Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Does Confining Deplorable Remarks to Your Home Make Them All Right?”
My husband and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, which has often made for interesting conversation. We have been married for more than 20 years. He has many wonderful attributes and has been a supportive husband and father. However, I am disturbed when he makes comments that are racist (linking skin color to a store’s clientele) or classist (saying that “scholarship” students have no right to criticize their college, or that “scholarship” students at a private school, not those who pay “full freight,” should have the student teacher). When reminded of such comments afterward, he seems uncomfortable. And of course, he would never voice them publicly.
In an effort to discourage such remarks, particularly around our children, I suggested a simple litmus test: Would you be reluctant or embarrassed to make such comments outside the privacy of your home? To me, answering “yes” to that question suggests that you know that such comments are wrong. My husband believes that he should be able to say what he wants in his own home, calling it a “zone of privacy.” My response is that just because you “can” do something does not mean that you “should.”
I acknowledge my personal shortcomings and do not always behave in ways that show my best self, but I do aspire to conduct myself in private in a manner that would not make me uncomfortable were it made public. My husband dismisses this as my being morally superior. What do you think about the private-public litmus test as I’ve framed it? Am I acting in a way that is “morally superior”? Name Withheld
My response: What do I think of the litmus test? I see two people with different values and you want to impose yours on him. Everyone talks tolerance but few practice it when it means them letting up on their values. They don’t think of themselves as inflexible or self-righteous. They just think the world is that way and they happen to get it.
You suggest he would “be reluctant or embarrassed to make such comments outside the privacy of your home,” but I know of plenty of communities that would welcome his views and probably shun yours. In those communities, you might feel reluctant to share your views. You’d just feel they were wrong. Well, he probably feels the same way.
Are you acting in a way that is “morally superior”? What do you think? Here’s another litmus test: do you feel you are right and he is wrong, but you wouldn’t outright say it? You sound like it to me. What could be more “morally superior”?
The New York Times response:
In other instances, though, such lip service honors and reinforces worthy ideals. When the public culture comes to shun sexual harassment or racist behavior, we should be glad that workplace behavior can shift long before every heart is won over. Once, in conservative communities, homosexuality was often met by public disapproval and private tolerance; on balance, it’s a sign of progress that the reverse may now be more common — that even the privately disapproving tend to go along with public acceptance. Virtue, as La Rochefoucauld knew, readily accepts the tributes it receives from vice.
A reluctance to venture a comment outside the domestic sphere, you propose, suggests that a person knows the comment is wrong. But consider, as Kuran does, the members of the Soviet Writers’ Union, who back in the 1950s voted to denounce Boris Pasternak, however they may have really felt. We can regret their ballots, but it would have been worse, not better, if those writers had held to the party line about the author of “Dr. Zhivago” when speaking among their intimates. In this country, a progressive in an evangelical community may speak very differently about Planned Parenthood in private than in public. Are our public selves bound to be our best selves? I spent too much of my youth in a military dictatorship to find this a plausible generalization.
The point is that social norms don’t necessarily coincide with moral ones. Nor should liberals dismiss the zone of privacy. At the dinner table, you can explore incipient doubts about your official commitments, grouse about your boss’s tendency to hire from his alma mater, speculate about how many Botox injections your colleague in marketing has had, try out half-baked arguments, indulge your personal revulsions and enthusiasms. The maxim that everything said in the home should be sayable in public is too demanding.
Your litmus test has the elegance of simplicity. But we can’t get around the task of moral evaluation. What’s wrong with your husband’s attitudes is not that he expresses them but that he has them. You are morally superior to him because you don’t have these attitudes (unless you have offsetting moral deficits). We let ourselves off the hook when we reflexively use “morally superior” as disparagement, as a synonym for toxic condescension. News flash: It’s morally superior to be morally superior.
For many years, our next-door neighbor’s house was a blight on the street. It would be impossible to describe the foul odors and clutter that emanated from the inside and the outside of her house. The house was a bona fide health hazard; the health department came and shut down an illegal puppy mill a few years ago. She was a hoarder and a chain-smoker.
The house was foreclosed on and sold at auction for a rather high price because of the desirability of the neighborhood and the lot. We peeked in the house at that time and were nauseated by the scene: black mold growing up the walls; dog feces and cigarette butts all over the floor; unimaginable stacks of clutter; the stove, refrigerator and kitchen walls black with rotting food, grease and grime; the wall between the garage and the living room completely moldy and destroyed by water damage. We could not spend more than one second in the house before gagging and fleeing.
We assumed that it would be a tear-down, but the new owners set about cleaning the interior. First to arrive was a cleaning team wearing hazmat suits and respirators. They worked for months and appear to have done a good job gutting the house and making it safe and livable.
Yesterday while I was out in my yard, a prospective buyer or real estate agent (I assume) pulled up and asked me what I could tell her about the history of the house. I just muttered that I did not know anything and bid her good luck and farewell.
What is my ethical obligation in this situation? It is possible that they have eliminated all the odors, dangerous mold and filth and that the house is safe and livable. But it is also possible that they have just cosmetically and structurally fixed the house and that some odor and unsafe mold will take root in the future. I would not personally live there knowing what I know. But really, it is none of my business, and given the choice, I would not talk to anyone about what I know. While it feels like a lie of omission not to answer the direct question, I also feel that it is not my place to potentially sabotage the seller’s business deal or investment. If I am asked again, what should I say? Name Withheld
My response: I’ve written too many times about abstract concepts like obligations and the lack of a book in the sky or any other absolute measure of obligation. Likewise, asking others for ideas and advice sounds productive but asking what you should say sounds juvenile. You have your values. You’re an adult. Figure it out. If you want help, I recommend asking for help, not the answer.
I suggest you consider the effects of your choices and actions and how they will affect others and yourself. I would try to create options. Then act based on this empathy and problem solving.
You know, many of the plants you eat were fertilized with manure.
The New York Times response:
Another home with hidden squalor? You say you wouldn’t live there “knowing what you know.” But what do you know? The place has been cleaned for months by workers in hazmat suits, you say. That suggests it has an excellent chance of being in tiptop condition.
There will surely be a home inspection before the sale is concluded; if serious contamination remains, it should be discovered. And your concerns that you’ll be sabotaging the seller if you tell people the whole story are well founded. People seem to be wired that way.
Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, once did a memorable experiment. He gave adults a beverage that contained a dead cockroach and assured them that the insect had been sterilized. There was no rational reason for not drinking it. Most couldn’t, even though the cockroach was removed. They found the idea too disgusting. In a similar experiment, adults wouldn’t drink apple juice from a perfectly clean bedpan. Your repugnance at the house next door may be like that, and you could transmit it to potential buyers. So keep any future answers to prospective buyers accurate but brief.
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