A Visit To “The Ethicist”

I haven’t opined on posts by the current holder of The New York Times Magazine “The Ethicist” title as often as I used to, in part because Kwame Anthony Appiah, unlike his predecessors, is a real ethicist, and usually answers the questions to his ethics advice column competently. The February 18 column was especially interesting, however, because Appiah seemed to be ducking some issues. I don’t blame him; two of the three questions he received have no clearly right ethical answer.

The one out of the three that was relatively easy was the anonymous inquirer who discovered that his company was willfully violating labor wage laws and under-reporting wages for workers’ compensation purposes. “Should I report this company to the authorities?” The Ethicist was asked. My answer? YES. 1) Get a lawyer. 2) Document what you know and how you found out about it. 3) Quit. 4) Blow the whistle. “I hope you proceed. Obligations of confidentiality to your employer don’t include the duty to conceal fraud,” was Appiah’s conclusion.

The other two questions are more problematical, especially the first: A correspondent asks what she should do with relatives in desperate financial straits who are begging for her money to bail them out. “I love my family, and it is extremely painful to see them suffer, but at the same time it is difficult for me to fund their lifestyles when they seem like a bottomless pit. I feel guilty and uncomfortable, but also angry and annoyed. Yet how can I watch my sister be thrown out of her house and potentially end up homeless if I have the resources to help her?”

The Ethicist ducks. First he says that the woman should try to train her relatives in financial management, even to the extent of actively managing their budgets. Right: THAT’s going to work. His conclusion: “So the most important thing you and your brother can do is to be clear with her about what you are and are not willing to do if her grasshopper behavior brings her into financial difficulties. And that means first being clear about this matter yourself. Bear in mind that you owe more to family members than you do to strangers, but you don’t owe it to them to abandon all your hard-earned plans in order to pay for their mistakes.”

But that wasn’t the question. Of course family members can’t demand that you fix their financial mistakes. It isn’t a matter of “owing” them, either. The Ethicist also cheats by resorting to a straw man: she didn’t ask if she should “abandon all her hard-earned plans.” She asked how she could sit back and watch them suffer when she had the resources to alleviate some of that suffering. Continue reading

Tickling The Ivories Ethics, And Other Annoyances, Via “Social Q’s”

The Sunday Times has an advice column by Phillip Gallanes called “Social Q’s” in which the columnists answers questions about what are good manners. For some time it has struck me that his questioners are just plain annoying people who shouldn’t need a an expert to tell them so: anyone with basic common sense could, and should.

Here were the queries in the last installment:

1. “Mom” complained that she was sick of her college-going daughter—the folks are paying, and “sacrificing”— at an elite college writing about her rich classmates’ trips, habits, and bling. “I finally lost it when she ignored the care package I sent during exams, telling me about a friend’s new Cartier necklace instead. She texted: “I wasn’t asking for one.” I replied: “Please stop telling me about your rich friends’ luxuries! I don’t want to hear about them.” What do we do?”

Gallanes’ reasonable response in part:

“You may be creating an unfair connection between your financial sacrifice and your daughter’s behavior. She’s probably drawn to all kinds of unfamiliar people and things in her new environment (some of them 18 karat), and would be even if she were on full scholarship. You gave her free rein to choose a school. You shouldn’t resent her for the price tag now, or let it color your expectations of her behavior….What you can do is trust that you raised her well. Your daughter’s head may be turned by shiny things for a minute (or a semester), but life is long. And the values you taught her will likely count for more than secondhand tales of luxury hotels. Still, in the end, it’s her call whether to chase after bling or deeper fulfillment, right?”

My reaction: parents who want constant fealty and expressions of gratitude for their “sacrifices” need to get their own values into line. It is wrong to make children feel guilty for being parented. It is especially wrong to require children to adopt and ratify their parent’s  insecurities. It sounds to me like this has already happened:the  daughter has been raised by parents who are unduly impressed by wealth and material signs of it. I went to a college full of rich kids. I wasn’t impressed, and because I knew my parents wouldn’t be impressed either, the subject never came up.

If you done want your kid to be interested in how her rich classmates live and think, then don’t send her to a school that’s going to be full of rich kids…but that would be a really selfish and juvenile motive for sending her to State U.

2. “Barbra” asked,  Why do visitors to my home feel that they can sit down and play my piano at parties without asking my permission? Not only does the noise make conversation difficult, it really annoys me! I think it’s as rude as walking into someone’s home and turning on the television. How do I stop this without embarrassing them?

This is a pet peeve of mine: people who use pianos, harps and chess boards as living room decorations. They are pompous and in an amazing number of cases, lies: check what color square is on the right hand corners of the chess board the next time you’re in a home that has one. If it’s a black square, it means your host doesn’t know how to play, and is preening. A grand piano is an even more ostentatious prop to boast: “I’m cultured!” If nobody in the house can play it, it really says, “I’m a phony.”

Writes the columnist in part,

“Unlike your analogy to bursting in and turning on the TV, there is a long tradition of piano music at social events. But this is your home. If you prefer not to have live music, pre-empt it with a little note on the sheet-music stand: “Let’s not have piano music tonight. Thanks!” This will be less hurtful than asking people to stop playing after they’ve begun — which is good, because not one of them means any harm.”

Me: A piano at a party says “play me,” and taking it ill when an accomplished pianist accepts the invitation is obnoxious. Yes, it can hijack the party—as a longtime attendee at show-biz parties that break into aggravating sing-alongs, I sympathize—and nobody should make themselves the center of attention someone else’s party without getting permission first. Nobody should presume to play if they aren’t any good at it either.

3. “My son and his partner are in their 20s and in perfectly good health. But they run cold and crank up the thermostat to 72 degrees when they visit us during colder months. My husband and I prefer to wear layers and keep the thermostat set at 65. It’s a small attempt to save the planet for future generations. What is socially correct here?” asks “Kay.”

My admittedly visceral reaction: ARRRGH! A VERY small attempt to save the planet…indeed, virtue-signaling and grandstanding. If you want to freeze in your own home do so, but if you lecture me on my thermostat setting as my guest—or lay your hands on it— be prepared to feel the cold quickly, after I kick you to the curb. As a host, if your idea of social responsibility makes your guests uncomfortable and you act on it anyway, shame on you. A few degrees higher for a day or two won’t flood Miami in the year 2525.

Phillip’s advice: “As guests, your son and his partner probably don’t pack all the cozy accouterments that you and your husband enjoy: thick cashmere socks, fleece-lined slippers and sweaters for layering. Stock the guest room with warm supplies. Maybe your coldblooded guests will take to them.”

4. Finally, there is this, from “Stan”:

As a would-be host, how can I withdraw a dinner invitation that I made five days ago in person? The invitee has yet to respond, and the dinner is 10 days hence….The failure to respond makes me suspect that the invitee is waiting for a better invitation. Am I wrong to feel ill-used?

Stan, you’re a jerk.

The columnist: “Isn’t it more likely that your friend simply forgot about the invitation? ….How about calling or texting and asking if dinner at your place is on? No harm in a reminder…”

Me: Yes, Stan, you are. You’re lucky if anyone wants to have dinner with you.

Oh, let’s have a poll:

 

 

“Dear Abby” And The Unusual Name Paradox [Updated]

The famous Hogg sisters, Ura and Ima.

Let’s begin with a related observation: The now widely accepted method of expressing disagreement with a point of view that varies from leftist (now, now, I use the term with love!) cant is to set out to destroy the point of view’s owner: after all, eliminate or intimidate all the dissenters and adversaries, and progressives no longer have to win  arguments on logic and merit. I know of what I speak: I am increasingly the target of social justice warriors (fascist division), who make formal complaints to my clients or administrative bodies when my ethical guidance doesn’t jibe with the world view their professors indoctrinated them with, thus precluding an open mind.

Thus I sympathize with “Dear Abby,” actually Daughter of Dear Abby Jeanne Phillips (also the niece of Ann Landers), who is now facing the progressive Twitter mob because she dared to opine that naming one’s baby Ifeoma, Bodhi or Laszlo might not be in the child’s long-term interests. “Not only can foreign names be difficult to pronounce and spell, but they can also cause a child to be teased unmercifully,” wrote Phillips. “Sometimes the name can be a problematic word in the English language. And one that sounds beautiful in a foreign language can be grating in English.”

The Horror. Now she is being called racist, and if her syndicate has the backbone and integrity of most organizations these days, which is to say none, she will probably be toast in a matter of weeks if not days. Writer Anand Giridharadas was among those interviewed for a Times story about Abby’s Outrage. “The reality is that a lot of this has to do not with names but with whiteness,” he said. “There are a lot of complicated names from Polish and Russian and Italian and German backgrounds that have become second nature to Americans.”

No, the issue is not “whiteness.” The questions in the ethical equation are…

Are you naming a child for your amusement, self-aggrandizement or political agenda, of for the child?

Is conduct consistent with cultural norms wise and respectful, or is it preferable to announce one’s defiance?

If data and experience shows that odd and unusual names create problems later in life, should responsible parents take that into consideration?

Is it fair and ethical to hang an unnecessary handicap on a child without that child’s approval?

What Phillips said is true. It’s that simple. People don’t like that it’s true, so they are condemning her. Continue reading

Now THIS Is Ethics Zugzwang! The Unfixable Catch-22 Of Sexual Harassment Law

A recent question to the New York Times workplace column “The Workologist” perfectly illustrates a permanent flaw in sexual harassment law. Believe it or not, I have no recommendation regarding how to fix it. I don’t think it can be fixed.

Here was the question:

I work at a blue-collar job, and I am one of four women in a crew of 40. The guys never touch or harass me, or any of the women, as far as I know.They do, however, constantly hug and grab and bump each other in a friendly way. It’s not unusual for one of the guys to go through a whole short meeting (a stand-up “huddle”) with an arm around another guy’s shoulder. No one ever touches me, and it’s not that I want them to. That would be weird. But I almost feel left out. Should I let this “bro contact” bother me?

I love it. Perfect. This is what using the law to dictate ethics can result in, and does result in frequently: hypocrisy, confusion, and a double-bind.

Let’s begin with the last sentence: “Should I let this “bro contact” bother me?” The whole point of “hostile work environment” sexual harassment law is to make sure no woman has to ask this question. A boss who responds to a female employee’s complaint of a hostile work environment-creating unwanted sexual attention in the office with “Don’t let it bother you!” has breached his or her duty under the law.

So what’s going on here? The men in the company have adopted the current fad (Yechhh.) of hugging each other to express a range of things—support, congratulation, sympathy, platonic affection—and quite properly do not hug the few women in their midst, lest one of the females, reasonably or not (or perhaps intentionally, to grab some power or cash) be made “uncomfortable,” take the physical contact as unwanted and sexual in intent, complain, and perhaps sue. By not hugging them, however, the men isolate the women, exclude them from the social fabric of the “team,” and, in essence, discriminate against them by signalling that they are “the other,” thus creating a hostile work environment.

Even if some of the women announced their consent to be treated as “one of the guys,” it would not solve the dilemma. One of those bro-hugs could still turn into a copped feel, or be perceived as crossing lines by the female huggee. Then there is the looming  third party harassment problem: a woman who has not consented to being hugged might see her female colleagues being man-handled (but completely innocently, of course) and assume that consenting to unwanted physical contact was a condition of employment, or that they would be adversely affected if they did not agree to participate enthusiastically in the hug-fest. Not treating the women in the company like the men is discrimination; treating them the same is an open invitation to a sexual harassment lawsuit. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 7/9/2018: Searching For Something Positive In The Ethics News, Failing

Good morning.

1. Is it unethical to never be satisfied, or just human? Or just American? The Boston Red Sox are winning too much, and I don’t recognize my team.  Over the weekend, literally for the first time in my life, I found myself feeling sorry for an opposing team and its fans. The poor Kansas City Royals (who are, I know, in the process of tanking) looked hopeless as the Red Sox swept a three game series. KC, not long ago a World Series champion, looks like it will lose 105 games or more. My team has always been the underdog. I don’t want to root for crypto-Yankees.

2. Yeah, I wish the President would just announce his SCOTUS pick and not make it into a circus.

3. Another Ethics Alarms Lost Post…A Carolyn Hax advice column from March missed  getting the post I intended at the time, and I just stumbled across the old file. A woman who had planned a huge wedding was jilted by her fiance shortly before the big date, as he ran off with an old flame. She asked Carolyn if she was wrong to be angry at invited friends and relatives who wanted her to reimburse them for non-refundable airline tickets, and to never want to have any contact with them again. Hax said that such people don’t deserve anything better, and ought to be written off in perpetuity.

That was an easy call for the relationship columnist, but I found  myself reflecting on other matters, like whether I have any friends and relatives who could be expected to behave that atrociously, venally and compassionlessly (relatives yes, friends, no, I think). Another question: what’s the matter with people, and how do they get this way? Someone you care about is slammed with a life catastrophe, and your first reaction is to demand that she pay for your inconvenience?

4. Yes, “enemy of the people” is accurate…From Glenn Greenwald (via Althouse): Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/20/18: Life, Death, Fairness, Dissonance And Sanity

1 Let’s see more of such Ethics Heroes, please… In Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania,  John Orsini, has gone to court to stop his ex-wife from allowing their son, 17-year-old Antonio, from playing high school football in his senior year. Antonio has already suffered at least three concussions. Antonio’s mother and John’s ex-wife, Janice, says that her son understands the risks, and that doctors have OK’d his continued play.

But he doesn’t understand the risks—apparently neither do those doctors—and he is considered a minor under the law because teenagers are prone to poor reasoning and impulsive decisions…especially when they have incipient brain damage.

CNN is eager to hear his position on gun control though. But I digress..

Says the CBS news story: “John contends that after these concussions and sub-concussive hits, medical research shows that Antonio would be in grave danger if he continues to play football.” He contends? There is no contention: that is fact.

“I’m trying to save his future. I’m trying to save his life,” he said of his son.

Janice and her attorney issued a statement, saying in part,

“The mother and her 17-year-old son have reasonably relied upon the input and opinions of his treating physicians and medical providers, and have considered the state mandated safety and concussion protocols followed by the school district, in deciding whether it was appropriate for him to continue to participate in football.”

John believes the court will side with him.  “If you have a significant indication that the child is being placed in harm’s way, and it’s brought to court to protect the child, it’s the court obligation to do so,” he says. I wouldn’t be so sure. This is football country, and football fanatics are in denial. They’ll get thousands of children’s brains injured before they are through.

“I’m hopeful that my son will just go on, get a good education and lead a healthy life. That’s all I want,” said John, whose other two sons no longer speak to him over this conflict.

Good luck.

Let’s hope Anthony is given then chance to grow smarter than his mother.

2. Let’s see, which Trump Derangement news media story should I post today? Every day, every single day, I have literally dozens of biased, vicious, stupid, unprofessional and blatantly partisan mainstream media news reports and pundit excesses to flag as unethical. Here, for example, is a New York Times columnists advocating for Rex Tillerson to betray all professional ethics, confidentiality, trust and responsibility by revealing everything he heard or saw as Secretary of State that could undermine Trump’s administration. It’s called, “Burn it down, Rex.”

Let me repeat: for journalists to set out to intentionally poison public opinion against the elected President of the United States by manipulation and hostile reporting is unethical and dangerous. This conduct has been the single largest ethics breach in the culture for more than a year, and one of the worst in U.S. history. In strenuously condemning journalism’s abdication of its duty to support democratic institutions and to remain objective and responsible, I am not defending Donald Trump. I am attempting to defend the Presidency itself.

Today I pick…this: Continue reading

Your Boss Asks If You Have Prayed About A Work-Related Matter…What Is The Ethical Response?

This question was asked of the New York Times’ “Workologist” (It’s stuff like this that keeps me subscribed despite the paper’s disgraceful partisan bias and unocnscionable manipulation of the news):

I recently had a manager ask me if I have “prayed about” a particular situation at the office… this statement crossed a personal line with me. I am very private about my religious life. Do you have any recommendations on how I could handle this?

The question immediately reminded me of “Breach,” the film about the capture of spy Robert Hannsen (Chris Cooper), who was always urging his clerk (actually the undercover FBO agent recruited to unmask him) to pray. The “Workologist” (Rob Walker) begins by pointing out the obvious: a boss can’t demand that you pray, or fire you for refusing to. Then he adds,

Your manager can’t discriminate against you on the basis of religion, but your company can’t discriminate against him, either — by, say, forbidding him to ever mention prayer. In general, companies are supposed to make an effort to accommodate the religious practices of employees, although this can be weighed against the potential burden on the employer…Faith-related workplace conflicts and litigation have become more common in recent years. So it might be better to think about this incident in the broader context of personal expression and identity…

your best move is to make your own boundaries clear — yet also try to avoid an outright conflict. The fact that you already consider him your “worst manager” might make that difficult. But simply declaring his question inappropriate or offensive won’t help.

Instead, try something like “Well, I’ve thought about it,” and either leave it there or, if that doesn’t seem to connect, add something like “But I’m not comfortable talking about what I do or don’t pray about.” This should be delivered in a friendly-to-neutral tone. You’re not making any judgments — and neither should he.

I find that approach cowardly and dishonest. Continue reading