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

Ethics Quiz: The Declining Neighborhood Contractor

Two weeks ago, The Ethicist (that’s , the real ethicist who authors the New York Times Magazine’s advice column) was asked about the most ethical response to a true ethics conflict. A neighbor who frequently did contracting work in his neighborhood had recently  begun delivering shoddy work.

The inquirer writes, “He has made numerous mistakes, which have required fixes. He occasionally smells of alcohol and admits that he has “a beer” at lunch. Although he is on the job every day, he has not fulfilled the oversight component that we expect from a general contractor, and we have gradually taken over managing the project. “

The inquirer knows the man’s family, which has been going through a difficult period, “which may have impacted his mental health and drinking patterns.” Now he wonders where his loyalties and responsibilities lay. Does he have an obligation to alert neighbors, through a community consumer referral website, that their neighbor’s work is now unreliable? Or is the kind, compassionate action of trying to help the friend work through his current problems, while letting neighbors take their chances, despite the fact that everyone knows the inquirer has referred the contractor favorably in the past?

Appiah makes the predictable ethicist call that the duty to the many over-rides the duty to the one, especially since the inquirer has some responsibility for the community’s trusting the rapidly declining contractor. His advice asserts the equivalent of a duty to warn.

Your Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is The Ethicist right?

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From The “Duty To Rescue” Files: Am I Wrong That The Ethics Conundrum Of “The Drunk Young Woman And The Stranger” Has An Obvious Answer?

, 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 here), from “Laura”:

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?

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Let’s See How The Ethics Alarms Of Some Advice Columnists Are Doing…

 

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:

Whiff!

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.”
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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

Ethics Hero: Kwame Anthony Appiah, a.k.a. “The Ethicist”

In the past, I mostly visited the New York Times Magazine “The Ethicist” column to take issue with the succession of ethics amateurs and ethicist wannabes the Times employed as its ethics advice columnist. Once Kwame Anthony Appiah took over, this wasn’t as much fun, and I admit I don’t even check the column that often. Appiah is a real ethicist, and knows what he’s doing. I sometimes disagree with his conclusions, but he reaches them using valid ethical analysis, and seldom employs bias or rationalizations.

A recent column, however, deserves special praise. The inquirer asked what the ethical course would be to handle historical artifacts that reflected racist attitudes and artwork, like the card pictured above. The writer concluded her question…

I offered it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. I never heard from them, so it moved with us. My husband thinks I should throw it away, but that feels wrong. I feel it is history that we should acknowledge, however painful and wrong. Your thoughts?

“The Ethicist’s” response is note-perfect, even with my intentional omission of its best and most surprising section. I’m doing this so you will hit the link and read the full column. Appiah wrote in part,

I am not a fan of the intentional destruction of historical artifacts….It’s a familiar thought that we need to understand our past, not least in order to help us avoid repeating the worst aspects of it. So your impulse to offer this souvenir card to a museum seems right. Of course, the sort of document you describe is well represented in collections already, and this may be why you didn’t hear back. But who knows whether there isn’t something about it that a historian might find useful in unpacking some detail of the history of American racial attitudes?

So if you think this card does have historical value, and you can’t readily find an interested archive or scholar, you could just put it up for sale on eBay, say, where it will join a large assemblage of racist artifacts. You can’t guarantee that you’ll approve of the motives of the buyer, but someone who is willing to pay for it is most likely to preserve it.

Given that your motives are honorable, I don’t share your worry about profiting from the sale. Selling an image isn’t endorsing its message. And my guess is that most contemporary collectors of such items aren’t motivated by racism. Still, if you want to avoid profiting, there’s an easy solution. Just send the proceeds to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. That’s an offer they won’t turn down. 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