Good Advice

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, April 6, 2004 | Go to article overview

Good Advice

Dart, John, The Christian Century

JUNE O'CONNOR, a noted professor of" ethics, leads a double life--and without a whiff of duplicity. Primarily she teaches ethics at the University of California at Riverside. However, she also regularly' takes on the persona of advice columnist for "Dear June," a column that runs in the Catholic Digest.

A "Dear Abby" with depth, O'Connor responds to dilemmas posed by "Heartbroken in Arizona," "Confused and Hurt" or "Honest but Timid."

"She's a real friend to the people who read our magazine," said Kathleen Stauffer, her first editor at the Digest, a monthly with 350,000 subscribers. "She never brags and is a bit reticent. She doesn't take herself seriously; she takes the other person seriously."

The author of two books, active in editing and writing for academic publications, O'Connor this year completed a term as president of the Society of Christian Ethics. Many of her colleagues in the 950-member SCE hadn't known about her "Dear June" role until she gave her presidential address at the SCE annual meeting in January. She briefly mentioned her advice column before examining the styles of two of the nation's best-known popular ethicists: Laura Schlessinger--the controversial radio host "Dr. Laura"--and Randy Cohen, who writes "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Magazine. O'Connor's address also considered the commercial success of authors and speakers who emphasize personality types and the effect of personality differences on ethical behavior.

Her speech, laced with ad libs and visual aids, was a definite "change of pace" for the scholars, said the SCE's executive director, Regina Wolfe. "I think that she is being unduly modest and reticent about what she is doing," said the society's new president, John Langan, who holds a chair in Catholic social thought at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics. "Her combination of academic training, clarity of speech and thought, pastoral sensitivity, and straightforward good sense retake her an excellent person both to do this popular work and to reflect on it."

Observing good-naturedly that academic ethicists like a touch of jargon, O'Connor called Schlessinger's manner "markedly but not solely deontological"--the technical term for an ethics based on binding roles. She termed Cohen's method that of a "consequentialist"--someone who stresses "the, impact our actions have on others while recognizing responsibilities ... as means to that awareness."

Schlessinger, whose doctorate is in physiology, has spoken openly of her embrace of Judaism. She is perhaps best known for offering callers blunt advice. If her style can be captured in one line, said O'Connor, it is this: she insists "on the importance of being good and doing good rather than feeling good." The latter approach leads to "stupid" mistakes, Schlessinger believes, whereas being good and doing good are for her "ways of describing human purpose," O'Connor said.

Despite disputing Dr. Laura's answers on some questions, O'Connor said she thinks her "entertaining" show and her books are important because they help to foster broader ethical inquiry, imagination and resolve.

Cohen, although raised in a "suburban Reform Judaism" household, says his perspective is "overtly, resolutely secular." The uncredentialed Cohen was chosen to write the column (called "Everyday Ethics" in syndication) for his writing and analytical ability. He approaches ethics, said O'Connor, "as a rational process of problem-solving" and "accents the impact of one's actions on others." Unlike Schlessinger, who cites the Ten Commandments "as a compelling moral authority O'Connor said, Cohen debunks them as "not very helpful to schoolchildren, parents and teachers whose concerns are about treating one another civilly, valuing learning for its own sake, being kind," and understanding how people use personal power in relating to others.

Commenting on the personality-traits literature, O'Connor discussed authors Helen Palmer, who has explored the nine-point Enneagram; David West Keirsey and Marilyn Bates (Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types); and Florence Littauer (Your Personality Tree), who is especially popular in evangelical circles. …

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