I cannot imagine being so bereft of wisdom, friends and mentors that I would ever be moved to ask a stranger to advise me regarding an important decision based solely on a letter describing my problem. Nevertheless, a lot of poor souls apparently do, and because they do, many of them probably act on the advice they get from Beth, Abby, The Ethicist and the rest. This means that anyone with the ego and chutzpah to hold themselves out as qualified to give such advice is ethically obligated to be able to do a competent job at it, and at very least to “do no harm.” Yes, unlike the law, advice columnist is one of the professions where the traditional ethical mission of medicine is not just appropriate, but essential.
Most advice columnists in the media are not competent, and some are dangerously reckless. The worst thing an advice columnist can do is to use the trusting and needy stranger as a potential recruit to steer toward the columnist’s ideologically-driven goals. The question being asked by desperate advice seekers, after all, is not “What would you do?” but rather “What should I do?” If the columnist answers the question presuming that the advice-seeker does or should see the world as the advice columnist does, then doing harm is the likely result.
Carolyn Hax ( Washington Post) is a wonderful advice columnist, and Emily Yoffe (“Dear Prudence”) is the other kind. Two recent responses by them illustrate the distinction between competent, skilled and ethical advice, and advice column malpractice.
First, the bad: Joffe was asked by a 26-year-old woman if it was acceptable (read “ethical”) for her to quit working and devote her time to being what we used to call a homemaker, cooking meals, taking care of the house, paying the bills, and so on. She suggests that the stress of 9-to-5 work isn’t good for her, and feels that she would be happier staying at home.
Ann Althouse, who flagged this (Yoffe’s freak show questions and answers make me unhappy), nailed what’s wrong with this:
This woman portrays her plight as a “mental heath” issue. She pathologizes her desire for the kind of life women were once criticized for not wanting. It’s worth exploring this woman’s possible mental problems, but why doesn’t Yoffe even recognize the possibility that the single-earner household with a home-based partner is a beautiful, legitimate arrangement? Yoffe says that “unless there are extenuating circumstances, everyone should have the ability to support herself” and proceeds to give her tips about how to find a new career. Yoffe even suggests making a business out of doing homemaker things for other people:
In your tech town there are going to be those eager to outsource dog walking, meal preparation, and other domestic tasks. Talk to companies that offer these services to busy tech executives, or start your own one-woman business. Sure, preparing a meal for another family is not the same as noodling around your own kitchen. But you may discover you get satisfaction making life more pleasant for stressed-out thriving people….
But she said she loved cleaning and making beautiful meals for her partner. Why can’t she have her satisfaction making life more pleasant for the stressed-out thriving person she lives with and loves? Yoffe never so much as suggests that the woman talk to her partner about living together like that. Yoffe calls cooking for your own family noodling, as if it’s just vague, purposeless playing. I find that terribly sad.
I find it sad, and terribly unethical. There is no right or wrong way for a couple to live, or for a person to find happiness and self-worth. Joffe is irresponsible, presumptuous and despicable for telling this woman that she has an obligation to live her life the way Joffe thinks she should.
Before our son was born, my wife and I both worked intense jobs and long hours. We returned home to the same disordered home we had left that morning, too stressed to talk or smile, and dreading having to cook a meal. One day, I told her, “This is no way to live. I think one of us should quit working full time, and if you don’t grab the chance in 10 minutes, I will.” I think she said “Me!” between “I” and “will.”
In law, Yoffe’s response is called exercising undue influence over a client, substituting the lawyers judgment for him or her, and a breach of ethics.
Now the good: Hax was queried by a lonely guy who wrote:
Dear Carolyn: I’m an average-looking guy . . . let’s say a 6, and after years of dating, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have four options when it comes to women, none of which seems to add up to long-term happiness.
Option 1: Be with a woman who is more attractive than me, but less intelligent or mentally stable, thus trading intellectual connection for beauty.
Option 2: Be with a woman of equal intelligence and attractiveness, but spend my life in boredom once the novelty wears off, and end up like every other married zombie.
Option 3: Be with a woman who is more successful and intelligent, but less attractive than I, and spend my life fighting the temptations of lust (think Bill Clinton).
Option 4: Become the lonely creepy uncle everybody invites to Thanksgiving out of pity.
Is my outlook completely distorted and pessimistic? Or am I just being an entitled moron with an inflated ego? Is there a fifth option (other than becoming rich and famous)? I’d really appreciate your feedback.
You can, and should, read Hax’s whole response here. This section gives a sense of how good she is at her job, however:
I suspect that’s the real culprit here, that for whatever reason you see women as a special category of pairing, independent of all other bonds you have, and resulting from a specialized search. If so, you’re being so unfair to yourself. A love that satisfies is one that combines much of what is good and rewarding in your other relationships into one source, someone who also has that fuller appreciation of you. If you love that your buddies make you laugh and allow you to be yourself, that your parents inspire you to do your best, that your grandma knows when you need cookies and a hug vs. a treatise on this or that, and that you’ve never forgotten your first actual girlfriend because gazing at her got you through algebra, then you just sketched out someone who would fit you. Not a 6, 7, 7 and a 5 who averages out to an attainable 6.25.
She’s not commanding the man how to live or how to think. She is providing wisdom and perspective for him to consider, and explaining why his framing of the problem is not only flawed, but damaging and making him miserable. Hax is also compassionate and restrained: seeing a man rate women on a numerical scale must have made her want to retch, and yet she debunked his methodology gently and in a manner designed to both teach and persuade.
If I were ever to ask a stranger’s advice, it would be Carolyn Hax—an ethical advice columnist personified.