, aka “The Ethicist,” apparently received two inquiries last week from what I fear are typical New York Times readers: self-righteous, progressive, and totalitarian at heart. As usually is the case, “The Ethicist’s” answers were competent. I’m not really concerned with his answers, though they were too timid and pandered to people who needed to be metaphorically slapped in the face. It’s the questions that are really ominous.
Inquirer #1 wanted to know what to “do” about her landlady, whom she and her partner “have come to believe that she harbors significant racial and gender biases.” She continued,
When units in our building come up for rent, she often asks [us] to recommend friends, and over the years a number of our friends have lived here. I value being able to extend what really is an extremely good financial deal to friends who would really benefit from it, but am deeply uncomfortable about the fact that, in doing so, I am enabling her racism and sexism. Is there an ethical solution here? I wish I could report her to some sort of city housing authority (we are in Los Angeles), but I doubt I have any legal recourse as I’m not an aggrieved party and my belief in her biases is based on casual observations and overheard comments. I can’t point to a particular incident. I feel guilty for not wanting to recommend the place, as I know so many friends who could use the financial break, but I also feel like it’s harder and harder to justify “helping” her in any way.
The woman has not observed any incidents of racism or sexism, but she wants to “report” the landlady, who has apparently always treated her well. Inquirer #1 has decided that it’s unethical to “help” such a person because that would be “enabling” her evil ways, whatever they are. Basically, she feels that she is justified in punishing her landlady for not embracing her views, the “right” ones.
Inquirer #2 is inflicted with the same lack of self-awareness. He or she shares a mailbox with the landlord, who is “a nice guy and a very decent landlord.” But the nice guy landlord receives a Christian magazine, “with cover stories including those that suggest L.G.B.T.Q. rights are undermining religious freedom, and others about the dangers of educating children about gender diversity.” Thus the big question:
I don’t know if he subscribes to this magazine, or if it is sent to him because he made a donation, but I feel very uncomfortable hand-delivering what feels to me like hate speech and is, as I see it, misinformation that perpetuates inequality and violence. I also am aware that tampering with mail is illegal. I know that speaking up is the ideal thing to do and hope to find a moment to bring up this mail with him, but …I don’t want to disrupt our housing situation. Am I being complicit in oppression by not saying anything to him and delivering this mail? Is it more ethical to give him this magazine, and perpetuate hate and inequality, or to occasionally just “lose” this piece of mail once a month?
Inquirers #1 and #2 are cut from the same ugly, smelly cloth, and it’s increasingly popular these days.
To #1, Appiah says in part,
“There are lots of bigots in the world, alas. Changing their hearts and minds, when it happens, takes time and effort and the right background conditions. You clearly don’t think that would work here. So direct your attention elsewhere. I applaud your commitment to racial and sexual equality. But you have no reason to feel bad about sharing real estate opportunities with your friends.”
That’s right as far as it goes; I guess “The Ethicist” was virtue signalling by omission.
He should have said, “There are lots of bigots in the world, alas—YOU, for example.” This woman barely knows her landlady, but has packaged her as someone unfit for human contact or prosperity because of her personal views, none of which she has seen used to harm anyone. The inquirer also thinks she should be able to “report” the landlady for what she thinks, actually what she may think. She has reduced a human being to a few politically incorrect comments and presumed beliefs, and based only on that, believes it is appropriate to avoid “helping her in any way.”
To Inquirer #2, Appiah correctly noted that interfering with the mail is illegal, but wrote, “Once again, we’re trying to balance high ideals with low rents.” Ugh. There’s nothing high minded about reading someone’s mail and considering “losing” it, nor about harshly judging someone based on their religious beliefs.
The Ethicist recovered somewhat by adding,
Citizens shouldn’t seek to affect each other’s views by cutting off access to arguments from yet other citizens. Nor is it clear that the magazine in question rises to the level of hate speech. (As a matter of jurisprudence, the rights of sexual minorities can indeed be at odds with some religious-freedom claims.) I certainly don’t see that allowing it into his hands “perpetuates inequality and violence.” Your landlord is a nice guy who is friendly with a gay couple, you say. Is there any evidence that he’s actively trying to deny legal protections to L.G.B.T.Q. people? And do you truly have reason to think that this Christian magazine promotes violence?
Sure: the reason is that in this person’s echo chamber (San Francisco), beliefs that don’t conform to the accepted cant are considered “violence” that make others “unsafe.”
In the response to the previous monster, Appiah said, “Well, what could you do…? You can’t force her into therapy or a re-education camp.” Ah, but that’s what both of these good, progressive Times readers clearly wish they could do: one wants to report her landlady for her beliefs, and the other wants to censor the landlord’s mail so “BadThink” can’t be communicated to him.
And yet they see themselves as nothing but virtuous….and superior.
Take it away, Gina: