Ethics Quiz: “Rear Window” Ethics At The Ball Game

RearWindow1

The New York Daily News recounts the tale of two sisters attending an Atlanta Braves game who exposed a man’s cheating wife by taking photos of her as she apparently sexted another man with her arm around her husband. Delana and Brynn Hinson posted photos of her texts on Twitter.

The sisters said they slipped a note to the woman’s suspected husband as he was leaving, which read,

“Your wife is cheating on you. Look at the messages under Nancy! It’s really a man named Mark Allen.”

You can read the details—accurate or not—here.

I don’t care if the story is exactly as it was reported. Let’s assume it is.

The Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz for the day is this:

Did the sisters behave ethically when they informed the husband about his wife’s secret texting?

In the Hitchcock classic “Rear Window,” James Stewart plays a photographer recovering from a shattered leg. He amuses himself by looking across his courtyard  through the oddly unshaded, uncurtained windows of his neighbors, becoming a secret witness to their private lives. In the process of this innocent peepingtommery, he witnesses what he believes to be a murder.

Like Stewart’s character, the sisters were clearly behaving unethically by reading, then photographing, a private text over the shoulder of another fan at a baseball game. What they did  is not illegal. There is no expectation of privacy at a baseball game, just as nobody has a reasonable expectation of privacy if they have big, unshaded windows that allow anyone who looks to see what they are doing in their apartments. Looking, however, for any longer than it takes to turn away, and  photographing what one sees, and absolutely publicizing what one photographs, the worst ethics breach of all, are wrong. They constitute  Golden Rule violations; they embody conduct that would render society miserable if they were universal, and the occasional murder or marital betrayal such spying might uncover does not outweigh the harm done to the privacy of innocent, trusting citizens.

All right, that’s the easy call. The harder one is this: once you have discovered, through your unethical conduct, a crime or other wrong that needs to be revealed to prevent harm to others, what is the ethical course?

If what you have discovered is a serious crime, that’s an easy call too. The crime must be reported. The ethical value is citizenship: we have a duty to assist in law enforcement, and to report crimes regardless of how we learn about them. Jimmy calls the authorities about the murder, and is right to do so. Adultery is not a crime, however. Citizenship is not involved.

Again, the Golden Rule figures into the analysis. If the betrayed husband is your focus, the principle of reciprocity would hold that as you would want to be told if your spouse was cheating on you, so you have an obligation to alert the victimized husband. The Rule also applies to the cheating wife, however. Would you want prying strangers to be aware of all your private and intimate communications? Would you want them to make judgments about you and your conduct from their distant and perhaps biased or distorted perspectives, and then take action to interfere with your personal or professional relationships?

This is an ethics conflict in which multiple ethical values are involved and opposing each other. Such ethics problems require a utilitarian analysis that balances likely and possible outcomes. In the Josephson Center’s ethical decision-making model, one of the late steps is to consider the worst case scenario, to which I would add that only plausible worst cases are worthy of consideration. In the sisters’ situation, they do not have adequate information to assess what the worst case scenarios are. They know nothing about the couple and their marriage. They know nothing about their family, or children, or the history of the relationship. Nor can they determine with certainty the nature of the wife’s relationship with the man she’s texting. (For all they know, he’s Jake from State Farm.)

Here’s one of many worst case scenarios: The husband is a spouse-abuser who has terrorized her for years. She has tried to leave him, but he has thwarted her and now keeps her in his thrall with threats and beatings. She also fears for the safety of their children. But he is a powerful figure in the local government and close to law enforcement authorities. The man she is texting is a sensitive colleague from work. He knows her situation, and is carefully planning a safe way for her to escape the marriage, save her children, and start a new life with him.

Once the husband learns about his wife’s new relationship, he uses his connections to see that that the wife’s rescuer is killed.

My verdict: the fact that the wife’s affair was discovered through unethical conduct is not decisive, but the sisters’ lack of sufficient knowledge to risk interfering with the lives of strangers is. Simply and boringly put, this was none of their business.

Informing the husband was unethical: reckless, irresponsible, unfair, and wrong.

_____________________

Facts: New York Daily News

15 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: “Rear Window” Ethics At The Ball Game

  1. Brilliant!
    Applied ethics–and this website–at its best, making sense of dilemmas rather than bludgeoning them through mindless exhortation.
    Thank you.

  2. Well, about 30 years ago, long before the age of instantaneous digital “evidence,” I was privy to information that someone I knew well was “probably” having an affair — certainly at least an “affair of the heart” if not of the genitals. I also knew the spouse very well. Both were and are friends. I was truly torn about what to do. I worried that keeping quiet would be disloyal to the spouse. I worried that “telling” the spouse, based on “probable” information, would be just bad, bad, bad (which it would). I worried that whatever I did or didn’t do would also adversely affect my friendships with both.

    I chose, rightly I think, to stay quiet, deciding that this was none of my business, that these were both grown up people and needed to work out whatever was going on in their lives.

    After a while and much angst and discovery of stuff, my two friends eventually found their ways back to each other, and are married to this day. God only knows what my meddling might have wrought.

    These girls were wrong and unethical, and probably thinking only of themselves, not the welfare of the husband.

    • It seems these scenarios always force a third party to pick between “tell the victim” and “don’t tell the victim”, wouldn’t a viable third option include “get to know the victim and the cheater better”?

      Why wouldn’t an ethical option be to quietly and subtly become more involved in both friendships do what one can to either help “heal” the *possibly* broken relationship or to slowly open the eyes of the *possible* victim, while doing so in such a gradual manner that if there is indeed NO cheating involved, the now-non-victim and the formerly-suspected-cheater aren’t harmed — or, the suspected-cheater amends their ways and seeks to repair the relationship, or the victim becomes aware of what is going on, but possibly at such a stage, and with such assistance, that it can be handled in a civil manner.

      Granted, time is always a factor, and in the instance that sparked this post, the sisters had little-to-no time to actually develop any relationship with the two individuals involved, so they ought to just butt out.

  3. One of the sisters, Delana, is a criminal justice major. Does this mean that she wants to become a police officer? I can imagine her exposing all sorts of secrets she learns in that job.

  4. I’m skeptical of the story, but assuming it’s true the two sisters should have kept quiet and minded their own business. That they made it public is disgusting, but not surprising. Small town gossip posted online for the world to cluck about has become the new 3 minutes of fame.

    • I think I saw this story, or variants thereof, two or more years ago. That lends itself to urban legend, but of course, given the pure volume of interactions in this world, it seems reasonable to have occurred…

  5. Taking photos or videos of a crime being committed is one thing. If some loser is trying to commit burglary at your neighbors house you do put yourself at some risk by documenting the activity. But hell, I’d do it. What those women did was totally unethical. No crime was being committed.

    • Exactly, Wayne. There’s also the possibility that these two busybodies had utterly misinterpreted what they were reading or that it might have been a weird private joke of some sort. After all, what woman (who has an I.Q. higher than the voltage of her phone’s battery!) is going to carry on a cyber-liaison with her husband sitting right there? Sandra Fluke, maybe… but that’s a special case!

  6. You only picked worst case for telling. You forgot worst case for not telling.

    Once you have the information, both telling and not telling have to be considered acting.

    And the worst case scenario for not telling: She’s moving all their assets into her own name to leave him penniless when she splits… or planning to murder him to leave for the other guy… or she’s actually the abusive one and he’s scared to say anything because she’s threatened she’ll accuse him of everything (women tend to get the benefit of the doubt in those situations), so a stranger reaching out might just be the only lifeline he’ll have before she kills him.

    I don’t see how this helps the calculus of the situation at all. If you say my cases are less likely than yours, well, yours is pretty far fetched, too. Any other balancing suggestions?

    • No, once you see something you shouldn’t, then the door is open, and you have to treat the information and situation on a case by case basis. I assumed the “Rear Window” reference sufficiently provides a worst case fr telling: Jimmy Stewart sees evidence of a murder. He can’t ethically ignore it.

      • I still don’t see how the worst cases for telling override the worst cases for not telling. I don’t think that ethical consideration can be used to determine the ethical response in this situation.

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