For 12 years Randy Cohen was the original writer of “The Ethicist,” a weekly column for the New York Times Magazine. He received thousands of letters about people’s moral dilemmas and responded to hundreds, some dealing with words, writing and books—four of which we reproduce below. These, and many others of Cohen’s choicest letters, have now been reprinted, with some interesting additional thoughts and comments, in Cohen’s new book, Be Good.
Post-Ethicist, Randy Cohen’s most recent venture is the radio show Person Place Thing, the next installment of which will be an October 10 interview with the writer and comedian John Hodgman, held at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca in New York City.
My son found an adolescent girl’s diary, an amazing sociological and cultural document, in front of a McDonald’s. I’m an artist and writer and want to reproduce it in a limited edition down to its spiral binding, drawings, and coffee stains. I take the postmodern position that I can do whatever I want with it, though I would respect the diary’s privacy (her name is nowhere in it) and change any identifying factors. Is reproducing someone’s innermost thoughts permissible in the name of art?
—Rita Sirignano, Calgary, Alberta
It is not permissible to publish someone’s work, particularly her most intimate thoughts, without consent. Indeed, it is disturbing that you apparently made no effort to return this diary to its owner by leaving word at that McDonald’s, for example, or putting up posters in the neighborhood.
Your editing might protect the diarist from some embarrassment, but not all (surely the people who know her well would deduce her identity). But even if she were impervious to embarrassment, you may not peremptorily publish. Postmodern is one word for what you propose; there are others that are more accurate and less self-serving.
The law coincides with ethics here. One lawyer emailed me: “In countries that adhere to the Berne Convention (and that would be most of the world), the diary gained copyright protection at the moment each entry was written; thus, reprinting it (i.e., copying it) would be copyright infringement, pure and simple. In the United States, such willful infringement is not just a tort but can be a federal crime.”
I’m learning the old-time clawhammer-style banjo playing that accompanies fiddlers in traditional Appalachian string bands. When I gather with other musicians, some of the old songs we play include the offensive N word. Should we play these songs as they have come down to us or change the offensive lyrics?
—J.R., Toledo, OH
The Stephen Foster problem. Its solution depends as much upon your audience as on you. You ought not perform these songs for a skinhead crowd as a way to supercharge its racist sing-along and rock-throw. Even if you’re performing for a genial and rockless audience, you should either provide some context or skip the disturbing parts of this repertory, noting your omissions and briefly explaining why you’ve made them. Honesty compels you to give your listeners some sense of the original odious lyrics; discretion sometimes compels allusion rather than expression. To spring bigotry set to music on the unwary is to violate an implicit agreement between performer and listener. You wouldn’t offer to provide a movie for a five-year-old’s birthday party and show the kids Psycho.
You may sing the unalloyed originals when you’re performing for an audience that knows what it’s getting into. It is important to preserve and understand the relics of our past, even the most shameful aspects of that past. No good is served by creating a cleaned-up, artificial America. You simply need to make sure that an audience has a choice about what they’ll be hearing. If they’ve been alerted—via your posters and program, perhaps—and wish to listen to historically accurate material, then discuss and sing. That is, give it not just the songs but some historical context, some real understanding.
Even when you are playing only with fellow musicians, you have an obligation not to perform these songs naively, but with a sense of their historical meaning. And you’d be wise to consider the coarsening effects on your own sensibilities of casually using such epithets. There is a moral obligation not to be a blockhead and en even more potent duty not to be the cause of blockheadedness in others.
Years ago I saw a bowdlerized “My Old Kentucky Home” on a Kentucky Fried Chicken box. As I recall, the lyrics as presented by Colonel Sanders were “‘Tis summer, the young folks are gay.” I was put off by this falsification of history, this willingness to dissemble to sell chicken. (And the gravy was kind of glory, too.)
I bought an e-reader for travel and was eager to begin Under the Dome, the new Stephen King. Unfortunately, the electronic version was not yet available. The publisher apparently withheld it to encourage people to buy the more expensive hardcover. So I did, all 1,074 pages, more than three and a half pounds. Then I found a pirated version online, downloaded it to my e-reader, and took it on my trip. I generally disapprove of illegal downloads, but wasn’t this OK?
—C.D., Brightwaters, NY
An illegal download is—to use an ugly word—illegal. But in this case, it is not unethical. Author and publisher are entitled to be paid for their work, and by purchasing the hardcover, you did so. Your subsequent downloading is akin to buying a CD, then copying it to your iPod.
Buying a book or a piece of music should be regarded as a license to enjoy it on any platform. Sadly, the anachronistic conventions of bookselling and copyright law lag behind the technology. Thus, you’ve violated the publisher’s legal right to control the distribution of its intellectual property, but you’ve done no harm, or so little as to meet my threshold of acceptability.
To clarify, this is not analogous to buying the hardcover and cruising by the bookstore the next day to swipe the paperback, something that would impose new costs on the publisher. Ideally, publishers would institutionalize my prescription by offering multitiered options when you buy a book, perhaps including a free or discounted e-book to those who have purchased the hardcover, or even offering the hardcover version at a lower price to those who have already purchased the e-book.
Unsurprisingly, many in the book business take a harder line. My friend Jamie Raab, publisher of Grand Central Publishing and an executive vice president of the Hachette Book Group, says, “Anyone who downloads a pirated e-book has, in effect, stolen the intellectual property of an author and publisher. To condone this is to condone theft.”
Yet it is a curious sort of theft that involves actually paying for a book. Publishers do delay the release of e-books to encourage hardcover sales—a process called “windowing”—so it is difficult to see you as piratical for actually buying the book ($35 list price, $20 from Amazon) rather than waiting for the $9.99 Kindle edition.
Your action is not pristine. Downloading a bootleg copy could be said to encourage piracy, although only in the abstract—no potential pirate will actually realize you’ve done it. It’s true that you might have thwarted the publisher’s intent—perhaps he or she has a violent antipathy to trees, maybe a wish to slaughter acres of them and grind them into Stephen King novels. Or to clog the highways with trucks crammed with Stephen King novels. Or perhaps King himself wishes to improve America’s physique by having readers lug massive volumes. So be it. Your paying for the hardcover put you in the clear as a matter of ethics, forestry, and fitness training.
I read for an organization that produces books and magazines on tape for the blind. Recently my assignment was to read articles from a John Birch Society magazine. As someone whose politics are somewhere to the left of left-wing Democrats, I felt uneasy, but I did my assignment, feeling that I had no right to censor what these folks had requested. Should I have refused?
—Martin G. Evans, Cambridge, MA
You were right to read. Your function is akin to a librarian’s—to provide requested material, not to judge those requests. The free flow of information is something those of all political persuasions can esteem. (On a personal note, I am surprised and delighted to learn that there actually are left-wing Democrats. Perhaps they’re like the ivory-billed woodpecker—just when you think it’s extinct, you hear its plangent cry.)
Helping to disseminate what you regard as, at best, claptrap, is a test of your commitment to the ideals of an open society and of your skills as an orator. I’m sure there were moments when it was hard to keep your performance free of scorn and incredulity. I admire your having done so. Then again, if I were your director, I might suggest—strictly as a theatrical matter—punctuating your reading with snorts of derision, the occasional outburst of laughter, and…no, no, no. Never mind.
While my directorial suggestions are dubious, you do face not only ethical but also rhetorical challenges. My friend Earl Howard, blind all his life, told me, “Years ago, when I was a student, I got audiobooks from Recordings for the Blind. Those readers were, to put it kindly, of varying quality. Some were pretty good; some could barely pronounce the words. If you listened to poetry, it would drive you nuts. Most blind people learned to ignore the performance and just hear the words.”
Your organization could mitigate this problem if it attempted to accommodate its volunteers’ preferences, aesthetic as well as ideological; some people love reading poetry aloud, some do not. But when it cannot make a perfect match, it should explain that there is civic virtue in a volunteer reading whatever he or she is assigned.