The Ethicist: I’m Running for Re-Election. How Honest Do I Have to Be?

September 2, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “I’m Running for Re-Election. How Honest Do I Have to Be?”.

I’m a local official in a small community. I am up for re-election after more than a decade in office. The cost of housing and homelessness are major issues in our area. I work hard to develop new and innovative approaches to problems, but in the case of problems like these, there is little I or my community can do to improve the situation, because of the broader trends in our country. I will do everything I can — set policies, raise taxes for housing and services — and it will help some, but not most, of the people who need help.

My opponent, who has never held office before, is promising that, if elected, he will solve these problems. How honest do I need to be with the electorate about what can and can’t be done? Should I enable those who are most affected (renters, the homeless, young families) to make an informed decision about their future by telling them that things are likely to get worse for them? Or should I continue to talk in a nuanced away about the complexity of the problems and local efforts, knowing that if I do so, I will be re-elected and can do good for at least some? Name Withheld

My response: I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

The ideal in democratic elections is that candidates make an honest case to the electorate about what they’ll do in office, and that members of the electorate listen carefully and make their best judgment about which of them will, in fact, do the best job. Voters have to decide whether you have a good grip on the issues, are proposing plausible ideas about how to deal with them and are likely to get things done.

The reality is, famously, at some remove from this ideal. Yet the available research suggests that electoral politics at the truly local, small-scale level is far less given over to partisan identities and ideological identifications than electoral politics at the state and federal levels. Instead, your incumbency will be preserved by your personal connections to the community and a sense that you’ve performed your custodial duties with competence and care. (I said “available research” — it’s pretty sparse, I find, so I’d like to urge my colleagues in political science to do more work on this important but unglamorous tier of our political system.)

But let’s assume that people will make the wrong choice if you tell them the whole truth. In circumstances like these, it’s important to distinguish between actual deceit and (as you put it) talking in a nuanced way. Voters generally know that you have reasons not to tell them everything relevant that you know. They’ll expect you to put things in the best light for you — to talk about the good things that happened on your watch, not the bad things. You don’t owe it to them to weaken your own case; you do owe it to them not to strengthen it by saying what you know to be false.


Recently, some people I know shared a number of posts about the importance of warning other women about abusive and violent men. I’ve always been profoundly grateful to the women (and others) in my life who took it upon themselves to make sure I was warned against such people.

I was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance at a party five years ago. It’s not something I talk much about to anyone in public forums. I have not seen the man since, but several friends of mine, women friends about whom I care a great deal, are still in semiregular contact with him and see him often enough. There are a lot of factors (the circumstances of the party, the relationship statuses of my friends, the environment in which my friends see this man nowadays) that make me pretty confident that my friends are completely safe from anything similar happening to them with this man. If I believed they were in any danger, I’d have taken action right away to make sure they were sufficiently warned. That said, my personal discomfort with the situation could very well be clouding my view; certainly if anything were to happen I’d feel tremendous guilt for not giving them the heads-up. (Again, I consider it very, very unlikely that such a thing would happen between this man and the women I’m thinking of.)

Setting aside my own unease, do I have an ethical obligation to warn my friends about this man, or to otherwise disclose what happened? Name Withheld

My response: Labeling something as an “ethical obligation” doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than getting a New York Times columnist to say that you’re obliged, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

You mention “unease” at the end, and you suggest that your own “discomfort” — the discomfort involved in talking to the acquaintance or to your friends about this situation, I assume — might have led you to underestimate the risks here. In doing so, you’re admitting that you’re not sure how safe it is to be around him.

Even if you’re correct that the man poses no danger to your friends, there are other reasons to tell them about your experience with him. He did something awful. In deciding whether to associate with people in our personal lives, information of this sort is one thing we reasonably take into account. Because these women are your friends, you are right to care about whether they are associating with someone they might choose to avoid if they knew what you knew. To withhold the information is to not live up to the demands of friendship.


My daughter’s preteen friend was hanging out with us one day recently. She casually brought up the following story: She was at the mall with her older sister, her stepmother and her father, who is a police officer. In the child’s words, a “fight broke out between two huge black guys.” She said they were punching each other in front of a store. The stepmother asked the father, who is white, to go over to them and show them his badge even though he was off duty. But the father did not step in.

Police were eventually called, and so was an ambulance, and according to the girl, there was “blood everywhere.” I cannot figure out what is right. Should the man have stepped in? Or should he absolutely not have intervened because he was off duty and with his family? Does this story seem contingent upon race? What is the role of a trained professional in a crisis situation like this? Name Withheld

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

“Should the man have stepped in?” . . . Asking what someone should do makes sense for children asking their parents. For an adult, it looks like asking someone else to solve problems for you, which I call juvenile. Asking for options or views you might have missed makes sense, but you didn’t ask that.

You ask about race. Why not bring up sex? Why shouldn’t the stepmother step in herself? To describe the fighters as huge implies they were bigger than the father. If they could beat him up and he was off duty, then the stepmother may have been equally effective. Why not consider her taking on the risk that she suggested the man take? Why do people impose physical risk on men more instead of acting to create equality? If his training were to compel him to risk his safety, should he be paid extra for it?

The New York Times response:

Because this officer was off duty, he had no obligations beyond those of any other citizen. But police officers generally treat as worthy of professional respect a concern for maintaining the peace even when they’re not on the job. It’s part of their code of honor. So off-duty officers (like any citizen) can reasonably decide to involve themselves where there’s a decent chance they can help and there’s no moral or legal bar to doing so. Given that police officers have practice in breaking up fights, this man would probably have done a better job than the average citizen. If he had thought waving his badge would help, he could have done that too, as the child’s stepmother suggested. And that would not have necessitated “bringing them in” or otherwise entangling the combatants with the justice system.

How does the fact that the two brawlers were black affect the situation? We’ve become attuned to problems of overpolicing, but as the journalist Jill Leovy has observed, underpolicing — “too little application of the law” — may play a role in the violence that plagues swaths of urban black America. Was the officer less moved to intervene because the combatants were black?

But there’s another way that this circumstance could have factored in. Owing to the distressing salience of race in everyday interactions between strangers in this country, an intervention by a white off-duty police officer might have escalated things more than the intervention of a black one. And a uniformed officer of any race who had specifically been called to intervene would probably have been less of a provocation.

For that reason, it might have made sense not to intervene — especially when the fellow had family to protect — and to call the local police instead (although mall security should already have done so). However you do the calculations, though, he was certainly entitled to have remained on the sidelines.

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