A Visit To “The Ethicist”

I haven’t opined on posts by the current holder of The New York Times Magazine “The Ethicist” title as often as I used to, in part because Kwame Anthony Appiah, unlike his predecessors, is a real ethicist, and usually answers the questions to his ethics advice column competently. The February 18 column was especially interesting, however, because Appiah seemed to be ducking some issues. I don’t blame him; two of the three questions he received have no clearly right ethical answer.

The one out of the three that was relatively easy was the anonymous inquirer who discovered that his company was willfully violating labor wage laws and under-reporting wages for workers’ compensation purposes. “Should I report this company to the authorities?” The Ethicist was asked. My answer? YES. 1) Get a lawyer. 2) Document what you know and how you found out about it. 3) Quit. 4) Blow the whistle. “I hope you proceed. Obligations of confidentiality to your employer don’t include the duty to conceal fraud,” was Appiah’s conclusion.

The other two questions are more problematical, especially the first: A correspondent asks what she should do with relatives in desperate financial straits who are begging for her money to bail them out. “I love my family, and it is extremely painful to see them suffer, but at the same time it is difficult for me to fund their lifestyles when they seem like a bottomless pit. I feel guilty and uncomfortable, but also angry and annoyed. Yet how can I watch my sister be thrown out of her house and potentially end up homeless if I have the resources to help her?”

The Ethicist ducks. First he says that the woman should try to train her relatives in financial management, even to the extent of actively managing their budgets. Right: THAT’s going to work. His conclusion: “So the most important thing you and your brother can do is to be clear with her about what you are and are not willing to do if her grasshopper behavior brings her into financial difficulties. And that means first being clear about this matter yourself. Bear in mind that you owe more to family members than you do to strangers, but you don’t owe it to them to abandon all your hard-earned plans in order to pay for their mistakes.”

But that wasn’t the question. Of course family members can’t demand that you fix their financial mistakes. It isn’t a matter of “owing” them, either. The Ethicist also cheats by resorting to a straw man: she didn’t ask if she should “abandon all her hard-earned plans.” She asked how she could sit back and watch them suffer when she had the resources to alleviate some of that suffering.

This is an ethical conflict: there are valid ethical principles in direct opposition to each other. On one side is the Golden Rule, loyalty and compassion; on the other is fairness and accountability. Helping an irresponsible family member repeatedly enables self-destructive behavior; letting a loved one suffer when you have the ability to alleviate the suffering seems heartless and cruel. I’ve been on both sides of this difficult equation; I’m on one of those sides right now, in fact. With this problem, it isn’t that there’s no wrong answer. There’s no right one.

Next, The Ethicist is asked,

I was in the food court of my local mall reading a book. At the table behind me was a man in his late 30s… seated next to a girl who was about 12. Their chairs were side by side, and the man had his arm around the girl and was running his hand through her hair as if they were lovers — caressing, twirling and playing with it….At first I assumed this was a public display of paternal affection, and indeed it may have been. However, he continued to run his fingers through her hair for 20 minutes in a sexually suggestive manner.

I decided I had four choices: 1) I could say nothing. (But what if it was later revealed that this man was a pedophile and this girl was his prey? … 2) I could confront the man or ask the girl if she was all right. 3) I could call the police. Or 4) I could alert mall security… I opted for No. 4. I pointed the couple out to mall security and told them what I had observed. I left the mall confident that security was keeping their eyes on him. Did I overreact?

The Ethicist ducked again. He wrote, “Informing mall security may, in the event, have been better than calling the police, which might well have led to an unnecessarily traumatizing interaction. [ Note: This is Rationalization #22: “It’s not the worst thing.”] But because you didn’t stick around, you don’t know whether they ended up summoning the police anyway, perhaps in accordance with their protocols. Once you call in the authorities, you lose control over the outcome.”


Somewhere in the archives I have a post about a similar situation, discussing a man who saw a another man taking what appeared to him to be sexually provocative photos of two young, attractive Asian women in a park. He thought he might be witnessing a sex-trafficker in action, and asked the women if they were all right,sparking an altercation with the photographer, who claimed to be the father of the two women and demanded that the Good Samaritan/meddling interloper back off. Frankly, I don’t remember what I wrote. I think I wrote that the man was correct, ethical and responsible (and gutsy) to intervene to the extent he did, but that there wasn’t much else he could do. Whether the situation turned out to be innocent or sinister was moral luck: based on what he saw, there was no way of telling.

The same applies to the food court scene. There is nothing illegal about stroking a girl’s hair, or, for that matter, looking creepy while doing it. I have had two mature, reasonable, law-abidi8ng friends whose behavior toward their attractive daughters has creeped me out severely, but all I would have accomplished by pointing this out to them would have been losing their friendship. It’s tempting to favor “pre-crime” measures, but a society where everyone is tipping off authorities that they should watch citizens carefully who haven’t done anything wrong yet is not one I want to live in.

The questioner had no control over the situation he described. The hair-stroker could have been an over-attentive father. It could have been a kidnapper. It could have been a man with an adult midget who looked like she was 12.  His two ethical choices were to leave them alone, or go up to the couple, question them, and risk getting punched in the nose. The odds of his being able to prevent a crime before anything happened that was overtly illegal was vanishingly thin.

22 thoughts on “A Visit To “The Ethicist”

  1. I really feel for the person with the sister in financial difficulties. I feel the range of actions really does depend on the ability to help them and what the situation is. I have such a relative. I have not been asked to pay for their financial problems directly, but it has affected me. I think about how my relatives responded and what the results would have been.

    The family propped this relative up financially until he could stand on his own. This took decades, but he eventually did it. Many relatives were critical of this. They felt people should have demanded more accountability early on. However, no one was actually seriously harmed by this. The people who contributed the money had the money available, it did not cause them any financial stress.

    What if they had demanded more financial accountability earlier? Well, I am pretty certain his wife would have left him (she was a big part of the problem). They would have lost a really nice house that they were able to keep. Most importantly, they would not have been able to have children and my relative would be childless now.

    I feel the former course of action was the better choice overall. Was it the ‘fair’ choice? No, it certainly was not. It involved a relative giving large amounts of money to a descendant who had the most to begin with. It caused undue strife in other people’s marriages (If relative N can give relative B 4 cars, they can surely help us pay for one of ours). It was definite blatant favoritism which always causes family stress. However, it was relative N’s money to do with as they wished, and no one else really has a right to dictate those terms. The parable of the workers in the vineyard comes to mind.

    There may be no good course of action, but one choice is definitely better than the other one. It just may require a careful and unselfish analysis.

    • Favoritism within immediate family is incredibility destructive, even if it is openly dissected to remove festering emotions. After years of working on how to provide for each child ‘equally,’ my wife and I eventually had to settle on ‘fair is not necessarily equal.’ Our kids are different, and have vastly different needs.

      An autistic boy will take a large amount of parental time, for instance, but does not have the social needs of a normal teen girl, who needs money to go to school functions and sleepovers with (closely vetted) friends. Milestones from the oldest child (from bedtimes at what ages to curfews to traveling the state driving themselves) may not apply to other children, who may get these privileges at different ages or not at all.

      I have always maintained to my kids, from toddler ages on, that ‘life is not fair, and anyone telling you different is trying to sell you something.’ They seem to get it, as the concept of TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) was also taught.

      Ultimately we are all responsible not for how others (even relatives) treat us, but how we react to that treatment. Not for their sake, although that can be helpful for them, but for our own mental and emotional health.

  2. This is an ethical conflict: there are valid ethical principles in direct opposition to each other. On one side is the Golden Rule, loyalty and compassion; on the other is fairness and accountability. Helping an irresponsible family member repeatedly enables self-destructive behavior; letting a loved one suffer when you have the ability to alleviate the suffering seems heartless and cruel. I’ve been on both sides of this difficult equation; I’m on one of those sides right now, in fact. With this problem, it isn’t that there’s no wrong answer. There’s no right one.

    This is exactly right, Jack. I have a similar problem with some of my family members. They have proven over and over again that no matter how much you help them, they will always abuse your assistance.

    At some point, one must put family loyalty aside and face reality. There is nothing ethical about demonstrating the validity of the definition of insanity.

    The questioner had no control over the situation he described. The hair-stroker could have been an over-attentive father. It could have been a kidnapper. It could have been a man with an adult midget who looked like she was 12. His two ethical choices were to leave them alone, or go up to the couple, question them, and risk getting punched in the nose. The odds of his being able to prevent a crime before anything happened that was overtly illegal was vanishingly thin.

    Ugh. No good choices there. If you were going to involve yourself (based on the related facts, I wouldn’t have), I’d say he made about the best available choice. While it is every citizen’s duty to report suspicious behavior at some level, this is clearly a gray area that could’ve ruined everyone’s day and even resulted in violence.

    A lot of this is dependent upon a person’s disposition. If you are inherently suspicious, you might see something as sexual a less-suspicious person might see as simple affection. Perception is wildly variable depending on the observer’s point of view.

    But even in public, people have a right to be left alone, even if they seem creepy. But it doesn’t mean their behavior can’t be noted to the authorities if it’s creepy enough.

      • When my kids were little, we learned of the stories from friend and relatives where a CPS worker with a vendetta (or being paid off) would take someone’s kids and subject the parents to 7 kinds of hell just using the process against them.

        A friend crossed (innocently enough) a CPS worker, who threatened to ‘get even.’ Several days later she was visited by stormtroopers who forcibly removed her toddler aged child and shipped him to Arizona, to a father who did not want him. This meant that the Arizona foster care system was where the child landed. Think dealing with ONE CPS agency is hard? Try two at once! It too all of the mother’s savings, and over a year, to get her child back. She did not get to even SEE her child for 3 months: a huge part of that child’s life. Terrible.

        My relatives had a similar experience, after their daughter’s ugly divorce (where the father, who did not want the 3 year old boy, nevertheless made a mess by threatening to take away custody.) When the father sicc’d a friend from CPS on her, alleging abuse, the family sprang into action. A day after the initial call from the corrupt CPS worker, her apartment was raided to remove the child and document the alleged signs of abuse.

        The child was gone. On an extended trip with his grandparents. No, she did not know where they were, exactly. They did not have a cell phone, either: she talked to her boy when they caught her on the phone (cell phones were not common at the time). Since there was no warrant at that point, all the CPS worker could do was tell her to make her parents contact the CPS worker when they next called(!) She promised to do so, and even kept a straight face.

        The parents, meanwhile, had fled to west Texas, and one was living in a motel room rented by a friend, without a credit card, living on cash brought to her by her husband. She also took trips out of state with the boy, usually calling several times from various locations to muddy the phone records. Since the CPS worker really had no evidence, getting a warrant for the grandparents was a non-starter (State your name and explain to the judge how you did this to help a buddy get out of child support payments for the child…) This went on 3 months until the daughter was able to navigate the system and kill the removal order. The judge she eventually got to was NOT amused, either.

        So our rules for CPS knocking at our door were:

        1) If they do not have a warrant, CPS is not entering our house.
        2) They may not talk to the child alone. A child can be made to say ANYTHING by anyone experienced enough to gain their trust.
        3) The children do not go to school the next day. They and their mother would be with her parents, at an ‘undisclosed location’ (family ranch in West Texas) for an extended stay ‘to help take care of her parents.’
        4) Without a warrant, CPs has no business knowing where my kids are. Even with a warrant, I want a lawyer before answering questions… AND A CAMERA RUNNING

        We never used the Plan. But we kept emergency food, funds, and discussed the GOOD (Get Out Of Dodge) plan regularly, just in case we had to flee our own government on unjust charges.

  3. On the one, I can’t help but believe that intervening based only on your perception of the situation is unethical. It is assuming bad intent without cause and is no different from reporting a teenage male to authorities because he walked behind you while wearing a hoodie.

    • That was my gut reaction, too. For nearly every “suspicious” thing we see people doing, there are usually multiple possible innocent explanations. Siccing the authorities on someone just because you thought their behavior was a little creepy seems like a Golden Rule violation to me.

      If you don’t care enough or the situation isn’t egregious enough for you to stick around and see the outcome of your meddling, then you probably should mind your own business.

      Not to mention, in this particular situation, the odds are probably stacked against it being a pederast openly flaunting his sexual relationship with a minor in public. That doesn’t seem like something that happens very often, because such creeps generally know to keep such behavior on the down-low.

      I’m at a bit of a loss to even visualize what running your fingers through someone’s hair in a “sexually suggestive manner” looks like, and how it differs from simply doing so in a non-sexual, affectionate way. I suspect the person reporting all of this may be bringing their own biases into the equation.

  4. Jack,
    I think you are a little too hard on the Ethicist, especially in a case where you of all people should no better.

    If you start from the position that the second and third problems have no clearly correct ethical answer, what should the response be?

    “I can’t answer that question.”

    Of course not. (Well, I suppose it could be an answer, but would be better not even putting the question in the paper to begin with.)

    If there is no a clear answer, then the proper advice is to prompt the proper analysis to help the decision be made.

    With the family member, you are correct, there are valid ethical principles in direct opposition to each other. So, the task is to suggest ways of balancing them. In many ways, that is about setting boundaries.

    What kinds of boundaries:

    Setting a boundary for yourself: what are you willing to do and what are you not willing to do.

    While you should help a family member, you don’t owe it to them to abandon all of your hard-earned plans. You call that a straw man or a way to avoid the question, but, when it is a question that has no clear answer, but rather a number of acceptable answers between two extremes, it is not a straw man to define the extremes. Yes, there may be instances in which simply refusing to help is the best approach in a scenario, but it should only be taken after considering the closeness of the relative, the loyalty and compassion one owes to family, and whether the decision to do nothing is likely to be more beneficial to the family member.

    And, it is not just about setting boundaries for oneself, it is about setting boundaries (or expectations) for the family member. You seem to scoff at the notion about training the relative in financial management, but, if that is what is called for, it is something that should be considered. And, if that is a condition of the boundary one sets for oneself, that needs to be clear. And it needs to be clear to both parties.

    Or, if the solution is a one-time gift, that needs to be clear, as well. And, it is especially important that it be clear to the giver, and that the giver be committed to that. Neither party is helped by an idle threat to help out “just this once.”

    Or, if the commitment is that it has to be paid back before any other help is given, again, it needs to be clear.

    But, it also needs to be clear that you are not required to help in every possible way you can, even to your own detriment. Parents, I imagine, face this difficulty the most. But, it is something they need to know, so, while it might be obvious, it must be said.

    So, when there are no clear answers, you have to analyze it. But, that analysis requires consideration of any factors that may be relevant to the situation. And, in such circumstances, rationalizations may not be rationalizations, per se. They are tools for weighing and analyzing various factors in making a decision.

    (Parenthetically, which is why I put this in parentheses, that is something that is problematic about the rationalizations, many are value neutral. The rationalizations are only bad when used to rationalize bad conduct. They are not bad when they are used to determine appropriate conduct. For example, you pointed out Rationalization #22: “It’s not the worst thing.” in the third problem. However, it could be used in the second problem. If the relative needs money because he lost a job and has never been good at saving, you might be more willing to help than if he needs money because he has a gambling problem. Both equally need help, but losing a job and not being smart with money is not the worst thing. With a little help, and maybe some lessons in money management, the person who lost the job can make a turn-around. The gambler needs a tougher approach with more boundaries (I will help you this once, but you will deal with your habit and you will pay me back, or that is it). The rationalization helps analyze the problem. Now, that may not be true of every rationalization, but it is true of some.)


    • You have made they point about rationalizations before, and I agree with it. Many, maybe most, of the rationalizations have valid applications, but when they have valid applications, they aren’t rationalizations.

      Remember, the Ethicist chooses his topics. I expect him, if he does choose one, to answer the question, even if the answer is “there’s no right answer.” He reframed the questions asked into questions he could answer: “Do I have an obligation to help my profligate relatives?” and “Was it wrong to alert the Mall security based on a feeling?”

      Or at least that’s how I read it.

      • That’s a fair point. If there is not a clear answer, it is important to point that out, because that is what justifies the analysis.

        That is where the lawyers ubiquitous “it depends” answer comes in handy.

        However, having also studied philosophy, I would not think someone called the Ethicist would not have run across that phrase somewhere

        Honestly, what are they teaching in colleges this day?

        I will answer my own question: having the answer is the way to make money. However, in law school, you learn that, depending on the circumstances, it is more lucrative to have: 1) no answer; 2) the answer; or 3) several answer (“it depends”). You just have to know which to use at which time.


          • That is probably a good thing, because you can work the “depends” into the other choices. If it is a non-waivable conflict of interest, there is no depends; if it is waivable, the depends are very clear.


  5. Having worked for Texas CPS for 7 months, my advice is to never, EVER trust CPS to do what is right. They are almost 100% ideologically-driven, and will respond in that manner.

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