Emily Yoffe is Slate’s advice columnist, in its “Dear Prudence” feature. She specializes in extreme situations: a recent column involved a teenager who realized that his mother had breast-fed him far too long because she was sexually aroused by it, and then had him fondle her breasts for years after he stopped be willing to suck on them. He asked what he should do now that his mother was subjecting his younger sister to the same treatment. (Emily did get that one right: she told him to call child services on his mother, and to seek professional help for himself.)
Last week I congratulated Carolyn Hax for her advice to a woman torn between the adulterous relationship of one friend with another friend’s husband. Notwithstanding the persistent argument of one crusading commenter who felt that I should have stood for universal adultery whistleblowing on friends and strangers alike, Hax gave, as usual, practical, ethical and measured advice. She suggested that the inquirer tell the cheating husband that his secret was out, and that she would not lie to protect his illicit affair. I believe that’s the right ethical balance. Hax’s advice to the woman was to be proactive in both extracting herself from the split loyalties and to be a catalyst for either disclosure or ending the affair. I also noted that the ethical duty on the questioner may be different when the betrayed spouse is an especially close friend, or a family member. Then loyalty and trust could require disclosure.
That same week, Yoffe got an inquiry from a “well-paid assistant of a successful business mogul.” Among her duties, she told “Prudence,” is to facilitate her boss’s extra-marital affair: lying about his whereabouts to business associates, deceiving his wife when she calls, and even buying gifts for the illicit lover. “Next month he’s going on a weeklong business trip,” she wrote. “He only needs to be gone for two days, but he’s taking his girlfriend with him and staying longer. I know I’m doing wrong by his wife. But I love my job, and I’m not sure what I could or should do to behave honorably in this situation.”
Isn’t the ethical answer obvious? You can’t behave honorably in this situation, you dummy! If you care about behaving honorably, tell your boss to cheat on his wife on his own time, using his own funds, with his own lies, and not to make it company business, or yours. And why do you love a job that requires you to facilitate the conduct of a creep like that?
This was Yoffe’s response, however:
“I thought one of the ways you know someone is a “successful business mogul” is that he has an assistant who picks out jewelry that suits the taste of both his wife and his mistress. How your boss conducts his affairs is not your affair. As long as you are not being asked to do something illegal, his personal life is his business—your job is just to make it run smoothly. I assume you don’t have trouble telling callers he doesn’t want to talk to that he’s in a meeting when he’s not. I do understand your discomfort at lying to his wife. So if that duty makes you feel too morally compromised, you should seek other employment. If you want to stay, that means your terms of employment require you to make all aspects of his life as frictionless as possible.”
Unbelievable. Take Yoffe’s advice license away: she is operating a column under the influence of unethical rationalizations.
Her answer begins with an “Everybody does it” riff, with a touch of Occupy Wall Street bigotry: “Big deal; aren’t all business leaders scum?” Next is a contradiction in terms: if it’s not the questioner’s affair, it’s not legitimately part of her job description to abet it. Then she dives into the “It’s legal!” excuse. But the questioner wasn’t asking if it was illegal to keep covering for her boss’s affair, Emily, she was asking if it was wrong. Obviously it is wrong to lie for and assist a cheating spouse, boss or not. Then Joffe embraces the “it’s your job, so you’re not accountable” fallacy—the Nuremberg defense, essentially. “I was following orders, so I’m not culpable.” Oh yes you are. It is the assistant’s job to make his life run smoothly, but when that job metastasizes into “help him harm his trusting family using lies and deception,” the job has become an unethical job, the job of a henchman, a hatchet-man, and a minion. Finally, Yoffe puts forth the bizarre argument that as long as routinely doing something unethical doesn’t make the questioner feel “morally compromised,” then there’s nothing wrong with it after all.
Essentially, Yoffe’s position is that doing something wrong isn’t, as long as you are being paid to do it for someone else.
Graphic: Fan Forum
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