I hadn’t checked in for a while on Kwame Anthony Appiah, the N.Y.U philosophy teacher and author who finally brought ethical consistency to the New York Times magazine’s advice column, “The Ethicist.” I was surprised to find him struggling to answer two family related queries that I would have assumed he could and should have answered easily with three words: “The Golden Rule.”
The first inquirer asked in part,
Recently a mutual acquaintance who knows my friend’s husband well told me that he has been cheating on my friend on and off for years with someone who once worked with him.I know that if I reveal this information, my friend will take their child and leave her husband. Do I sit on this information and pretend the affair isn’t happening, or do I tell her?
Isn’t that an easy call? Of course she should tell her friend. The Golden Rule applies: would she want to be told if the positions were reversed? Sure she would; anyone would. Not telling her would be a betrayal of the worst kind.
Yet Appiah uses 608 words to reach that conclusion. 608! This makes a slam dunk of an ethics decision appear to be a difficult one. Oh, it’s difficult in the sense that the inquirer has to take sides in a crisis affecting a couple she and her husband are close to, and thus the repercussions as well as the process will be unpleasant, but that’s life. One of the Ethics Alarms rules is that if you can fix a problem, fix it. The Ethicist’s rabbinical musings about the decision just supplies a dangerous volume of rationalizations to temp the questioner into keeping the husband’s secret, and abetting the harm.
The second question also involved keeping a secret for someone else. The inquirer’s 17-year-old niece is pregnant, as she prepares to start college in September. The girl’s parents, the aunt says, are not likely to support an abortion (which the writer euphemistically refers to as “family planning,” which, I confess, turned me against her immediately) for religious reasons. The niece has approached the aunt to help her with getting counseling and a doctor’s appointment.The inquirer writes, “I am honored that she trusts me enough, and I want to help. Should I provide assistance without her parents’ knowledge or involvement? ”
This question put me in mind of a scene in Steve Martin’s “The Man With Two Brains”:
Of course no.
Again, this is Golden Rule 101. Would the inquirer want her child to keep her out of the decision-making process if the positions were reversed? Would the inquirer want her sister to secretly assist the inquirer’s daughter without telling her?
Appiah disappointingly begins by noting that “In most states, your niece is legally entitled to keep her parents out of the loop as soon as she’s 18.” Well, that’s law vs ethics, and I expect an ethicist to know the difference. The daughter can cut her parents out of the loop, but that doesn’t mean she should, and the law is intended to guide doctors, not family members. Does the daughter live in the patents home? Is she still financially supported by them? She is still a minor in fact, and she owes her parents the right to have a part in her life decisions until she is emancipated, which she is not.
Then The Ethicist really goes off the rails:
But you’re thinking about what you owe her and her parents. Her parents’ views about sex and reproduction, as you make clear, are formed by particular religious commitments that you and she may not share. And in shaping her life, it’s her commitments that matter most. That your niece wants your help and wants to keep it confidential is reason enough to agree to do both those things: She could, after all, go by herself, and it’s probably better if she goes with a family member. Were her parents to learn what had happened, they would most likely be displeased. Yet there’s a superseding concern here that isn’t affected by their religious beliefs: If your niece is thinking about sex, she’s better off knowing her options.
Now hold on:
- Whether the aunt shares the girl’s parents religious beliefs is completely irrelevant. This isn’t her family unit, nor her daughter. Being in the New York Times orbit, Appiah is taking the typical progressive position that religious faith is just an annoying, irrational bias that deserves no respect or deference. Whether or not the girl shares her parent’s faith is a distraction: she’s pregnant and in a crisis. She’s not exactly in the perfect state of mind to dispassionately assess the moral and ethical implications of her conduct. She needs adult advice, support and supervision, and it is the parents, not the aunt, who should have the opportunity to offer all three.
- Her commitments do matter most, and she has an existing commitment to her family. The aunt has a commitment to that family too: the commitment not to betray their trust.
- “She could, after all, go by herself, and it’s probably better if she goes with a family member”? This isn’t The Ethicist, this is The Rationlizer! He’s defaulting to Rationalizations ##1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it”, #15 The Futility Illusion: “If I don’t do it, somebody else will,” and # 22, The Comparative Virtue Excuse, or“There are worse things.”
- You bet her parents would be “displeased” that the aunt would go behind their backs to assist their daughter in keeping a major situation with significant life consequences from them. They have every right to be furious, and why? Because such conduct is a betrayal of trust, and a intentional interference with their legitimate authority and concern as parents.
I view this as an example of pro-abortion bias, making The Ethicist stupid as well as incompetent and irresponsible. The Golden Rule—which, it is interesting to note, he did not reference in either of these cases—would have kept him on course.
This link will get you past Facebook’s never explained Ethics Alarms ban: https://twitter.com/CaptCompliance/status/1227170196319801350