, the New York Times Magazine’s ethics columnist, just opened a can of metaphorical worms, and I’m going to spread them around a little. It may get messy.
A woman—actually, now that I re-read the post, we don’t know it’s a woman— wrote to be reassured that he or she wasn’t a bad person for wanting to dump a man she had engaged in a nascent romantic relationship after discovering that he had Crohn’s Disease. “I know I’m being selfish, but is it unethical to not date him because of it?” she wrote. ” I don’t know what to do to support him, and I am worried about the future. He said it’s very likely his intestinal issues could get worse, and his life expectancy may be shorter. I want to shield myself from the pain, but I also feel like a terrible person for even thinking about it.”
Hey, don’t feel bad, sayeth “The Ethicist”:
“Once someone is truly a friend or a lover, you have all kinds of responsibilities to them that you didn’t have before. So for example, it would be deplorable to abandon a spouse because he or she has become seriously ill. That’s part of what’s meant by saying a marriage is to endure “in sickness and in health.” Of course, this can turn out to be a promise someone can’t keep. But precisely because a partnership is for the long term, you can appropriately consider what your lives together would be like before you enter into one. When a potential partner is already seriously ill, committing to this person may be committing to a life as a caregiver. (The specific condition you mention has a wide range of severity; it can be mild and well controlled or genuinely debilitating.) You don’t owe it to anyone to accept that burden; indeed, if you think you don’t want such a life, you have a good reason not to enter into the relationship. It doesn’t make you a terrible person to think about the issue. The terrible thing would be to make the commitment and then to be unable to keep it.”
Oddly for “The Ethicist,” he ducked the main question that was asked, and instead answered what he thought was an easier one. The questions he answered were ” Is it wrong to reject a commitment to someone because that commitment may be too burdensome?,” and “Is it wrong to think about the issue?” (It isn’t wrong to think about anything, regardless of what Black Lives Matter says. They should see what I think about them.)
What the inquirer was asking, however, is whether she should end a casual relationship—she had only known the guy through Zoom, after all—because he had Crone’s Disease, before she could form an attachment to him and might decide that he was worth the trouble…make that potential trouble.
I see no distinction between what she wants to do and invidious discrimination in any other relationship, like employment. Discrimination is when you treat someone worse than someone else because of who they are and features they have no control over, rather than what they do, have done, or “the content of their character.” It is also discrimination to make judgments about someone based on assumptions about people “like” them—profiling, essentially. “I don’t want to date him, even though I really like him, because he has a handicap” is, as I see it, indistinguishable from saying, “I don’t want to hire her because she has a handicap/ is likely to become pregnant/ is old/ is black.”
That’s discrimination, and that’s wrong.
Since everything is about race now, here’s an example involving race. Black actors have a hard time in the Washington, D.C. theater community. Many of them come from an economically strained upbringing; many have not developed good work habits (like being on time for rehearsals); many of them have transportation issues, and unlike the bulk of the white actors in the area, live downtown, requiring a long commute to Northern Virginia, and many have to depend on public transportation. Many, thanks to people telling them all their lives that they are being discriminated against, are paranoid, and suspect that every rejection or criticism is motivated by racial animus. This causes friction in a production, and trust me, friction in the theater is a big problem.
Thus there is are practical disincentives to casting black performers in roles written for white actors, and also to do shows requiring black performers. As an artistic director I pushed a different policy: The American Century Theater would be committed to giving black actors opportunities. Frankly, we got burned many times—too many times. In other instances, however, we found excellent performers and terrific people who enhanced our productions. The odds, however, on casting unknown black actors were never good. It was a risk. Nonetheless, the theater remained committed to giving everyone a chance, if they had the talent to do a role, and to creating as many opportunities for black actors as we could.
I know, we weren’t marrying any of the actors. Still, depending on a performer in a theatrical production is a commitment, and the decision not to commit to a performer because experience tells us that someone like this performer is likely to require special patience, consideration, and accommodations is making a decision based on bias and prejudice.
So is what Appiah’s inquirer wants to do. My question to the Ethicist is: What happened to the Golden Rule? Don’t all of us want the chance to show we’re worth a commitment, whether it is in a job or a serious relationship?