It isn't easy to be good

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he was planning this even before the recent scandals in the top ranks of the Pentagon and CIA, but he's ordered the military to double down on ethics training for its senior officers.

In a memo to Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Panetta didn't reference Gen. David Petraeus' affair with his biographer or Gen. John Allen's mountain of "inappropriate" emails to a Tampa socialite — but he didn't have to.


And they are not the only brass behaving badly.

The New York Times listed the miscreants as follows: The head of the new Africa Command is in trouble for lavish spending; a former deputy commander in Afghanistan faces a probe over sexual misconduct with five women; another former commander was expelled from the Army for bigamy over his relationship with an Iraqi woman; and instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas are charged with the sexual assault of female recruits.


Clearly, a little review is in order. And I'd like to add a title to the reading list. "Be Good: How To Navigate the Ethics of Everything," a compilation of "The Ethicist" columns written by Randy Cohen during his tenure in the job at The New York Times Magazine.

Mr. Cohen includes a chapter in the book on dilemmas faced by his readers in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a question from a convoy commander in Iraq who wanted to know if it had been ethical to replace a single mother with an unmarried soldier on a dangerous mission because he didn't want to risk making her child an orphan.

(The answer was no. Decisions based on domestic obligations, he said, could not be applied consistently.)

But the rest of the book, with chapters on civic life, money, sports and the arts, though not as topical, are just as valuable for the quandaries they present and for Mr. Cohen's point of view.

Examples: If I'm caught speeding in the company of my children, should I fight the ticket or accept the consequences as an example to the kids? Should I pay for services in cash for the discount even if the recipient has told me he pays no taxes on that money?

My daughter's soccer team has encountered opponents who flood the turf or use other tactics to neutralize their superior ball-handling skills. Is that ethical? Should my mother "seed" the house with loose change and bills to see if the new maid is honest?

The problems cover a wide range, and the answers make for lively reading. Each chapter is preceded by a thoughtful — and pretty hip —essay. And Mr. Cohen (this is his second collection of such essays) gives us a glimpse of just how complicated life can be for someone trying to live honorably.

Military generals and Wall Street bankers and bureaucrats who steal from the till or abuse their privileges are not the only ones who are ethically challenged. We all are — if we are paying attention — and it is doubly difficult if we are trying to explain the difference between right and wrong to our young adult children.


It isn't all Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule out here. It is easy to say that you shouldn't sleep with a woman who is not your wife, but how many flirtatious emails is too many?

It is easy to tell your children it is wrong to steal. But is it wrong to line up two cars to get the discount on the gas price that was meant for just one, or to jump on the wi-fi service a neighbor pays for?

And, yes, there is a chapter on sex, but the questions are not some tired version of "My best friend's husband is cheating. Should I tell her?" And he frames his essay on the nature of supervisor-subordinate sex and what it means if the subordinate is willing. Sex isn't a problem in the workplace — until it is.

It also bears noting, as an aside, that during the revelations about General Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, it was suspected that a letter to the current author of the Times' Ethicist column had been from Ms. Broadwell's husband, asking how he should handle the fact that his wife was having an affair with someone important whose good work would be jeopardized by the revelation.

It appeared unsigned in print, and the Times said it was not from Scott Broadwell.

For the record, columnist Chuck Klosterman wrote that he should confront his wife, just as he would if she were sleeping with the mailman. But he went on to say that he wondered why the husband had written at all, unless he was using the Times to send a warning to the lovers to break it off or risk exposure.


You see? Life is complicated. And it isn't easy to be good.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays and she can be reached at and @Susan Reimer on