Columnist Carolyn Hax, who gives wise and witty relationship advice, has a sure instinct for ethics though the word doesn’t often appear in her column. It did today, though…and it didn’t belong there.
A woman wrote Hax to ask if it was “okay” to break off a long-time friendship “over ethics.” Her college roommate made millions “off the recession” as an investment banker, and had retired wealthy at 35. A professedly non materialistic college professor, the writer was bothered that her ex-roomie had “no remorse or feeling for the people who are losing their homes or jobs.” She felt her retired and well-off friend should be “volunteering or doing something worthwhile” instead of travelling and “complaining about her portfolio.”
The writer was confusing ethics and values. The former investment banker, based on the letter, at least, had done nothing that was unethical. It isn’t unethical to get rich, and it isn’t unethical to be successful while others are not. What was she supposed to be “remorseful” about? She didn’t lose those people their jobs or houses. Essentially, the college professor seems to be, as a disturbing number of college professors are, a class-obsessed bigot who believes that rich people have something to be ashamed of.
Feeling remorseful or caring about the less-fortunate is not ethical conduct. Feeling isn’t conduct at all, though a lot of insufferable people seem to think so. Someone who doesn’t have an ounce of sympathy for the poor but gives to charity to help them because it looks good to others is still acting ethically, and is more ethical than someone whose heart runneth over with sympathy but who doesn’t do anything about it.
Values make up character. They also are the building blocks of ethics, but values only become ethical when they lead to action. Caring? Caring is nice. A caring person is a nicer person than an uncaring one, in most cases. But caring isn’t ethical; without a corresponding action, it’s just sentiment. If the professor no longer likes her rich friend because she doesn’t have the same values, that’s her privilege, but not sharing the same values and priorities doesn’t make the friend unethical.
Similarly, the prof has no business pronouncing her roomie unethical because she doesn’t use her time the way the professor would. Doing volunteer work is admirable; it is ethical conduct, no doubt about it. But the rich retired banker has no obligation to spend her time doing what her caring friend thinks is “worthwhile.” Maybe she’s writing a novel. Maybe she gives thousands to PETA. Maybe she’s trying to decide what to do with the rest of her life. If she doesn’t care about the poor and wants to support the travel industry, well, that’s her choice, and it isn’t an unethical one.
It’s also the professor’s choice to decide that she doesn’t want to be friends with someone whose values, rightly or wrongly, she deplores, or whose character she doesn’t respect. That’s a terrific reason to end a friendship. But ethics has nothing to do with it.
Hax, as usual, gets it right. “I don’t see why it has to be about ethics anyway, ” she writes. “If you see her as whiny and self-indulgent, or cold, or just a portfolio-preoccupied bore, then you can just choose not to be friends.” And then she adds…
“If it’s envy of her money/freedom, or certainty that you’d be generous vs. self-indulgent with such wealth, then that gets a little more complicated. You would need to remind yourself of the reasons you stayed friends after college — and of the reasons it’s good to check ourselves when we start to feel superior.”