Not the ethicist 2

September 27, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is a take on an earlier post, “But I Didn’t Know Filming Fights Was Wrong!“.

At my high school, two students were expelled for getting into a fight wherein a teacher was injured. In addition, two students who filmed the fight — and later circulated the video among students — were also threatened with expulsion. Expelling students for filming fights is unheard-of in my district. The school said it had grounds to expel the two who took the video, as outlined by the handbook given to all students: “Students may be disciplined for any other misconduct which is deemed by school authorities to be disruptive or to interfere with the educational process.” There seems to be no rule, however, explicitly banning filming and circulating a fight. How much does students’ ignorance of a rule matter when determining a punishment? Is it ethical for a school to expel students for something they reasonably don’t know to be wrong? NAME WITHHELD, CLEVELAND

My answer: The question if it’s ethical is simply asking for someone’s opinion. Obviously the administrators consider it ethical. The students probably don’t. You’re asking other people’s opinions because you know there is no absolute standard. You can search your values to decide for yourself if you consider the behavior ethical. It sounds like you’re a student. Despite what administrators say, nobody’s opinion is any more valid than yours. They just have more authority to impose their values on you when you disagree, but more authority doesn’t mean more ethical or more allowed to have an opinion.

I would consider the question of how you choose to act regarding the incident more important than how to label others’ past behavior. I used to evaluate the past a lot and found switching to taking responsibility for my actions in the present and considering their possible consequence to others improved my life as much as anything.

If you want to influence what happens to these students, which you probably will if you disagree with the administrators’ actions, I expect your main issues will be how to influence other people. Acting like you’re right and they’re wrong rarely influences people. What will work most effectively seems to me a tactical issue depending on your relationships with authority.

The New York Times Answer: Technology evolves faster than our ability to recognize its peripheral impact. There can’t be a rule explicitly prohibiting an activity that no one has yet imagined. This may very well have been the first time your school experienced (or even considered) that one of the tangential issues with a fight on school grounds is the possibility of the incident being captured on a smartphone and distributed to the rest of the student body. As such, the precedent is being created in real time. But the lack of a pre-existing rule does not legitimize the infraction.

You argue this act was something the two budding videographers did not “reasonably” understand to be wrong. I disagree with your assertion. Why did these students distribute the video to their peers? Because they knew it was illicit. They knew that they had footage of something they were not supposed to possess and that it would be of lurid interest to other people. A teenager is absolutely capable of knowing that this is unethical, even if no rule explicitly makes that clear.

Now, as for the penalty itself — I agree that expulsion seems harsh. But I’d have to see the videotape to be certain of that. If the school administrators were smart, they’d likewise consider the nature of the footage when doling out the penalty, because strictly defined rules that ignore context inevitably create problematic contradictions.


I live in a condo with a shared basement laundry room. It has six washers and six dryers. I have two kids, so I fill up all six washing machines. Last week, as I was filling up the last machine — but before I had started any of them — a fellow tenant came into the laundry room with her cart. I nicely explained that there were no more empty washing machines. (“Yes, I am using all six.”) She got angry and asked if she could use one. That would have been a huge inconvenience, as my laundry would have taken twice as long (two runs of washers and then two runs of dryers). I told her I couldn’t do that, as I was just about to start all the machines. Was I being fair? I got there first. CAROL MILLS, NEW YORK

My answer: Like the question about ethics above, asking about fairness is just asking people’s opinions. You likely think you acted fairly. She likely disagreed. You’re asking others’ opinions because you know there is no absolute standard of fairness. If there was you would consult it and find your answer.

Since you have different values—you value your time more than hers, she values hers more than yours—you’ll conclude differently about the best outcome, which happens all the time. But calling something fair or not just puts a label on it. What does that matter? So you can say you were right? You can’t change the past anyway.

The relevant question to me is the consequences of your actions. Many relationships end over debates like this, where both parties consider themselves right and the other wrong. Maybe things were different when you interacted with your neighbor, but your description showed a lack of empathy and compassion, missing that the huge inconvenience would affect her if not you. Personally, I’d value developing more empathy and compassion over the time for a load of laundry. You probably would have had a more friendly outcome had you tried to make her feel understood, which would lead to her reciprocating at some point instead of feeling more anger toward you.

What are the consequences of your actions? Likely she will dislike you, not want to help you later, and may even want to hurt you. I’ve found having neighbors friendly helps in ways I can’t predict. To me the issue isn’t about fairness, but how you can best improve your life. I think dropping the self-righteous appeal to fairness, trying to practice more compassion and understanding, and considering the consequences of your actions would have improved your life more.

The New York Times Answer: There are two principles at work here, and you’ve prioritized the wrong one. Yes, you were there first. If there were only one machine, you would obviously have the high ground. But there are six machines, all of which are communally shared and equally possessed. And the reason there are multiple machines is that you live in a large building with many residents, several of whom may be trying to accomplish the same household tasks at the same time. You’re annoyed that this person wanted to use one machine while still granting you five? You’re being selfish.

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