Excerpt from The Good, The Bad and The Difference by Randy Cohen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Good, The Bad and The Difference

How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Life

by Randy Cohen

The Good, The Bad and The Difference
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Mar 2002, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2003, 256 pages

  • Rate this book


Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

Commercial Life

Whoever commits a fraud is guilty not only of the particular injury to him who he deceives, but of the diminution of that confidence which constitutes not only the ease but the existence of society.
- Johnson, Rambler #79 (December 18, 1750)

That this is one of the book's longest chapters is unsurprising: It takes up the ethics of commercial transactions, our culture's most common sort of human interaction. One way or another, these questions involve money. In particular, they deal with shopping and with the essential conflict between buyer and seller. The former wants to pay the lowest price, the latter wants to receive the highest; the temptations of deceit are powerful. That is why the used-car dealer has long been depicted as a reviled and tormented soul. If the car had been invented one hundred years earlier, Verdi would no doubt have written an opera about a used-car dealer. (And he would have taken very different sorts of vacations, perhaps driving along the seacoast with a backseat full of kids singing "Are We There Yet?")

There is an entire body of ethics and a great deal of law designed to keep the wheels of commerce turning smoothly, and that's not entirely a bad thing. It's nice to be able to buy groceries knowing that your pound of coffee is an actual pound. And actual coffee. And it makes the shopkeeper's job more relaxing if he can be confident that you'll pay for it, rather than slip it down your trousers. (And it makes your guests happier, knowing they won't be drinking trouser coffee.)

Commercial codes are ancient and nearly universal; laws touching on business practices can be found among Roman law, and farther back among the Egyptians and Babylonians. The earliest such provisions were little more than caveat emptor, but we have made a kind of moral progress. In America, there has been something of a revival of such codes under the rubric of consumerism. Most Americans appreciate measures to ensure that today even the unwary are unlikely to buy tainted pork or a cardboard sedan.

But an uneasy tension persists between consumerism and commerce. We are, after all, a country that both discourages the sale of tobacco, a toxic product, and subsidizes its cultivation. Were you to introduce some other new product that killed off its users at so impressive a rate--some kind of exploding hat, perhaps--one suspects that Congress would take more vigorous steps to discourage its sale (at least to minors).

Health and safety are not the only factors in the creation of consumer law. Tradition and self-interest also play their parts. Philip Morris is reluctant to give up its enormous profits; tobacco farmers find a sentimental comfort (and a hardscrabble livelihood) in the family farm. Of course, similar arguments have been made by Colombian cocaine cartels and small coca growers. Someday, perhaps, a satisfyingly ironic solution to our tobacco problem will be found when the Colombian government sends us a billion dollars in foreign aid so we can attack the big tobacco traffickers and shift the small farmers to alternative crops, something less deadly and less addictive. Marijuana?

There are broad ethical implications in what is sometimes referred to as the "consumer movement." Its virtues are those of our democracy itself, high among them being truthfulness and the free flow of information that enables consumers (and citizens) to make informed choices, albeit when choosing breakfast cereal rather than a congressman (although, come to think of it, lately there may be less of a distinction here than the Founding Fathers could have anticipated).

And yet, conceding the righteousness of this crusading zeal, there is something in me that does not wish to be referred to as a "consumer." It smacks of the French Revolution somehow, only instead of being addressed as Citizen Cohen, I'm now Consumer Cohen, an honorific that rather overemphasizes a single sphere of existence. The problem is not so much that commerce dominates public life, it is that commerce is public life. It is often noted that too few of us vote, but we turn out in impressive numbers to any event that includes the phrase "10 percent Off!" We spend less time in the town square than we do at the mall, where there is, for example, no guarantee of free speech (although there is occasionally a nice free sample of cheese at that snack shop). All too often, shopping is what we have instead of civic activity.

  • 1
  • 2

Copyright Randy Cohen. All rights reserved.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

One-Month Free Membership

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Here I Am
    Here I Am
    by Jonathan Safran Foer
    With almost all the accoutrements of upper middle-class suburban life, Julia and Jacob Bloch fit the...
  • Book Jacket: Harmony
    Harmony
    by Carolyn Parkhurst
    In previous novels such as The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found, Carolyn Parkhurst has shown herself...
  • Book Jacket: Commonwealth
    Commonwealth
    by Ann Patchett
    Opening Ann Patchett's novel Commonwealth about two semi-functional mid-late 20th Century ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Tea Planter's Wife
    by Dinah Jefferies

    An utterly engrossing, compulsive page-turner set in 1920s Ceylon.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Darling Days
    by iO Tillett Wright

    A devastatingly powerful memoir of one young woman's extraordinary coming of age.

    Read Member Reviews

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
Sweet Caress
by William Boyd

William Boyd's Sweet Caress captures an entire lifetime unforgettably within its pages. It captivates.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win Blood at the Root

Blood at the Root

"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

D C Y C Before T A H

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
X

Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!



Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.