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.