The Ethics Conflict Of The Untrustworthy Housecleaners Is An Easy Call

house theft

…but for some reason. “The Ethicist” couldn’t figure that out.

I hadn’t checked in on Kwame Anthony Appiah, the New York Times Magazine’s current incarnation of “The Ethicist,” for a while, and based on this exchange, the usually reliable NYU philosophy professor is showing some wear and tear. I blame The Great Stupid.

An inquirer wrote to ask if her friend had done the right thing by not telling her neighbors in ” a close-knit neighborhood” who used the same mother-daughter housecleaning team she did that she had caught the daughter stealing, and dismissed the pair. “She spoke with the mother, who apologized profusely on behalf of her troubled daughter and, of course, understood when my friend said they wouldn’t use the service any longer,” the letter concluded. “Was my friend obligated to let her neighbors know? She worried about this team losing business when she had no way of knowing whether or not the daughter was stealing from others.”

I was gobsmacked that Appiah endorsed not telling the neighbors. He wrote,

“A helpful way to think about the situation is to imagine that a neighbor learned what happened and asked your friend why she didn’t spread the word. After all, your friend decided she didn’t want these people in the house. Her reply wouldn’t be limited to observing that she wasn’t sure what was happening in other households. The daughter knew that her misconduct cost her and her mother a job; she had a strong motive to reform her ways. It was reasonable to think that the penalty your friend imposed would have been to the benefit of other clients. So your friend’s decision to discontinue using these cleaners without blackening their name in the neighborhood was an ethically sound one.”

No, it absolutely is not. To begin with, this is a straightforward Golden Rule situation. How would the woman feel if a neighbor withheld such information from her, and the daughter stole something? The operative word is “betrayed.” There was an absolute obligation to warn the neighbors. If the woman wanted to opine, in the course of informing her friends of what they had a right to know, that the mother should be given a chance to reform her daughter or better supervise her, that’s fine, but if that was what she believed, why didn’t she give the pair a second chance?

For all the first neighbor to discover the thefts knows, the mother knew about the daughter’s stealing all along. (If the daughter was so “troubled,” why was the mother using her?) Even if she didn’t know about her daughter’s sticky fingers, the mother is still accountable for her cleaning service’s misconduct. There is no obligation owed to the housecleaners at all. They betrayed the trust of one client, and it is reasonable to assume they were doing the same elsewhere.

What an ethically warped analysis by “The Ethicist”!

Incidentally, I wasn’t kidding about blaming The Great Stupid. The dangerous idea has suddenly become popular in the culture that there is something cruel, unfair and systemically racist in holding those who violate laws accountable for doing so, and in seeing that they suffer the consequences. This places good citizens and ethics members of society at the mercy of predators and sociopaths, of which there are many. If Appiah, who has previously shown good sense and sound ethical instincts, can fall victim to this idealistic and foolish delusion, heaven help us all.

5 thoughts on “The Ethics Conflict Of The Untrustworthy Housecleaners Is An Easy Call

  1. The lack of firm, predictable consequences for one’s action is rearing its head in unimaginable ways across the country. Stealing is OK and unpunished if it’s below a certain dollar amount; stopping cars on public roads or surrounding diners in eating places and berating them because they won’t chant your mantra is seen as “peaceful protests”; and in our own locale, neighbors who posted a video showing a teen, egged on by others, trying to enter a private home that wasn’t his own via a first floor window ends up with the neighbors being berated for calling the teen out publicly because “nothing serious happened.”
    How dare anyone chastise those who circumvent the rules of a civil society.
    The list goes on and excuse-making only reaps more bad behavior – behavior which won’t stop until there are real consequences.

    • Over the years, I have defended a number of 18 and 19 year olds who committed crimes as juveniles and suffered no real consequences and who were astounded to learn now that they had committed crimes as adults, something bad was going to happened to them, usually some jail time, sometimes penitentiary time. We reap what we sow. This is nothing new; it’s just more widespread.

  2. Whoa! The NYT’s ethicist is endorsing oppressing people by making them clean your house? Am I missing something? That’s okay? That’s not even on this guy’s ethical radar? Isn’t that the elephant in the room here? And there’s an entire neighborhood of these people and no one has called any of these evil people for this [undoubtedly] white supremacist behavior?

  3. Holding the cleaner’s conduct in confidentiality protects the cleaners, but harms the other neighbors who use them. In practical terms, the contractual relationship with the cleaners is easily interchanged with another. The relationship with neighbors is not easily changed and this relationship needs much more care and maintenance. There is no benefit to the resident in keeping mum.

    There’s also moral hazard involved. Protecting a wrongdoer from the consequences is not a good construct.

    Is it ethical to post the incident to social networks and online review sites? I probably wouldn’t, but don’t think it would be unethical.

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