Ever wonder whether your moral compass plays a role in your ability to be happy? We checked in with Randy Cohen, former “ethicist” for The New York Times Magazine and author of the new book Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything to talk about his thoughts on how people should respond to some of life’s most challenging ethical dilemmas and how your moral conscience can play a role in happiness.
Q: You mention in your book that writing this column didn’t make you a more virtuous person. Do you think we can learn to be more ethical people, or is our ethical level fixed like our propensity to gain weight?
A: Neither. One big change in my thinking since I had that column is a shift away from seeing ethical behaviour as a function of our character, and much more to see it as a function of the communities of which we’re members. Most Spartans act like Spartans and most Athenians act like Athenians. If we want to improve our behaviour and personal qualities, we should think about how we should change our environment. Enron wasn’t Enron because it hired the most wicked people in the energy business; rather, it created a culture of deceit. People conform to the norms of their culture.
Q: Have you given any thought to the role that conscience plays in happiness?
A: I have noticed that conscience is our friend, and it lets us know when we’ve done something wrong according to prevailing standards. But it’s not always a good guide to ethical or virtuous behaviour. I have friends, Jews and Catholics, who feel guilty if they even have a wayward thought about sex. But Henry Kissinger would bomb an orphanage and sleep through the night. You might even make the case that the weaker your conscience is, the happier you’ll be — though I’m not sure your friends will enjoy being around you.
Q: You mentioned the guys at Enron earlier, and it seems like their consciences were malfunctioning. Do you think they were happy before they got caught?
A: I don’t think their consciences were malfunctioning. I think their consciences comported to the norms of their community. We’re a brilliant species at rationalizing. People will do the most wicked things and never have a problem coming up with a justification. Their consciences aren’t so much turned off. A conscience doesn’t just refer to your moral training as a child, it’s a reaction to both the values of the community and the way we perceive ourselves. Villains don’t think of themselves as villains. Stalin thought he was a good guy.
Q: Do you think people who belong to more ethical communities are happier?
A: I do think that they are to a certain extent. We’re always members of multiple communities: the community of our family might echo the values we were raised with, but there’s also communities of work and friends. If there’s a conflict between the values of those communities, I think it can make us very unhappy.
Q: Do you have any interest in making a persuasive argument for why we should “be good”?
A: Yes. Benjamin Franklin said that we should be good in order to be “Happy.” And he didn’t mean happy from one drink to the next, but happy in the fullest sense. People don’t like being part of unethical communities. My daughter went to a high school where cheating was pervasive, and even the cheaters were uncomfortable because of the clash of values I mentioned earlier. For Franklin, ethical conduct was not about religion or law, but because that’s what it takes for happiness to prevail.
Q: But if you’re isolated in an unethical community, where do you look for orientation?
A: You’ll be miserable. A virtuous person in a corrupt world is profoundly alienated. I can’t even be happy when everyone at the movie is laughing and I’m not. We’re social creatures and we want to know that the people around us speak a similar language. You can change your culture — which is slow — or you can sometimes leave. But it’s not so easy for people to do. The third and most disheartening option is Prozac. It helps people do the soul-crushing things they need to do.
Randy Cohen’s Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything, $29, is available now.