Ethics Malpractice from “Dear Margo”: The Tale of Witchy, Tubby and Sue

"Well sure---his inner qualities are much more important to me now that he's so hot!"

I read a lot of advice columns, which often involve ethical issues and very often expose the ethical incompetence of the supposed experts who write them. Some advice columnists are ethically spot-on with regularity, like The Washington Post’s Carolyn Hax. Some, like the past and present”Ethicists” of the New York Times, are off-base almost as often as they are on. Then there are the advice mavins like “Margo,” in the Boston Globe. I don’t know how such people get to be advice columnists, but I suspect it either involves picking names out of a hat or the exchange of sexual favors. [Full disclosure: I give out personal ethics advice myself over at, when a legitimate questioner can find me—ethics isn’t listed as one of the site’s topics—and when the question isn’t a thinly veiled homework question, which it usually is.]

As an example of ethics malpractice, consider this question posed to Margo. “Sue” wrote that she had broken up with her ex-boyfriend over arguments about his weight and eating habits, which “grossed her out.” Eight months later, he’s fit and fabulous, and has a new girlfriend.  “I really would like him back because he’s hot and slim,” Sue writes, plaintively. “How can I step on his witchy new girlfriend so I can get him back?”

That’s rich..his current girlfriend is “witchy.”

But Margo is sympathetic to Sue’s plight:

“Isn’t it always the way? A woman dumps Tubby, and then he morphs into an Adonis. Sort of like the married man who has a girlfriend, the wife dies, and then he marries someone else. These things are hard to figure.”

No, it’s not like that at all, and it’s easy to figure. Sue was only interested in her ex- while he was slim and “hot”; when he needed her understanding and emotional support she hectored him about his waistline, and now that he has found someone who cares about him more than his jean size, he’s happy and secure and it shows in his physique.

Now Margo charges forward in her efforts to help this woman ruin the guy’s life:

“If you made a play for him, he might figure out it was all about the physical aspects, which is none too flattering.”

By all means, don’t let Adonis know that his ex- is completely shallow and is only attracted to his abs, not the human being behind them! That won’t work, because he’ll figure out Sue’s motives and  then she won’t be able to suck the guy back into her clutches. No, Margo has a better way:

“As for the witch, I would not move to dislodge her. My only suggestion would be to let him know that you find yourself missing him and see if he responds. Or doesn’t.”

Margo adopts Sue’s negative characterization of a woman that Margo has never met, and conspires to help her take her best shot at luring “the witch’s” boyfriend away. Nice. And such a clever plan by Margo: Sue should tell him she’s “missing him,” which deceitfully suggests that her nostalgia is motivated by something other than pure lust—since ex-boyfriend is now ex-“Tubby” and so, so “hot”—and, in all likelihood, the fact that Sue hasn’t been successful in recruiting another victim into her body-fat percentage-obsessed hell.

This is the kind of inquiry that Carolyn Hax regularly knocks out of the park while knocking the ethically-challenged inquirer out of the park in the process. The competent and ethical advice columnist’s job isn’t to aid and abet unethical conduct, but to prevent it while slapping some ethical awareness into unethical correspondents. In Sue’s case, the proper response would be this:

“Do your ex-boyfriend the favor of respecting his happiness and the current state of his life by leaving him alone. You showed that you cared more about his appearance than his emotional needs and personal qualities in your first time together, and it is clear from your comments that this hasn’t changed. The woman whom you call “witchy” obviously has him feeling good and good about himself; you have no right to “step on” her, or do anything to undermine the relationship.

“You would be better served, in the long run, by honestly assessing your own values and ethical instincts, which are seriously out of whack. Physical attractiveness comes and goes, including your own, but qualities of character are ultimately what makes a human being a good partner, spouse or friend. You need to learn that, and also to work on your inner attractiveness. Your body may be toned, but your ethics are full of cellulite.”

3 thoughts on “Ethics Malpractice from “Dear Margo”: The Tale of Witchy, Tubby and Sue

  1. “Your body may be toned, but your ethics are full of cellulite.” LOVE IT! You could give Carolyn (one of my top Post reads) a run for her money!

  2. Margo is actually Margo Howard, the late Ann Landers’ daughter. Ann was always warm and kind and ethical…not so much the daughter.

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