Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: The Cologne Allergy

Perfume allergyEvery now and then readers think I’m Ann Landers. Today I got a “Dear Ethics Alarms: What’s right?” e-mail from a friend, and I thought I’d answer it on the blog because it raises a classic ethics conundrum.

The inquirer belongs to a social group that meets weekly. It is a weekly joy, I am told; the writer has been attending for years. Everyone convenes, on the given day, right after work. Attendance varies, and membership is informal, though individuals have been told, on rare occasions, to come no more.

Of late an infrequent attendee, but a member of long standing, has begun to attend meetings with some regularity. My friend says this is not the happiest of developments, because the two do not get along. It is a breach of long-standing, I am told and is not going to be healed. “She is an asshole,” is how the letter delicately puts it.

Last week, shortly before the end of the 90 minute gathering, the recent interloper stood up and declared that she had developed a serious allergy to colognes, perfumes, aftershave, and all chemical scents. Looking right at my friend, she declared that this allergy made exposure to any sort of commercial scent unbearable, and she asked that in the future no members should wear perfume of any kind.

“I have worn a favorite brand of cologne every day for over thirty years,” the from my acquaintance letter says. “I always get complimented on it; the scent is subtle and nobody would notice it unless they were right next to me. The asshole and I have been separated by the length of the room since she started coming. Personally, I think she made the demand just to make me miserable. She knows, from our previous relationship [NOTE: I think it was more than just a friendship], that I wear the cologne.”

The question: Is she ethically obligated to stop wearing cologne on the day of the meeting (she goes right from work) to accommodate this member’s special problem?

Add to this the broader ethics question that comes up often: Does a group member with special sensitivity have the ethical upper hand allowing such a member to demand that all other members avoid conduct that only bothers that member?

We have entered this murky ethics realm on Ethics Alarms primarily as it relates to political correctness. For the cologne, substitute the nickname of a football team; for the group member, substitute a member of the community who is deeply offended by “Redskins.” I’ve made my opinion pretty clear on that controversy: even assuming that the sensitivity is genuine and not manufactured for the purpose of getting headlines, fundraising or political capital, acceding to the request is not ethically mandatory, and depending on how many others the decision to do so would adversely affect, not even necessarily ethical.

The cologne situation is a little less polluted by non-ethical considerations, and let me purify it further. The strained relationship between the two women is irrelevant, except to the extent it warps ethical analysis. One member’s health and well-being is undermined by another member’s personal habits which are otherwise benign. We will assume that the group is neutral on the subject: if a member demanded that 30 perfume-wearing fellow members eschewed their scents for her comfort alone, the group is completely within ethical bounds to say, “Sorry, find another group.”

One other point needs to be made: the usual approach to these zero-sum game disputes is to give the advantage to the individual who cares most passionately about the result. I reject that approach. This leads to emotional blackmail as a tool of negotiation; it is simply “the squeaky wheel gets the grease being used as a lazy formula for resolving disputes.

Thus I told my inquirer that while it would be nice, kind, generous, selfless, considerate and exemplary ethics to give up her cologne, no ethical principle mandates it. I noted that dumping quarts of cheap perfume on herself to drive the woman mad would be wrong—but funny!—but that she had no obligation to accommodate this member’s special needs.

Right?

________________________

Graphic: The Mod Cabin

35 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Mail Bag: The Cologne Allergy

  1. I hope the more sensitive readers of ethicsalarms.com will forgive the following knuckle-dragging sentiment.

    No, actually, I don’t. In fact, I don’t care.

    You should advise your friend to tell the complainant to go fuck herself. Next, your friend should promptly find a therapist who can help her understand why she didn’t come up with that solution on her own.

    There’s gotta be at least one therapist down your way who still has a clue. If you know of one, you could do no better for your friend – and the world – than to drive that individual some business.

  2. I won’t go as far as Arthur in Maine but the collective response from the group should have been “sorry to hear about your condition, your friendship and contribution to the group will be missed.”

    Unfortunately, these pronouncements by the offended catch us off guard and a firm but unequivocal no is never stated. The person making the demand feels justified by the silence. This type of behavior is occurring with increasing frequency within established groups whereby one new member demands that the established group modify its conduct to accommodate the newcomer. Groups form around shared behaviors, values and ideas. Newcomers or people that return to a group must be willing to assimilate to or at least accept the attitudes, beliefs, behaviors or social mores of that group otherwise the group (read society) disintegrates into chaos. This is not to say that new ideas and behaviors can never be introduced and evaluated for group betterment, just that one cannot automatically expect the group to adopt that idea or behavior.

    It is possible to get the message across without becoming belligerent. If the demand continues then Arthur’s response is the next step.

  3. Have to agree with the Maine Man. This has to go on the PC pile.

    At its worst, the complainer has a genuine allergy (apparently there is an increased use of fragrances in products these days and the fragrances are more complex chemically, with a concommittant increase in genuine allergy sufferers), which files it in the second-hand smoke folder in her physicians office. In a voluntary social setting, Ms. Sensitivity should be avoiding such a potentially life-threatening situation.

    Or, up the other nostril … it can be a plain, old-fashioned irritant, in which case the description of your friend’s position across the room and small perscent we owe to cologne makes the complaint sound like so much toilet water.

    Flush her, girl!

  4. A little off topic, but most businesses now frown on their employees wearing perfume or cologne. In 20 years, it will be considered as offensive as cigarettes.

    Also, if your friend has worn this perfume every day for 30 years, I assure you it is not subtle. She is — as everyone would be — desensitized to it and most likely dumps it on each day.

    I realize it sounds like I hate perfume — I actually don’t care one way or the other.

    As to what your friend should do. I would just ignore the other person. If I were in a particularly snotty mood, I would ask her for a doctor’s note — or wear extra perfume for the next meeting.

  5. It’s worth noting that simply changing a few variables in the scenario can drastically change the ethical results. For instance, I regularly attend an annual, week-long gathering of people of a demographic in which such sensitivities are extremely common.

    Even if colognes and such weren’t explicitly banned as a safety issue, it would be seriously unethical to wear them there.

      • It’s just a half baked notion right now, but Chris Marschner’s comment:
        “This type of behavior is occurring with increasing frequency within established groups whereby one new member demands that the established group modify its conduct to accommodate the newcomer. Groups form around shared behaviors, values and ideas. Newcomers or people that return to a group must be willing to assimilate to or at least accept the attitudes, beliefs, behaviors or social mores of that group otherwise the group (read society) disintegrates into chaos. This is not to say that new ideas and behaviors can never be introduced and evaluated for group betterment, just that one cannot automatically expect the group to adopt that idea or behavior.” made me think of what seems to be happening more and more often.
        One interest group demands that a long established custom, law or practice be abandoned because they are “offended” or find a sudden “allergy” to it, and we all gasp and scramble to accommodate them in spite of the fact that the established items work and were created for a good reason.
        I’m not good enough at expressing my ideas to say exactly what I mean, but I’m pretty fed up with it. It being the systematic degrading of our culture and laws by bullies and weenies.

  6. It would be one thing if this was some genuine allergy. The evidence, however, seems to indicate an ulterior motive. And then there’s the arrogance of someone attending a meeting and DEMANDING that this be done. The natural reaction from anyone under these conditions would be a flat out “Go to Hell”. However, there’s a lot of this sort of thing going around and people, whether they’re some sort of political activist or working from a personal vendetta, get away with it because no one has the guts to tell them to dry up and blow away. If more folks did, we’d regain our freedom.

    • This was my suspicion due to the wording.

      “colognes, perfumes, aftershave, and all chemical scents. Looking right at my friend, she declared that this allergy made exposure to any sort of commercial scent unbearable”

      All scents are chemical. How does your body know it is ‘commercial’? Many ‘commercial scents’ are found in nature. How does you body know the source of identical chemicals? It seems fishy that someone would suddenly have an allergy to a wide range of compounds.. Not impossible, I guess, but implausible. That, combined with the snotty way this was announce (assuming this is the way it was announced) leads me to suspect that this new ‘disability’ is made up or not nearly as debilitating as suggested. Either way, she sounds like she is more trouble than she is worth.

      Link to common aroma compounds and their sources in nature.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aroma_compound

      • I suffer from this myself. Pretty badly.

        The issue isn’t a reaction to a wide variety of chemicals, it is only a few. Those natural scents don’t stick to skin or fabrics well. They add synthetic musk to them all. There are only a few musks to choose from. If you develop a sensitivity to one, nearly all artificial scents become a problem.

        What’s worse is that ‘unscented’ products like shampoo and laundry detergent are still loaded with synthetic musk. It’s great at masking scents.
        Only fragrance free products are safe.

  7. It seems that she might benefit from an online group where the fragrance issue would never have to come up. Just as a matter of self preservation that is the safest because even if the entire group agreed to no fragrances, there could be the accidental fragrance crisis caused by a new member or guest who wasn’t aware of a problem.

    Ethically, one should take steps to reduce the hazards to oneself where possible without expecting a large group to change everything. It would be different if this were a child with life-threatening allergies and the teacher or aide insisted on spraying the offending substance around the classroom.

    Speaking as a person with a latex allergy, I never take for granted that just because it is in my file the medical or dental staff will remember.

  8. 1) The sensitive one isn’t unethical to make the request (if made in good faith and having already taken all good faith precautions themselves).

    2) The group is not ethically obligated to fulfill the request.

    3a) Were more and more new and accepted members of the group to have the same sensitivities, the calculus begins to the change.

    3b) Were the sensitive member a longer established part of the group, and all other participants agreed to fulfill the request, and a new member showed up with cologne, it is reasonable to expect the new member to comply. I think seniority is a fair part in this calculation.

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