Ethicist Unchained: Randy Cohen Is Back

Randy CohenAs Off the Record pondered the ethics of regifting last week, we came across help in an unlikely place: a web ad for Detroit-based Ally Bank, which features original New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen dispensing advice about financial etiquette.

We called Mr. Cohen to find out how he went from being “The Ethicist”—a post he held for a dozen years—to the etiquette adviser at Ally Bank. Apparently, the advertising folks at iCrossing, fans of Mr. Cohen’s, got in touch about using him in a campaign for their client. But what about using the “Author, original NY Times Ethicist” chyron in the videos? Is the Gray Lady cool with that?

“The title identifies me; it doesn’t imply the Times’s endorsement—at least I hope it doesn’t. It’s like saying I went to Harvard,” Mr. Cohen told OTR, noting that he would never say that since he did not, in fact, go to Harvard. “Telling the truth is ethical.”

True to his word, when asked about his departure from the magazine, Mr. Cohen allowed that he didn’t step down but was pushed out. Mr. Cohen left when Hugo Lindgren took over almost two years ago. “I was fired.” he told OTR. “It’s not unfair, but it’s painful. Lots of things that are painful aren’t unfair. I’m like a jilted lover. If your ex gets together with someone great, you feel like a failure. If they end up with someone awful, then you think, ‘Was that what she thought of me?’”

Mr. Cohen’s old column first had a fling with Ariel Kaminer. Now the magazine is making it work with Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs author Chuck Klosterman—not that Mr. Cohen would know.

“I haven’t read it since I left. Watching from the outside is different,” he said.

Did promoting a bank raise any ethical red flags? Mr. Cohen said he had considered that, but decided advertising was okay. After all, The New York Times Magazine sold ads to Liberty Mutual that were adjacent to his column when the financial firm wanted to be identified with ethics. “The only problem is if it presents a conflict of interest or isn’t transparent,” Mr. Cohen said. Since Mr. Cohen’s job at the Times was to offer ethical opinions about readers’ domestic problems, there was no conflict of interest with the Times ads. Besides, “The New York Times was fine with it.”

According to Mr. Cohen’s moral calculus, the Ally spots might have presented an ethical quandary if he were offering advice about, say, banking regulations or government bailouts, instead of about regifting and borrowing cars. And besides, you can’t designate money as clean or dirty, Mr. Cohen explained, citing George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote, “The notion that you can earmark certain coins as tainted is an unpractical individualist superstition.” (Mr. Cohen used the same quote in a 2007 column, in response to an inquiry about whether somebody can accept rent money from a roommate who worked as a prostitute.)

Like Shaw, Mr. Cohen has written some plays since leaving the Times. He has also written a book, taken speaking engagements and started a podcast called “Person, Place, Thing,” on which famous guests talk about a person, place or thing they are particularly fond of. The podcast will officially launch at event at 92YTribeca later this month.

“It’s not like I have a drawer full of money,” said Mr. Cohen, who was a staff writer for Late Night With David Letterman before turning to the advice trade. Not that the Ally Bank spots are helping very much in filling up that drawer. He called the web advertising rates “shockingly low” and, as a harbinger of the web economy, particularly vexing for newspapers.

But then, lots of things that are painful aren’t unfair.