal with "its" problems—such as deciding who needs help and how much—as a public matter. These problems shouldn't be left to the whims of private individuals. If they are, he thinks, the community no longer has a shared goal and purpose. Secondly, private money drives out public money. If private individuals donate money to charities to fund public parks or welfare programs, cities and local governments will have less need to fund these. And communities will feel less connected—the argument goes—as their members share less and less in public purposes.
As regards faulty methodology: One of Cohen's assumptions is that there is no coherent system of rational moral principles to which one can appeal. One has only a grab-bag collection of principles that one happens to value, and these most likely will conflict in various ways.
I refer to a set of principles I cherish as profoundly moral. This constellation of values includes honesty, kindness, compassion, generosity, fairness.
It can be difficult to satisfy any one of these principles without neglecting another. To answer an ethical question placed before me, I must mediate among them as if they were quarreling factions, each with its own demands. This is an approach to ethics that requires something like diplomacy among the competing principles. My challenge is to devise a course of action that best serves all of these clamoring constituencies (p. 10).
The fact that his most cherished moral values often conflict is not worrisome for Cohen; it is expected. And moral wisdom, for him, consists in finding the right balance between conflicting and competing principles.
For example, Cohen recommends that a woman not disclose her pregnancy when applying for a job. Here, Cohen sees a conflict between fairness and honesty. He thinks it is unfair that pregnant women have a more difficult time getting hired. But he also values the honesty of full disclosure. Since his values conflict, Cohen must choose between them and he chooses "fairness."
If Cohen possessed an integrated ethics, such as Objectivism, his moral wisdom would begin by asking what the virtue of "fairness" means in this context. Apparently, it means getting the potential employer to act according to the virtue of fairness. But having seen that far, Cohen might then realize that a virtue—such as fairness— cannot be foisted on a person by force or fraud, and the dilemma would be resolved quite differently.
As this example illustrates, we need moral wisdom to help us pick out appropriate facts, make better decisions, and guide our actions. But all of this operates within the context of a defined set of principles and values. If these values conflict or are inconsistent, then moral wisdom will be unable to take us very far in making good decisions and choosing right actions. It is like deductive logic: However good our reasoning may be, if our premises are contradictory, our conclusions will be useless.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.