The Ethicist: Should Buyers Be Told About the Killer Next Door?

December 10, 2017 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 “Should Buyers Be Told About the Killer Next Door?

I live in a one-family house adjacent to the house of a family whose son was a serial killer 25 years ago. He was 20 at the time and killed two people. He was recently released and now lives there. My son will inherit our house after us and plans to live elsewhere closer to work.

He wonders if he is morally obliged to inform prospective buyers about the neighbor’s history. Name Withheld

My response: Your didn’t ask if you have a legal obligation, which sounds like the relevant question here. If the law says that you have to tell, then I would say your question about morality doesn’t matter, you should just tell.

Even if the law doesn’t say you have to tell, the question sounds more practical than moral. It seems like something they’d find out about anyway. They’d know you knew and didn’t say if you didn’t. If they didn’t mind, then it wouldn’t have mattered that you told. If they do mind, independent of what the law said, they could probably come after you with a good lawyer.

So practically speaking, informing them seems more prudent.

But you didn’t ask about the law or practicality. You asked about morality. While I’m inclined to follow up my answers from last week with a stock answer, it’s hard not to think of the nearly universal principle of reciprocity, aka the golden rule, aka do unto others: How would you feel if someone knew such information but withheld it from you? I think that answer will answer your question.

The New York Times response:

Legal requirements vary from place to place, but morally speaking, sellers should either disclose adverse information about the physical condition of what they’re selling or issue a disclaimer that they’re selling the property “as is.” The general principle of caveat emptor — let the buyer beware — can make sense for the sorts of facts that responsible buyers would find out for themselves. By the same token, sellers ought to report problems that an inspection isn’t likely to turn up. In those cases (involving so-called latent defects), a disclaimer doesn’t suffice. There may be no physical evidence that your house has a tendency to flood, owing to your assiduous rehab work. But you’d better come clean about it. And the same goes for off-site conditions: You should tell prospective buyers if your municipal sewer system is prone to backing up. You should tell them if your neighbors keep 10 pet coyotes and blast death metal all night long. (Remember, I’m talking morality here, not law.)

A house is for living in, and you might conclude that things that don’t affect its use for that purpose are up to you to divulge or not. Yet a house is also an investment, and buyers reasonably want to know about circumstances that could affect its resale value. The simple fact that a buyer would want to know something, though, doesn’t require you to tell them.

Some buyers might be deterred by the fact that a previous occupant had AIDS, that the house is believed to be haunted, that there’s a senior-living facility in the neighborhood, that there’s a mosque at the corner or that a mentally disabled person lives across the street. Depending on your pool of prospective buyers, these things could affect the home’s resale value. So you might think that these facts should be disclosed as latent defects, akin to poorly insulated pipes that freeze in the winter. Yet by doing so, you’d be acquiescing to prejudice and superstition.

I’m not talking about the law here, but it’s notable that a number of states don’t require you to disclose the presence of sex offenders in your neighborhood or the fact that your home was once a murder site. Owing to fair-housing laws, there’s a general prohibition on discussing the ethnic or religious composition of a neighborhood. (The disclosure of some of the other circumstances I listed earlier could be prohibited, too.) Legislators, guided by moral concerns, have decided that transparency isn’t the only value to be considered.

In this welter of things that you must disclose, may disclose and must not disclose, where should we situate your neighbor’s troubled past? Obviously, most buyers would want to know about it. But there are reasons for doubting that they have a right to be told. One is that the legal system has judged the murderer next door to have paid his debt. We need to rehabilitate offenders, even murderers. That is one aim of a decent system of criminal justice.

Calling him a serial killer suggests that you think he’s mentally ill in a way that poses a continuing threat to others. But if that were so, the courts should have committed him until psychiatrists were convinced he posed no danger. Putting aside the movie stereotype of the serial killer, what you really know is that this is someone who killed two people. A sane person who has just spent a quarter of a century in a prison cell for murder would know that he’d be the first suspect if anything happened near his home. Reoffense rates for people like your neighbor are hard to come by, but in her 2012 book “Life After Murder,” the journalist Nancy Mullane identified a thousand convicted murderers who were paroled in California over the previous two decades; not one was rearrested for murder.

The likelihood is that buyers would react irrationally to the information about your neighbor. That is emphatically true if you were to call him a serial killer, which evokes an image of someone meticulously planning the murders of innocent strangers. If a buyer asks a question, you ought not to lie. But you can certainly say, for example, that you don’t want to spread gossip about the neighbors. Only if you have reason to think that the fellow next door poses a significant threat do you need to talk about his history.

I am Facebook friends with a well-known practitioner in my field. I’ve never met him, but he posts interesting things and blogs about various developments in our field. I sometimes comment on his blog.

One morning I saw a bunch of posts in my Facebook feed featuring pictures and such from a somewhat flamboyant blond woman with the same last name as this fellow. Having never seen her before, I assumed she was his spouse, and I’d somehow accepted her friend request. There were a lot of posts that I was not interested in (fashion, glamour), so I quickly unfriended her.

I continued to scroll down and saw her first post — she had just come out as trans. She was formerly he, the practitioner I knew and followed.

I feel terrible. I would never unfriend someone for coming out as transgender. How should I handle it? Just refriend? Ignore it? Please advise; this must be a new phenomenon. Name Withheld

My response: I’m going to continue applying the golden rule, or rather point out that your friend didn’t follow it. Not telling people about such a public change requires them to figure things out awkwardly.

I don’t see you having caused the situation and expect your colleague is receiving many responses. I guess I would write him or her and ask how he or she prefers you to respond.

Oh, I forgot to give a stock answer, as I mentioned last week: For a child to ask his or her parents what he or she should do makes sense. Children haven’t learned to figure some things out and parents guide them. For an adult to ask what he or she should do sounds juvenile and keeps you from learning how to handle similar situations, which are inevitable. I recommend the strategy I wrote last week. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn. I find experience the best teacher here.

The New York Times response:

There’s an excellent chance that what you did wasn’t noticed; with Facebook unfriending, you have to look in order to learn. Still, it’s possible that someone who is just coming out as transgender might assign malign significance to unfriendings that occur around the moment it happens. So you could just refriend. But you could also send a private message to her that says something like: “I accidentally unfriended you the other day because I didn’t recognize the new you! Congratulations!”

My husband and I have our medical insurance through a Medicare Advantage insurance plan. In addition to paying monthly premiums and having Medicare payments deducted from our monthly Social Security benefits, we paid, in 2016, more than $6,000 for prescriptions, doctors’ visits and other medical expenses that were not covered by our insurance.

As a perk, our plan offers gift cards when a member participates in certain “best practices” such as having an annual flu shot, an annual physical or a mammogram. When I recently called to request a $50 gift card (you can select gift cards to several restaurants or shopping sites such as Amazon or Target) after having my annual physical, my husband became extremely angry and told me to cancel my request. He insisted that by requesting these gift cards I was participating in the high cost of medical insurance. I told him he was being ridiculous and refused to do so. (The gift card for a flu shot is $10.)

What is your opinion? The insurance company has sent us several mailers promoting this program, and I see nothing wrong in requesting these cards. Name Withheld

My response: My opinion? Finally what I consider a reasonable and meaningful question here—not juvenile or asking for labels. Just broadening your horizon.

My opinion is that they created an incentive where you benefit at everyone else’s expense, but they have the same offer. It looks similar, to me, like getting cash back for using a credit card. It costs someone else more but you benefit. As long as the plan offers the deal to everyone, if you don’t take it, you only lose. If you do take it, others may lose, but they had a similar opportunity.

You didn’t create the plan and you lose if you don’t use it. Unless you plan to change the system, I see using the card as your best option.

Negotiating with your husband is another story, but one that depends on your relationship and seems beyond the scope of what I can write meaningfully on.

The New York Times response:

Insurance companies, believe it or not, are businesses, and they have their reasons for doing what they do. They have an interest, for example, in getting people to take measures that will reduce their medical costs by increasing preventive care. That’s good for the patient and good for the company and good for the world. But your husband has it backward: The gift-card program, if it works, will lower health care costs (and in theory, could minimize premium increases). These aims won’t be affected by whether you take the card; the amounts in question are well within the rounding error of their budgets. But to accept it would be to participate in a scheme your husband actually has every reason to favor.

I am a physician practicing in a state where marijuana is legal, both medicinally and recreationally. I will occasionally receive a bottle of wine from a patient as a token of gratitude. Recently, I was offered some marijuana by a patient for this reason. I did not accept, but would it have been wrong if I had? Name Withheld

My response: Stock answer: 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.

The New York Times response:

It isn’t unusual for grateful patients to give small gifts to their doctors. Large gifts can create problems in professional relationships; small ones really don’t. Indeed, refusing them can seem disrespectful, as if you thought the patient was inappropriately seeking future favors. But in a society like ours, where so many different cultural traditions live side by side, it can sometimes be hard to figure out a gift giver’s motives or expectations. All this means that the context and meaning of a gift are going to matter. So my answer to the question whether you should have accepted the pot is: only in circumstances in which it would have been fine to take the wine.

Of course, if you wanted to avoid the complexities, you could adopt a policy of not accepting any gifts at all. That way you could truthfully say, “That’s very kind of you, but I have a policy of not accepting gifts from patients.” A response like that might still be regarded as disrespectful by people in some communities, with contrary customs, but that’s much less likely if you report your refusal as one of your own customs.

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