Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Can I Change My Name to Avoid Discrimination?

May 17, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, ”Can I Change My Name to Avoid Discrimination?


Is it ethical to modify my name on a job application to prevent unconscious bias? For instance, if my name were Samantha, I could apply as Sam, or if my name were Jose, I could apply as Joe, to prevent discrimination based on gender or assumed ethnicity. If it is ethical, up to which point may I modify? A.R., LONDON

My response: From now on, unless someone shows me I’m missing something, I’m going to call these questions where people ask someone else to define for them what’s ethical, right, obligated, etc as juvenile, infantile, or immature. The New York Times seems to like promoting juvenile, infantile, and immature thinking.

Parents tell children right and wrong. It seems to me part of growing up is learning to figure out for yourself what’s right and wrong for yourself. I can understand why a two-year-old wouldn’t know what to do. By the time someone can read and write to the New York Times on their own, I think they can figure out what’s right and wrong for themselves. That doesn’t mean they can figure out right and wrong for others. Nobody can because they haven’t lived the same life.

If someone knows about an absolute measure of ethics that everyone agrees with, please let me know. I’m aware of many candidates but no qualifiers.

If the writer of this message had asked about the results of their actions, I would understand. They have a limited perspective and might want someone else’s to help them decide for themselves. If the writer had asked about the legality of their action, I would understand too, although asking a lawyer would make more sense.

As it stands, they asked if the behavior was ethical. The writer can answer that for themselves. No one else can.

The term ethical is an abstract concept anyway, while their behavior will actually affect people. Why not ask about how their behavior will affect others—that is, how they will affect to the world? In part because institutions like the New York Times promote juvenile, infantile, immature behavior and thinking.

They’re asking such a vague question that, even if the Times answered it, its answer wouldn’t apply to specific cases. The current and proposed names matter, as do the relationships and expectations of people involved.

The New York Times Response:

Kwame Anthony Appiah: It is reasonable to ask yourself, Can I remove from the information I provide to the person who’s trying to evaluate me something that will get in the way of their making a good judgment? You’re trying to get them not to respond to irrelevant information.

Amy Bloom: So if your name is Jose and you modify it to Joe, that is one thing, but if your name is Sam and you modify it to Samantha, that’s another.

Appiah: When it’s a clear case of lying, that’s not only unethical, it’s dumb, because you’re going to end up in an interview. You are not to mislead people intentionally, but it’s perfectly O.K. to deny them irrelevant information. Of course, there’s something unhappy about people who deliberately conceal a fact about themselves that they are not ashamed of in order to get a job. Once I was talking to a couple of my Nigerian nephews, and one said, “When I’m asked where I’m from, I say West Africa, because Nigerians have a rather poor reputation in England.” The other one said, “I always say I’m Nigerian, because I think if I can show them that there are good Nigerians, maybe the prejudice will go away.”

Kenji Yoshino: I like the point represented by the two nephews. On the one hand, we don’t want to blame the victim by punishing an individual for being authentic. On the other hand, unless people are authentic, the biases might not be disrupted.

Bloom: And hiding who you are makes it a tougher prospect to have a good and happy life.

Appiah: Yeah, because you yourself can lose track of the question: Is it I who am ashamed, or is it they who are bigoted against me?

Bloom: Right, and you try to keep it in the forefront that you’re doing it to protect yourself, and it’s the smart thing. But I think it also has a corrosive effect.

What about when the person named Joe is applying to a company where he thinks it will be in his interest to refer to himself as Jose? Is it the same rule — you can imply something as long as you don’t lie?

Yoshino: That’s a more complicated question. If you think about why an individual might adopt a minority name, it may be because an employer has some commitment to inclusion or affirmative action to try to make up for past harms. If you ordinarily go by Joe but then adopt Jose only for that purpose, you may be getting the benefits of that commitment to inclusion without necessarily having experienced the harms intended to be countered. It takes a slightly different cast for me.

Appiah: In the one case, what you’re trying to do is to undo the effect of a bad thing. And in this case, you’re trying to undermine the effect of a good thing to your own advantage.

Yoshino: The question of how far you can go without lying is fascinating, because a lot depends on convention. We’re accustomed to people using stage names, like Ramon Estevez going by Martin Sheen or Krishna Bhanji going by Ben Kingsley. In the writerly world, J. K. Rowling used initials because women were viewed to be less appealing to young males as fantasy writers, and then went by Robert Galbraith to avoid all the “Harry Potter” baggage. There are fields in which convention means that the public doesn’t assume that the name presented is the name on the person’s birth certificate, so I don’t think there’s any problematic deception here. A similar convention might be a legal change of name.

Bloom: If you feel strongly that your chances are going to be better with a different name, go legally change your name.

Yoshino: The ways of doing that vary by state, but a common restriction is that you can’t change your name for fraudulent purposes. So the state laws both reflect and reinforce the idea that the change can’t be based on a desire to undermine legitimate expectations. If you formally change your name, then you have not lied.

Appiah: Right, and the point about the matter of what our conventions are is part of the explanation of why it isn’t a lie. If we were in a society in which the conventions about when you could change your name were different, or if we were in a society where people felt it was very important not to change your name, then doing so would be misleading in a way that it isn’t in a society where we have the different convention.

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