Signature Significance And The Julie Principle Confront “The Ethicist”

Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Ethicist” of the New York Times Magazine, doesn’t read Ethics Alarms so he isn’t conversant in two core EA concepts: signature significance, the fact that a single example of conduct can be enough to make a definitive judgment about an individual’s unethical nature, and The Julie Principle, which holds that once you recognize an individual’s flaws, you can accept them and continue the relationship, or use them to decide the individual is too flawed to tolerate, but it is pointless to keep complaining about them.A question from a disillusioned wife this week raised both, and “The Ethicist” acquitted himself well without directly acknowledging either.

“Theresa” revealed that her husband had tossed a banana peel out the passenger’s side window while she was driving on a highway. She protested, emphasizing her objection to littering and his setting a bad example for their 13-year-old in the back seat. He rationalized that the banana peel would “biodegrade”, and as if that wasn’t lame enough, defaulted to “I’m an adult, so I’ll do as I want.” After the incident, “Theresa” showed him an article about the dangers of throwing garbage on the street, plus a copy of the Massachusetts law declaring his conduct illegal. Her husband responded with, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”

“He refuses to acknowledge that he made a mistake or change his behavior,” “The Ethicist’s” inquirer wrote, adding that the deadlock on the issue is making her question her marriage.

At the outset, I have to agree that the episode might make me question the character of someone I had just met—not merely question it, in fact, but perhaps make a confident diagnosis: this guy is an asshole, and the sequence is signature significance. The only feature of the story that possibly rescues it from being signature significance is that it can be broken down into components:

1: “Oh, hell, what am I going to do with this banana peel now? It’s a long drive…heck, this is a busy highway, it will be mashed to atoms in a few minutes, and if I’m quick, nobody will notice. Out it goes!”

2. “Arrrgh! She caught me! How here comes the lecture…let me to cut her off with a defense… ‘Hey, no big deal; it’s biodegradable!'”

3. Well, that didn’t work—stupid, stupid stupid. But I’m so sick of her jumping one me for every little thing lately, even when she’s right, like now! Should I just tell her to shut up? No, I can’t do that, but I can’t put up with this the whole trip. ‘I’m an adult, so I’ll do as I want!‘ Wow, that didn’t come out right either. But at least she dropped it….”

4. “Oh no! Here she is back with the damn banana peel again! The first time I’ve littered in 20 years, and she’s making a federal case out of it! Well, I’m not going to admit I was wrong or apologize like I always do: time for a line in the sand: ‘Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?’”

That’s four separate bad decisions, adding up to a grand spectacle of epic jerkism. The Ethicist apparently makes the same assumption I do, which is that if the husband behaved like this regularly, a) “Theresa” wouldn’t have married him and stuck around long enough to have a 13-year-old kid, or b) she had decided to accept his habitual jerkism and for other reasons (Love? Great sex? Money? She’s also a jerk (but not a litterbug) who recognized a kindred spirit?), so the Julie Principle should have covered the Banana Peel Affair. Clearly, something else was involved.

Appiah concludes, after conceding that “Theresa” is right about throwing banana peels out of car windows,

If you really are finding yourself alienated from your husband, you might want to consider couples counseling. Both your response and his suggest that there may be deeper problems in your relationship.


2 thoughts on “Signature Significance And The Julie Principle Confront “The Ethicist”

  1. Frankly, this sounds like the old radio show “The Bickersons” where the two actors would just argue over every damn thing. I don’t understand the concept of eating something on the go that’s going to leave you with waste that you can’t just put down or put in your pocket until you get wherever you are going. If you’re like my mom and insist everyone eat fresh fruit even on the go, then you should have a bag ready to accept banana and orange peels, apple and pear cores, and so on, that you can toss when you next stop. Throwing stuff out the window is something no one should do, because there are a lot of reasons not to do it: you never know where it will land, you never know what might happen, you never know if your luck will run out and you’ll get a ticket, and generally the outdoors isn’t one big trashcan and it’s gross to see garbage and worse piled by the side of the road. However, in the grand scheme of things it’s not big enough to justify a huge fight and all the attendant expenditure of negative energy and bad feelings. That said, when you are wrong, you need to own it and move ahead. Don’t make up a bullshit excuse that you didn’t do anything wrong, don’t say that because you’re an adult you can do what you want, it’s a lie and if you’re old enough to be an adult you’re old enough to know better. That said, know when to let the matter drop, and DON’T insist on not just being right, but proving the other person wrong. That’s kind of jerky and smacks of always needing to win. And the proper response to “don’t you have more important things to do?” is the one Sean Connery gave as James Malone in the 1987 “Untouchables,” “Yeah, but I’m not doing them right now. Do we understand each other?”

  2. Character vetting and these kind of conversations need to happen BEFORE one gets hitched. It reminds me of the scene in “Mrs. Doubtfire” where Miranda tells her ex in disguise “I used to think Daniel could do anything…except be serious.” That should’ve been a sign that maybe he wasn’t ready to be a husband and father, but she married him under the pretense that she accepted him for who he was, but thirteen years and three kids later she decided to just call it quits after one fight too many. I expect a lot of marital problems can be avoided by dating long enough for the initial infatuation to wear off, watching for moments of signature character significance, and talking about potential red flags before taking the big plunge.

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