“Excuse Me, Sir? You’re About To Die” Ethics

I had a strange experience as I was leaving a plane a couple of weeks ago.

A distinguished-looking man, older than I, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “I apologize for the intrusion, but I have been sitting behind you, and I noticed that your earlobes have clear creases in them. This is a sure sign that you either have heart disease or will have it, and are at risk of a heart attack. I just thought you should know.”

Now, as it happens, I know about the supposed link between heart attacks and earlobe creases, and even asked my cardiac specialist about it. He said that 1) some studies had found a statistical link; 2) no study had proposed any good reasons for the link, if there was one; 3) it wasn’t worth worrying about; and 4. one can only address the cardiac risk factors that can be changed, and one can’t change the creases in one’s earlobes.

In other words, the gentleman was factually wrong: my earlobes, which I think are kind of cool, do not carry “sure signs” that I am at risk for a heart attack.

I thanked him perfunctorily, but not especially warmly, and I also noticed that everyone in the vicinity was staring at my ears like I was a Vulcan.

I am now trying to decide what the ethical conduct should be for someone who believes that a stranger is at mortal risk that he or she might be unaware of or not taking sufficiently seriously.  Is it appropriate to make such unsolicited and alarming warnings in public, based on their presumed urgency? Should the warnings be made even if there is nothing the individual can do about what they are being warned about? Would it be unethical not to warn someone, anyone, when you are certain that they are at risk of imminent harm? Is this still true even if you are certain but wrong, because you are no expert, have accepted dubious sources, or are just an alarmist?

Which of these statements does a stranger have an ethical obligation to make—if any:

  • “I see that you are morbidly obese. Studies show that you are at risk of an early death.”
  • “I see that you are a bit chunky. I think you should know that even 20 extra pounds will shorten your life.”
  • “I see that you chose the lasagna for dinner. Eating meals including meat will give you cancer.”
  • “I notice the cigarettes in your pocket. Smoking will kill you, sooner or later.”
  • “I see that your wife is much younger than you. If you have not been cleared for sexual activity, you should be. She’s likely to kill you.”
  •  “You have the Mark of the Werewolf! Beware!”
  • “That man who is behind us has been looking at you funny. I think I saw him on “America’s Most Wanted,” and he’s The Bald Man Killer! Watch out!”

Or should we all mind our own business? When does caring become obtrusive? When does a warning cause unnecessary anxiety and unhappiness? Should I have been more grateful to the ear-fetishist, or told him that he was out of line?

This is a Golden Rule situation where we have no idea how we would like to be treated, because it depends. No, I don’t want to be harassed by everyone who thinks I should work out more. Yes, I want to be told if a safe is about to fall on me. And in between?

I’m not sure. Are you?

8 thoughts on ““Excuse Me, Sir? You’re About To Die” Ethics

  1. This is the proverbial slippery slope. “Excuse me, sir, but I couldn’t help noticing that you are bleeding from your ear. I’ll call 911 if you like.” Acceptable. “Excuse me, sir, but have you noticed that hatchet sticking out of your head?” Acceptable. Why? Both clearly indicate a serious, and most importantly, imminent health risk.

    “Excuse me sir, but I read that having spatulate fingers is a sign of incipient heart disease. You should look into it.” Unacceptable. “Excuse me, sir, but is that a Big Mac you’re eating there? Those things’ll kill ya.” Unacceptable. Why? Because the first is apparently based on casual information; the second is simply judgmental (maybe it was the gentleman’s very first Big Mac and he just wanted to try it…).

    There’s a difference between helping someone in obvious distress and frightening comments made about a stranger’s unknown health future. The former is Golden Rule stuff; the latter just meddling.

  2. I think you might want to know about the Bald Man Killer, I think that’d represent an imminent threat. The other ones? Not so much. It’s not for a stranger to say. Friends? Sure… I’d hope my friends or family cared enough to confront me if I was slowly killing myself with big macs. But it’s not a stranger’s place to say.

    And Jack? I think you are a Vulcan, Surgically altered to blend in and bring logic to the earthlings.

  3. I think you just had an encounter with one of the many, many weirdos walking around. That tends to happen if you leave your house a lot 😉

    Good thing you are not a hypochondriac, he could have thrown you into a weeks long tizzy. I would have mentioned the Bald Man Killer… and maybe the young wife. LOL!

  4. An older man stopped me while I was pumping gas the other day and said it was very dangerous for me to be talking on my cell phone while pumping gas. I ignored him and kept talking. Later I checked it out, and he was right! He was being kind … especially considering he didn’t high-tail it out of there himself, since I’m pretty sure any explosion I generated would have incinerated him, too. The airplane guy was merely following Henry James’s advice. Be glad there are people looking out for you, even if they’re not experts!

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