Over At “The Ethicist,” An Off-The-Wall Ethics Question Gets An Even More Off-The-Wall Answer

I don’t have many opportunities to take issue with the current writer of The New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist” column, because he, unlike his predecessors, really is one, and doesn’t come up with whoppers like they used. Professor Appiah had some “Bonus Advice” this week, however, from a Judge John Hodgman. The judge reminded me of those halcyon days when “The Ethicist” was good for a couple of Ethics Alarms attacks a month. Good times!

First, the question:

My roommate takes long, casual phone calls while on the toilet. I have tried explaining why this behavior is creepy and rude to the person he is talking to, as they do not know they are talking to someone who is going to the bathroom. He thinks it’s actually rude when people don’t answer phone calls simply because they’re in the bathroom.

Wait…what? WHAT?

It is impossible to be secretly rude. It has no effect on the person on the other end of the line if you are naked, making faces, or writing “I hate this idiot!” in the mirror in blood. Nor is it “creepy” to have a phone conversation on the toilet. I’m typing this while I’m on the toilet and wearing a duck on my head, and it’s nobody’s business but mine.

Nor is it rude to refuse to answer phone calls when one is in the bathroom. In fact, it is almost never rude to decline a phone call.  That bell is an  invitation to have a conversation, not a command. I don’t answer calls when I’m taking a nap, a shower, having a live, face-to-face conversation, writing an Ethics Alarms post, cooking, eating a meal, enjoying an orgy, or chopping up my victim after a murder. It’s my option, my time, and my schedule.

These two roommates are made for each other.

Now the judge’s response:

“Your roommate is quite wrong: What’s actually rude is people making phone calls in the first place. We have so many better ways to communicate now that do not involve repeating yourself constantly, saying the wrong thing under the gun and then realizing you’ve been talking for five minutes to a dropped call. Even the ringing of a good old landline is the intrusive announcement that either a) someone thinks you don’t deserve to choose how to spend your time, or b) someone you know has been killed or injured. If only to protect the meditative solitude of the bathroom act, your roommate should stop this habit, never mind the fact that it is just plain gross.”

Think about it: someone with this level of judgment is a judge.

1. We have better ways of communicating than talking to each other?

2. If someone doesn’t want to talk on the phone, they can turn the phone off.  They can have an unlisted number, or a cell phone number they only share with people they won’t think are rude when they call.  They can not have a phone at all. If you make it possible for people to call you when you don’t have to do so, people reasonably assume that you don’t mind being called. Calling too late or too early is inconsiderate, unless there is an emergency.  Robocalls and solicitor calls are intrusions. But a friend or relative “reaching out to touch someone” as the old Bell  long-distance ad sang? That’s rude? What’s the matter with this guy?

3. Let me rephrase that: What the HELL is the matter with this guy? We have to obey his rules for what we do in the bathroom? I read my baseball books in the bathroom…is that a violation of “meditative solitude’? How about having long discussions with my wife through the bathroom door—not sufficiently meditative? What’s happening on the toilet isn’t gross, but talking to someone who has no idea where you are and what you are doing is gross? I can be as gross as we want when the only witness is me, and there is absolutely nothing rude, inappropriate or unethical about it.

As long as I clean up afterward.

37 thoughts on “Over At “The Ethicist,” An Off-The-Wall Ethics Question Gets An Even More Off-The-Wall Answer

  1. I’m 100% positive this response was quite tongue-in-cheek.

    Though I must say, when my phone rings, I do look at it with a lot of suspicion. It’s either one of my much older relatives, or a telemarketer. Everyone else either texts, FaceTimes, or facebooks whatever it is they need to communicate.

  2. The problem at the core of this is that neither of the two roommates, nor the Judge, nor the editor that allowed this nonsense to be published really understands the meaning of the word rude.

    Another factoid in the line up showing that the dumbing down of America is an actual thing not just a figment of someone’s imagination.

  3. I’m typing this while I’m on the toilet and wearing a duck on my head, and it’s nobody’s business but mine.

    Well now it’s not.. Thanks for that BTW…

  4. “In fact, it is almost never rude to decline a phone call.”

    I was trying to think of ways it would be rude.

    I figured it might be illegal like the lady who worked for the 911 call center and ignored calls or unethical like someone’s who’s job was the answer the phones and chooses to ignore them, but I’m not sure how it might be rude.

    I guess it would be rude if you were ignoring it with the intention of being rude, but like the guy who sits on the toilet, how would the person know unless he was told?

    I think it’s rude to take a call while in a public toilet.

    Would it be rude to alert the person you’re on the phone with you are in the toilet by telling him or other means (such as flushing the toilet)? Perhaps that is his friend’s real problem. He’s just tying up the bathroom.

    • “He’s just tying up the bathroom.”

      That was my thought as well. That’s the part that could be considered rude.

    • A) If you’ve told someone to call you between certain time, they do, and you refuse to answer.
      B) Someone relying on you for something (that you’ve previously agreed to provide), a ride, a piece of info, and they KNOW you have your phone on you.

  5. I’m typing this while I’m on the toilet and wearing a duck on my head, and it’s nobody’s business but mine.

    Well, as long as you’re not wearing panty hose and pumps as well.

    You’re not, are you? Because if you are, that might be rude… not to me, but to the universe itself. 🙂

  6. I was taught it was rude to use the phone in the bathroom because there may be, shall we say, background noise that would be rude to expose people to. (Putting yourself in an avoidable position where there’s a good chance you’ll have to excuse your rudeness is in itself showing a lack of manners.)

    If you can assure there’s no chance of people hearing you, I agree it’s no one’s business.

  7. I am always amazed by how many people seem truly to believe that a ringing phone must be answered. My daughters were guilty of that and felt that I was rude because I would not let people randomly interrupt my life. I am dumbfounded by how many people do not think it is rude to interrupt a face-to-face conversation with me to take a long personal call. I have even had patients take personal calls during their appointment.

    “If you make it possible for people to call you when you don’t have to do so, people reasonably assume that you don’t mind being called.”

    I have said pretty much those exact words numerous times to patients who complain that their mother, father, kids, siblings, ex, friend, or whoever is taking up all their time by calling them and keeping them on the phone or in some cases verbally abusing them by phone. Some of them reacted to me suggesting that they hang up, set limits on the calls, or just not answer the phone as if I had suggested that they fornicate in the middle of the highway. The ones who weren’t quite that shocked seemed to be astonished that they were permitted to not answer the phone or set limits on calls.

    • It’s a really interesting topic overall, given just how much communications technology changes the amount of information we have before we establish contact versus the amount of information we gain because we establish contact.

      I’d say, arguably BEFORE caller ID or answering machines, there was a stronger obligation to answer a ringing phone than nowadays when we have certain information that allows us to establish our own priorities for answering.

      I think in the era of text messages, the polite thing to do before calling is to text with an “are you available to talk now?”

  8. Once upon a time I had the outgoing voicemail greeting on my cell phone saying this:

    “Hello, this is Dwayne. You’ve reached my cell phone. Since I pretty much carry this thing with me everywhere I go, it probably means that I’m currently someplace where I can’t answer it, such as driving a car, or using the bathroom.

    So leave me a message, and as soon as I’m done going where I’m going, I’ll call you back.”


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