Ethics Alarms Thanks The Ethicist For Some Non-Pandemic Topics

With  about 80% or more of all news stories somehow involving the Wuhan virus and its effects (World War II must have been like this), finding non -pandemic stories and ethics issues has become an irritating and challenging job.

Fortunately, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “The Ethicist” column” this week saw two interesting issues arise, both of which he answered correctly. (There are other questions in the column too.) One inquirer asked, “It has become clear to me, however, that individual senators and other elected officials outside my state do indeed have a powerful effect on the entire country. Is it appropriate for me to donate to candidates in elections in which I cannot vote?”

Of course it is. Appiah wrote essentially what I would: “As you recognize, the effects politicians have aren’t confined to their immediate constituencies. On the contrary, the prospects for our country depend on who holds elective offices at every level. For one thing, representatives from each of the states in the U.S. House and Senate vote on national legislation. For another, policies in one state affect what happens in others….We are one nation; if we’re to aim at liberty and justice for all, we need to do it together.”

Bingo.

The second question was interesting because it is amazing that anyone would have the gall to make such an outrageous request, and fascinating that anyone would be so  puzzled about how to respond that they would seek advice from a third party: Continue reading

Another Visit To “The Ethicist”: Appiah Overthinks The Dilemma Of The Treacherous Ex-Wife

is the first and only competent ethicist to handle the long-time New York Times Magazine column, so I feel badly that most of the time when I reference his opinions, it is to criticize one of them. He over-all record is excellent, despite the impression one might get from Ethics Alarms. For example, read his superb, if a bit overblown, response to a white woman who was “deeply offended” that a contractor hired by her husband flew a small confederate flag on his truck. She wanted to report him as a racist to his boss, and asked Appiah if this was the right thing to do.

That nuanced advice is more typical of “The Ethicist’s” work than this recent chapter, in which a man wrote that he had split from his wife after she had refused any physical intimacy, saying that it was no longer “part of her life.” She suggested a trial separation, which led to a formal divorce, and the couple signed a non-disparagement agreement as part of the process. Recently she admitted to him that she had repeatedly cheated on him during their marriage, and that she suggested the trial separation so she could resolve her affair at the time with a married man.

The inquirer says that he has never blamed his wife in discussions with his sons for the end of the marriage, but that he has learned from them that she “places the sole blame on me for every problem ever experienced by our family, including the drug addiction of our older son. When I recently contacted her about visiting him in jail, she said he didn’t want to see me. I contacted him and found that this was not true.”

He asks “The Ethicist” if he can ethically violate the non-disparagement agreement in his own defense, and tell the sons what a lying, cheating, betraying mother they have. To my amazement, Appiah said he could, and even suggested that he should, arguing in the process of a looooong discourse, Continue reading

Dead Wrong: The Withdrawn Bequest Share

That is, the advice columnist’s answer to an easy ethics question last week was dead wrong.  Once again, the advice-giver in question is Philip Galanes, the Times proprietor of Social Q’s, essentially that paper’s version of “Miss Manners.” Galanes, I now see upon googling him, is a novelist and a lawyer. That explains, perhaps, his unfamiliarity with some of the more nuanced aspects of ethics. Here’s the question he received in its entirety:

My brother died last year and bequeathed his entire (small) estate to me. He had one child, a daughter, to whom he left nothing. Feeling sorry for her, I told my niece I would give her half of the estate. (None of this becomes official until April.) But my circumstances have changed dramatically. My husband was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He is undergoing treatment, but we face a very uncertain financial future. I would now like to keep the entire estate. My niece is doing well financially, with many earning years ahead of her, unlike me. Is there a way to tell her I’ve changed my mind so she won’t hate me forever?

The Social Q’s verdict: “…Say, ‘I’m sorry if your father’s will hurt you. I promised you half of my inheritance out of love for you and hoping to heal any pain the will caused. But my husband is seriously ill, and I can’t afford to give you the money now. If I can make it up to you later, or in my estate, I will do it.’….For readers worrying about a verbal contract here, let’s assume B’s promise falls into one of several exceptions that requires agreements to be in writing….”

Yeccchh.

Here’s the ethical answer: Continue reading

Ethics Alarms To “The Ethicist”: It’s Called “The Golden Rule”—Why Is That So Hard?

I hadn’t checked in for a while on Kwame Anthony Appiah, the N.Y.U philosophy teacher and author who finally brought ethical consistency to the New York Times magazine’s advice column, “The Ethicist.” I was surprised to find him struggling to answer two family related queries that I would have assumed he could and should have answered  easily with three words: “The Golden Rule.”

The first inquirer asked in part,

Recently a mutual acquaintance who knows my friend’s husband well told me that he has been cheating on my friend on and off for years with someone who once worked with him.I know that if I reveal this information, my friend will take their child and leave her husband. Do I sit on this information and pretend the affair isn’t happening, or do I tell her?

Isn’t that an easy call? Of course she should tell her friend. The Golden Rule applies: would she want to be told if the positions were reversed? Sure she would; anyone would. Not telling her would be a betrayal of the worst kind.

Yet Appiah uses 608 words to reach that conclusion. 608! This makes a slam dunk of an ethics decision appear to be a difficult one. Oh, it’s difficult in the sense that the inquirer has to take sides in a crisis affecting a couple she and her husband are close to, and thus the repercussions as well as the process will be unpleasant, but that’s life. One of the Ethics Alarms rules is that if you can fix a problem, fix it. The Ethicist’s rabbinical musings about the decision just supplies a dangerous volume of rationalizations to temp the questioner into keeping the husband’s secret, and abetting the harm. Continue reading

Won’t You Try Saturday Afternoon Ethics, 1/25/20? The Segue Post…

The Winter of Hate would seem like a good time to remember the Summer of Love, don’t you think?

1.Well, that’s nice! A man gets along with his brothers! Rich Juzwiak is Slate’s sex advisor. A recent male enquirer asked him, “I live in a large house along with six brothers, all adults and close to each other in age, two of whom I am having sex with….The problem is that I don’t know what to call this arrangement…”

Oh, is that the problem?

What’s an interesting though experiment is trying to define exactly what this big, happy family arrangement is unethical, or even if it is. What harm does it do to society or non-consenting people? It doesn’t risk unhealthy babies, or ruin the family heirarchy like male-female incest

It the fair and honest answer to the reader’s question, “What do you call it?” “I call it so icky I want to barf, not that there’s anything wrong with that”? Is this the best example of the Ick Factor ever?

How about, “I don’t know what to call it, but if you don’t sell it as a reality show, you’re all idiots” ?

An aside: This reminded me of my favorite Ann Landers question of all time. Ann’s readers said she was having an affair with the husband of a professional lady wrestler, who walked in on her and the cheating husband as they were getting disrobed. He babbled that she was his masseuse, and, incredibly, the credulous wrestler bought it. She asked the terrified mistress if she would give her a massage too, and, trapped, Ann’s inquirer agreed. The wrestler was pleased—so pleased that the woman is giving her weekly massages while continuing to have sex with the wrestler’s husband. What do you think was her question to Ann?

“Can I get in trouble for giving massages without a license?”

This convinced me that Ann Landers answered more fake questions than I previously assumed. Continue reading

Sunday Before Christmas Ethics Ornaments, 12/22/19: Googling Ethics, “Cats,” Goldman Sachs, De Niro, Trump Derangement

Here’s hoping that the the next three days rescue the Spirit of Christmas…

…because the last few weeks have been a downer, man.

1. Googling ethics:  Phillip Galanes, at Social Q’s was consulted by a woman who had bad vibes about her girlfriend’s new love, so she googled him, and found out, as she suspected, that he had some serious red flags in his past. She told her friend, who had discovered the bad news herself, but who was hurt and angry that the inquirer did a background check on her boyfriend. “Was I wrong?” she asked. In his answer, Gallanes implies that she was, although “everybody does it.” I’d like a nice, succinct, substantive explanation of by what ethical theory it can ever be wrong to access publicly available information about anyone. This isn’t an issue of privacy, because the information isn’t private. There was nothing wrong with the inquirer’s motives, because she was concerned about her friend.

I’d call this the Ick Factor at work. It seems unethical because the fact that anyone can check our lives out online is creepy. The research itself, however, is ethically neutral. The ethics comes in with how the information is used.

2. I guess I have to mention “Cats”…since it is getting the most spectacular negative and cruel reviews since “Showgirls,” and maybe before that. “Exorcist II, The Heretic” perhaps. Oddly, the usually hyper-critical New York Times is not one of the worst defilers, but here was what the reviewer really found objectionable :

“It’s too bad that no one seems to have thought through the semiotics of Victoria’s chalky white cat face, given that Hayward is of mixed race and that the heavy is Idris Elba’s predatory Macavity. Elba seems to be having a fine time, but come on!”

Ah! The old “mixed-race actress in whiteface being menaced by a black actor playing a cat” racist imagery!

I can’t wait for them to write down these rules. Continue reading

From “The Ethicist”: Revealing The Real Bigots Among Us

, aka “The Ethicist,” apparently received two inquiries last week from what I fear are typical New York Times readers: self-righteous, progressive, and totalitarian at heart. As usually is the case, “The Ethicist’s” answers were competent. I’m not really concerned with his answers, though they were too timid and pandered to people who needed to be metaphorically slapped in the face. It’s the questions that are really ominous.

Inquirer #1 wanted to know what to “do” about her landlady, whom she and her partner “have come to believe that she harbors significant racial and gender biases.” She continued,

When units in our building come up for rent, she often asks  [us] to recommend friends, and over the years a number of our friends have lived here. I value being able to extend what really is an extremely good financial deal to friends who would really benefit from it, but am deeply uncomfortable about the fact that, in doing so, I am enabling her racism and sexism. Is there an ethical solution here? I wish I could report her to some sort of city housing authority (we are in Los Angeles), but I doubt I have any legal recourse as I’m not an aggrieved party and my belief in her biases is based on casual observations and overheard comments. I can’t point to a particular incident. I feel guilty for not wanting to recommend the place, as I know so many friends who could use the financial break, but I also feel like it’s harder and harder to justify “helping” her in any way.

The woman has not observed any incidents of racism or sexism, but she wants to “report” the landlady, who has apparently always treated her well. Inquirer #1 has decided that it’s unethical to “help” such a person because that would be “enabling” her evil ways, whatever they are. Basically, she feels that she is justified in punishing her landlady for not embracing her views, the “right” ones. Continue reading