Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: What Should an Ethicist Tell His Readers?

October 4, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Relationships

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, “What Should an Ethicist Tell His Readers?


I’ve just been asked to take on a column that deals with ethical quandaries. Is there anything I should let readers know? KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH

My response: The person who signed this note is the guy who is answering the questions, so this question is a cute way of the columnist saying “Here are a few words about myself I’d like you to keep in mind in my column.”

I would hope he would write he would disfavor judging and analyzing the past in favor of taking a problem-solving approach in the present to create more desired future outcomes. I would also hope he would either show an absolute, universally agreed-on measure of right, wrong, good, and bad or avoid implying one existed, in favor of considering the consequences of people’s actions.

The Times hasn’t done so so far, and I consider this approach more helpful, so I’m writing my responses from that perspective.

I would hope he would say he will choose questions that ask what to do and why and whose consideration leads to maturity and independence, not how to label people’s behavior and lead to reinforcing immaturity and dependence.

The New York Times response:

You again? Well, let’s see. First, I would want readers to know that I’m very conscious of my fallibility. I’ll try to think these cases through carefully on the basis of the facts that are available to me. At some point, I’ll miss things you will think obvious, or I’ll say things you will think wrong. Second, there will always be more to say, more nuance to be achieved. One definition of a philosopher is someone who thinks that what goes without saying goes even better with saying. Whenever you think I should have said more, please remember that you could have been begging me to say less. Finally, a plea: Do send in your most challenging quandaries, whether grave or trivial. Hard cases make bad law, we’re told, but they also make for interesting discussions.

My husband’s sister died recently, after a short, unhappy life. In her will, she asked that her ashes be scattered in the ocean near a place she lived during one of the brief happy times of her adult life. Instead, my mother-in-law interred the ashes in a family plot near her home, saying that she needed a focal point for her grief. I realize that life is for the living, and none of us believe that my sister-in-law is watching the proceedings from on high. But I nevertheless feel viscerally appalled by this cavalier contravention of her last wishes. Am I right to be upset? Do we have ethical obligations to the dead? NAME WITHHELD

My response: You think you’re right to be upset, your mother doesn’t. If there was an absolute measure of right and wrong you would have consulted it and gotten your answer. There isn’t, so you didn’t. All we have is opinion.

Same basic answer about ethical obligations: if there was an absolute measure of ethical obligation you would have consulted it but there isn’t so you didn’t.

So, given that you have to figure out for yourself how to make your way instead of following others telling you what to do, how do you look at this situation and act on it? You have to figure that out for yourself, but I can tell you my take. I would consider two main aspects: your relationship with your mother and how you handle things yourself.

Relationships have disagreements because no two people have all the same values. Instead of asking if differences are ethical, I think of how to resolve them as mutually agreeable as possible. In this case I would talk to her, not the New York Times, and I would use my skills in understanding, negotiation, influence, and so forth, not blame, judgment, claiming more emotional intensity, etc. Maybe you could arrange for a marker to remain at the plot for your mother-in-law’s focal point while having the ashes dug up and scattered. Or, if you expect to outlive your mother-in-law, you could wait until she died and have the ashes dug up and scattered then, which might give you some schadenfreude, though you might have to consider others’ interests too.

As for how you handle things yourself, you said you “feel viscerally appalled” and “upset,” which I presume you don’t like feeling. As with all situations, some parts of this situation are in your control, some not. I recommend learning to view things outside your control as not causing your emotions. For example, if you drop a plate and it breaks, do you blame gravity and get angry at it? You probably get that you can’t change gravity so you just view it as part of the world. You have limited control over your mother-in-law’s behavior, so why not look at her like gravity, then handling your emotions instead of acting like they’re out of your control.

You have control over your emotions, and I recommend you consider that she does not. Taking responsibility for your emotions means you can’t blame her but empowers you to do something about it. Learn about emotions and how to manage them. Then you won’t feel so appalled and upset over things you can’t do much about. You’ll also be able to solve problems more easily and effectively than when your emotions’ intensity clouds your thinking.

The New York Times response:

Yes, and yes: the commitments we make to people don’t perish when they do. When you promise to name your mu­seum in perpetuity after Mr. Munificent, you don’t take out the chisel the moment he falls down a manhole. Younger people sometimes claim that all they care about are the experiences they have when they’re alive; they’re more interested in ‘‘life hacks’’ than estate planning. But already they worry about climatic conditions in the 22nd century, and eventually they’re going to write wills, the ultimate death hack. That’s because people do care about what happens after their deaths. They want a say in it.

Here’s where literary people like to bring up Franz Kafka. He asked his friend and executor Max Brod to destroy all his papers and manuscripts when he died, and we’re glad Brod didn’t. Yet there’s more to the story. Brod had warned Kafka that he would never do so — this, too, was a solemn vow — and believed that if Kafka really wanted this bonfire, he would have appointed another executor. That matters, too.

Not every request can be honored, even when the intentions are crystal clear. Sometimes a request is impossible (keep my art collection housed exactly as I have left it, and here’s $5 for the upkeep) or unlawful (the rest of my estate will endow a whites-only scholarship). Sometimes the testator was coerced or of unsound mind. On occasion, wills must be modified. But there was no obstacle to doing what your sister-in-law requested. There was a will. There was a way. The way, this bereaved mother might object, would have deprived her of a focus for her grief. But what she’s talking about is a symbol. And it seems unimaginative, knowing what her daughter wanted, not to have found something else to invest with the necessary significance. The mother’s grief deserves compassion; the daughter’s request deserved compliance.

I am a librarian at a large public university. Our library administrators, following a current fad, plan to radically ‘‘downsize’’ the library collection (i.e. throw out a lot of books). Essentially, anything in the general collection that hasn’t been checked out in the past few years is going straight to the trash-hauling bin. I believe that this poorly planned weeding project will do serious damage to a very valuable public resource and that if local researchers knew the scope of devastation underway, they would have strong objections. I have been outspoken enough about my opinion to be in hot water with said administrators. Do I have an ethical responsibility to persist in whistle-blowing? How much personal trouble am I ethically obliged to cause for myself in order to oppose an administrative decision that I believe is not just damaging to our organizational mission but stupid and wrong? NAME WITHHELD

My response: Regarding your “ethical responsibility” question, I answer as above: if there were an absolute measure you would have consulted it. There isn’t, so you didn’t.

As for your second question, I suggest you not measure your behavior by how much trouble you cause but how effective your results. If you knew your actions would have no effect no matter what you did, I would recommend causing no trouble to yourself or anyone. If you knew your actions would result in everyone happily agreeing with you and on your plan, I would recommend acting as much as possible because everyone would gain and you’d cause no trouble.

My point is to consider the effectiveness and consequences of your actions, which requires listening to and understanding others. For all we know they understand you and have considered your perspective more than you have, yet concluded differently than you. You haven’t mentioned if they’ve digitized the books, nor what they’re doing with the resources they would recover. For all we know, given their finite resources, digitizing the books, recycling or donating the materials, and using the freed resources elsewhere may optimize the institution’s mission. Books aren’t an absolute good above all others.

Living in a finite world, we can’t have every material thing. How we distribute what we have is a matter of negotiation, which is based on our abilities to communicate, influence, and so on. If you’re creating trouble for yourself while not achieving your goals, I recommend either improving your negotiation skills or accepting that you can’t get everything you want and trying to achieve what you can instead of causing trouble for yourself at things beyond your abilities.

The New York Times response:

Public institutions are a public trust. Any citizen, not least a trained professional like you, has the right to ask whether those who run them are carrying out the purposes for which they’ve been chartered. It’s the public’s business, and you’re entitled to bring the force of public opinion to bear. (I take it that what you’re pointing out isn’t confidential information that you have a duty not to share.) Because this is a public organization, you shouldn’t be penalized for doing so. Universities, in particular, owe their employees wide freedom of expression, including about how they are run. You’ve justly voiced your concerns. Disquiet in the library!

But the decisions you’re talking about don’t sound morally wrong. They reflect a judgment at odds with your own; they don’t reflect corruption, abuse or a total abandonment of the institution’s pur­poses. Calling your protests ‘‘whistle-blowing’’ might be, well, just a little overblown.

As a fellow book lover, I sympathize with how you must feel in the face of the great biblioclasm that is following the explosive growth of the digital library. And I applaud the aim of getting your employers to make wiser decisions. But you don’t have a duty to keep at it once you’ve made your arguments. There’s a distribution of responsibilities in any workplace. Yours is to do your job well and to speak up when you have information relevant to your fellow workers. You’ve circulated your opinion; you’re now entitled to return it to the shelf.

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