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February 2, 2006

For advice ask “The Ethicist”

Have a moral dilemma? Step right up and Randy Cohen will tell you how to do the right thing. Hundreds of people write to him each week seeking ethical advice; he provides the answers in his popular New York Times Magazine column, “The Ethicist.”

Cohen will kick off the newly endowed Dr. Bernard Cobetto lecture series Feb. 23 at Pitt-Greensburg. The series, made possible by a gift from Bernard and Ellen Cobetto, will bring a speaker to UPG each year to lecture on ethics in contemporary society.

Cobetto, a retired radiologist, earned his undergraduate and M.D. degrees at Pitt. He and his wife have been supporters of UPG for several years and were seeking a way to offer a lasting gift. “I’ve always felt they’ve done such a great job out here,” the Greensburg resident said of the regional campus where two of his six children started their college days. “And, why not help your hometown?” he said.

The idea of ethics as the topic for the lecture series was spawned through observation. “I saw a need for it,” Cobetto said, citing the old adage, “Find a need and fill it.”

“I think we need to know about ethics… ethics in everything: advertising, politics, business, how to raise your kids with a work ethic,” he said.

Cohen, who has written humor pieces for a number of publications, is the author of “The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations,” “Diary of a Flying Man” and “Modest Proposals.” He has won four Emmy awards, three as a writer for “Late Night with David Letterman” and one for his work on “TV Nation.” He also was the original head writer for the Rosie O’Donnell show.

Although he has written “The Ethicist” column for seven years, Cohen admits he has no formal training in philosophy. “It’s not a credentialed field, not like claiming to be a dentist when you’re not. It’s different. It’s the kind of discussion about right and wrong that everyone participates in, one way or another,” he said.

Cohen’s UPG lecture topic, “How to Be Good,” examines the issues surrounding doing what one is supposed to. “There is a consensus in right conduct,” he said. “You shouldn’t kick the dog, you shouldn’t kick the cat. You shouldn’t steal. If we agree in general about what’s right and what’s wrong, how come we aren’t all perfect?”

Cohen said he’s come to take a different approach to ethics than philosophers who view ethical development as an exercise in cultivating one’s character.

“I’ve come to believe there’s no such thing as character,” he said.

“Rather than the development of essential qualities that make one virtuous, it’s more about circumstances…. It’s a nature-nurture argument,” Cohen said.

“Nearly all discussion about ethics is about character, how we cultivate our character, what about people who have bad character… The notion that there might not be anything such as character, and that circumstances are all, can be shocking,” he said.

The notion doesn’t absolve one of responsibility, however. “It’s not an argument for passivity or getting one’s self off the hook morally,” he said.

The lecture is meant to be food for thought, to spark new ways of thinking. “I don’t think people’s minds get changed in an hour,” he said. Instead, he’d rather plant the seeds of ideas and send his audience away as “intellectual ticking time bombs,” as he puts it. He will take questions from the audience following the talk.

“I love the question and answer. I’ve heard the speech,” he said.

“Don’t be shy,” he encouraged prospective listeners, urging them to bring along their own moral predicaments. He already has a solution for those concerned about revealing deep, dark ethical dilemmas in front of friends and colleagues: “They can hold their hands over their face and speak in a French accent. No one will know it’s them.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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