I’ve been trying to decide what to do with this story since last October 5, when the New York Times published the longest damn article about a relatively insular ethics and legal dispute that I have ever read. The issues raised by the episode are well worth considering on an ethics blog, but the effort required to describe the facts adequately enough to examine those issues is prohibitive. The Times piece, by novelist Robert Kolker, is over 9,600 words long, and the tale, though interesting from an ethics perspective, just isn’t that interesting.
To fully understand “What’s going on here?” requires reading the whole thing, but I am going to attempt to summarize the main features of this weird story and flag the ethics issues.
Here goes nothin’…
1.Dawn Dorland is an aspiring writer and, according to her friends, an aggressively kind and empathetic person. In 2015, she donated one of her kidneys in a so-called non-directed donation, where her kidney was not meant for anyone in particular but was part of a donation chain, coordinated by surgeons to provide kidneys to recipients desperate for the organ.
Good for her. Kind, compassionate, generous. Obviously ethical.
2. Several weeks before her surgery, Dorland started a private Facebook group, inviting family and friends, and some fellow writers from the Boston writing center that Dorland belonged to. After her surgery, she posted the letter she had written to the final recipient of the surgical chain, whoever that may be:
“Personally, my childhood was marked by trauma and abuse; I didn’t have the opportunity to form secure attachments with my family of origin. A positive outcome of my early life is empathy, that it opened a well of possibility between me and strangers. While perhaps many more people would be motivated to donate an organ to a friend or family member in need, to me, the suffering of strangers is just as real. … Throughout my preparation for becoming a donor … I focused a majority of my mental energy on imagining and celebrating you.”
Okay, this is substantially virtue-signaling and self-celebratory, but…okay. There are good reasons to let people know about such an altruistic gesture: it might inspire others to do the same thing. There isn’t anything unethical about letting others know what a great and generous person you are when you really have done something good. Am I more impressed with those who make such contributions and don’t feel the need to broadcast it to others?
3. After the surgery, Dorland was struck by the fact that some people she’d invited to join her private Facebook group hadn’t reacted to her posts. One of them was a writer named Sonya Larson, with whom Dorland had become friends years before and had since, unlike Dorland, become a published author of fiction, rising in the field. After email exchanges between the two initiated by Dorland and some typical catching up chatter, Dorland wrote, “I think you’re aware that I donated my kidney this summer. Right?” Larson responded: “Ah, yes — I did see on Facebook that you donated your kidney. What a tremendous thing!”
Kolker writes, “Afterward, Dorland would wonder: If she really thought it was that great, why did she need reminding that it happened?”
Who cares, and so what? This is narcissism on Dorland’s part, and a symptom of advanced social media disease. Nobody has an obligation to respond the way one wants to any news, especially a distant friend.