Skip to content
Who's in the Video
No one knows more about life's ethical dilemmas than Randy Cohen. After spending over a decade answering readers' questions for the New York Times Magazine column The Ethicist, Cohen has[…]

How do you reconcile your desire to honor your own values without forcing the people you want to help into more dangerous conduct? Former New York Times columnist Randy Cohen answers the second in a series of Big Think readers’ ethical questions.

It’s incredibly admirable what you’re doing, that your willingness to reach out and help people who have really difficult economic lives. It’s so praiseworthy and so much better than what I do during my typical working day. You know, I would take my hat off to you if I had a hat, but it would only call attention to my incipient baldness.

The ethical dilemma you face is by adhering to your own principles of safety, will you drive people to do something even more dangerous. How do you reconcile you desire to honor your own values without forcing the people you want to help into more dangerous conduct?

A question that underpins this is how much of consequentialist do you want to be? That when people approach moral thinking, as consequentialists, they are concerned less with fundamental principles than with, what will be the results of our actions? That’s not a foolish
way to approach moral thinking. So if the results of your actions, your desire to ease these people’s lives ends up making their lives harder and more dangerous, a consequentialist would say, “Well you might want to think about taking them even if you don’t adhere to your own principles of safety."

I would say that this is a dubious way to approach it because the same argument can then be applied to lowering the minimum wage. Many people would take less than minimum wage jobs because they’re financially desperate. To forsaking building standards because you could build a less expensive housing, I think here you have to define certain principles of safety that you will adhere to regardless of the consequences.

I do have one other suggestion. You were very concerned about the lack of a child seat. Here’s what you can do about that. That’s a solvable problem. You go to Goodwill, you buy a car seat and you put them in your trunk. And then when you have these chance encounters, these occasional times when you’re hauling other people, you just install it in your car. Sometimes there are practical solutions to what appear to be insurmountable moral problem.