A recent question to Phillip Galanes, the advice columnist whose “Social Q’s” feature for the New York Times has frequently sparked Ethics Alarms essays, was fraught with larger significance.
A mother said that her 12-year-old daughter had a a sticker on her water bottle quoting Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” The girl’s friend told her that systemic racism made that statement false for many Americans, so the sticker was racist. The daughter then peeled off the sticker. “What’s a mother to do?” was the gist of the inquirer’s appeal. Continue reading
here), from “Laura”:
, the current author of the Times Magazine “The Ethicist” column and the first proprietor who is an actual ethicist, devoted a whole column this weekend to exploring a variant on the duty to rescue, via this question, which I have redacted a bit (you can read the whole question
I went to a bar that was playing live music and sat at a table very close to the band. A young woman noticed an empty seat at our table and asked if she could join us. She was friendly, intelligent and also clearly drunk, slurring words and feeling no pain. She came in alone.
Right beside her was a musician in the band. He wasn’t needed in all the songs, so he was free to chat quite a bit, and you could see there was chemistry between him and Kim, but they had not met before. Kim left to use the restroom and when she returned, the musician was with her, carrying her drink. Around 11 p.m., my companion and I were ready to call it a night. We said our goodbyes and left. I’ve thought a lot about if I should have done something. Perhaps it’s because of #MeToo,but I felt uncomfortable leaving Kim there so drunk and alone. Should I have said something to the bartenders? They were so busy and not really able to watch over the customers. I would like to think that under normal circumstances they would have made sure she got in an Uber by herself (and not with a stranger), or at least would have made sure she didn’t leave with someone against her will. But was she too drunk to give consent? Should I have said something to her, like, “Are you going to be O.K. getting home?” She didn’t appear to be anywhere close to wanting to go home. she was of legal age. Should I have said something to the musician, who seemed like a decent man? have allowed myself the fantasy that he knew she was drunk, made sure she got home safely and did not take advantage of her, but instead took her phone number and checked on her the next day. What was the right thing for me to do in this situation?
Well, let’s see: blog traffic is dead today, like most Sundays,, my in-progress post about the Big Lie that President Trump is a racist needs to be cut approximately in half (though it could easily be twice as long), and my current inventory is made up of either “too silly to write about,” yet more “2016 post election ethics train wreck” insanity, or stuff that’s two complicated to handle working on half a brain, which is what I woke up with, now seems like as good a time as ever to see how the newspaper advice columnists are doing…
- Philip Gananes (Social Q’s) advises a teenage son who is embarrassed by his mother’s “R-rated” tattoos “all over her arms and back.” The teen has asked Mom to cover up around his friends, and her reply is “if people don’t like her tattoos, that’s their problem.” He asks the advice columnist if he is out of line.
Gananes says in part, “As an adult, she is free to make her own choices about her body and body art. You’re entitled to have feelings about her tattoos. But to ask her to hide them to save you embarrassment is like asking her to pretend to be a different person — because you’re ashamed of the one she is. That has to sting…The next time one of your pals makes a crack about your mom’s tattoos, say: “I’m not crazy about them, either. But she’s a great person and a terrific mother.” When you can say that and really mean it, Brian, you will be a terrific son.”
The Ethics Alarms verdict:
I was surprised that Gallanes, who is usually on target, would embrace the “that’s just who I am” rationalization. The issue isn’t tattoos, but “R rated” tattoos. “Mom, would you please not fart and belch loudly around my friends?” “That’s just who I am! If people don’t like it, that’s their problem.” “Mom, would you stop saying “fuck” and “cock-sucker” when my friends are here? “That’s just who I am! If people don’t like it, that’s their problem.” “Mom, would you stop coming on to my male friends?….Mom, would you please stop dressing in a halter top and going bare midriff with your gut hanging over your belt when my friends are here? You’re 56 years old and weigh 212!…Mom, would you please not come out to talk to my friends when you’re drunk”?
That’s just who I am! If people don’t like it, that’s their problem.”
“Am I holding it right?”
In the comments to yesterday’s post discussing the jaw-dropping ignorance and anti-gun bias displayed by a popular advice columnist, the question again arose as to why anti-gun advocates remain so uninformed about their own passion, and don’t bother to educate themselves sufficiently that they won’t sound like idiots—like, for example, “Ask Amy,” who confused hollow-point bullets with armor-piercing bullets, said the hollow-points were “exploding bullets,” referred to a common and popular handgun as the kind of weapon criminals use, and suggested that owning a gun was a dangerous sign of hidden criminal activity.
Glenn Logan, in the first of the two Comments of the Day that were sparked by “Dear Ethics Alarms: I Am An Advice Columnist Who Is Ignorant And Phobic About Guns. When I Get A Question About Guns, What Should I Do?”, theorized thusly…
Bullets, shmullets, what’s the difference?
“Ask Amy,” authored by Amy Dickinson, is one of the mid-level practitioners of the syndicated advice columnist’s craft—not consistently brilliant like Carolyn Hax, not as persistently wrong-headed as the now mercifully retired Emily Yoffe at Slate.
A recent letter to Amy read,
Dear Amy: This week, I discovered that my intelligent, hard-working, responsible 24-year-old daughter (who lives with me) is a gun owner! And it’s not a normal gun, either — it is a 40-caliber semi-automatic, and she has hollow-point bullets to go with it. Amy, this is the kind of weapon a criminal would possess! She says it is for emergencies. There have only been two home invasions in our neighborhood in the last 11 years. I’ve given her three choices: She can either give her weapon to me, sell it or move out in three weeks. I love my daughter and would be so sad for her to move into a place that she would hardly be able to afford, but now I have to lock my bedroom door at night because I don’t know what she’s going to do. Now she says that I don’t trust her, and is barely speaking to me. How can I convince her to stop endangering us?—Dumbfounded Father
Let’s make a couple of observations right away.
- The father has every right to refuse to let the daughter keep a gun in his house; she is his guest. Nor was it respectful, fair or honest for her to bring a gun into the house without telling her host. I don’t know what the writer thinks is a “normal gun,” but a 40-caliber semi-automatic is certainly one in this day and age.
The writer is apparently frightened by the scary “semi-automatic” part, which just means he is unfamiliar with firearms that wouldn’t be used by Hopalong Cassidy.
- “Amy, this is the kind of weapon a criminal would possess!” is free-floating anti-gun hysteria.
It’s also a gun a law-abiding citizen would possess, except that such a gun would be possessed legally. Continue reading
“Different? No, you look the same as ever to me! Did you change your hair?”
Phillip Galanes’ “Social Q’s” column in the Sunday Times had what I thought was a strange complaint. A woman who had a long history of yo-yo weight loss said that when she was losing weight, she found the typical compliments she received from friends and co-workers offensive:
“You look so great!” “I hardly recognized you!” I hate these remarks. I’d like to respond: “Thank God I’m not so fat and ugly and gross anymore, right?” Or: “My body is none of your business.”
She said that she was currently in a weight-losing phase and responding to the well-intentioned comments with a simple “thanks,” but asked for advice from Gallanes regarding a better response. I was astounded to find that he sympathized:
Better to ignore the comments, or change the subject, than endorse them with gratitude.
I don’t think a reasonable person would be offended, though, if you said: “I know you mean well, but your comments about my body and weight bother me. I wish you wouldn’t make them.” Or even more directly: “Let’s skip my body as a subject for conversation. It makes me uncomfortable.” You’re allowed to be straight with people, Heather. And your feelings are justified.
Now, to the scores of letter writers who will complain that my ridiculous political correctness is getting in the way of giving simple compliments: Dudes, your “compliments” are hurting people’s feelings! So, maybe, back off your impulse and consider the unintended consequences of your so-called flattering remarks.
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