Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Tell Someone His Father-in-Law Is a Child Molester?

July 9, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Tell Someone His Father-in-Law Is a Child Molester?

Many years ago, my middle-school science teacher was arrested and jailed for sexually molesting a female student. He was about 40 at the time, with a wife and several children, both biological and adopted. I knew the victim fairly well and was friends with two of her siblings. I spent a lot of time at their house, which was just down the road from mine. The science teacher drove the victim to a remote rural area near where I lived. This happened more than once.

Eventually he was arrested and sent to jail for six months, according to what I read online. I’m not inclined to think this is sufficient punishment, because his offense negatively altered the trajectory of this girl’s life and her relationship with men. Also, according to her, there is a strong possibility that there was at least one other victim, who, understandably, chose not to come forward all those years ago.

Recently, I discovered the former science teacher’s Facebook profile. One photo showed a young woman, presumably his daughter, holding a baby girl, presumably his granddaughter. There was also a young man in the photo, who I assume is the husband and father. I decided it was unethical to try to publicly shame the former teacher or contact his employer. But is it unethical to anonymously warn the young man, who I believe is the father of the baby girl? I have no reason to believe that the former science teacher is reoffending, other than basic recidivism statistics regarding men like him, which are not favorable. In 10 years, that baby girl could be all over his radar. Name Withheld, Richmond, Va.

My response: First, that the action you’re considering and asking the ethics of is anonymous suggests that you know the answer to your question.

I suggest, as usual, that asking if abstract philosophical labels apply to the action you’re considering pales in comparison to questions about alternative actions you could take—for example, what options do you have, what resources, whom else could you talk to, what results would you expect from the various options available, how could you improve those results, and so on.

Asking if others would consider your proposed anonymous act ethical sounds like you want to stop thinking for yourself and absolve yourself of responsibility, so if your actions backfire you can say something like, “Don’t blame me, the New York Times told me to.”

I suggest that, difficult as it may sound, taking responsibility and considering your actions as opposed to abstract philosophical concepts will help you more in the long run. The more you learn to handle situations like this yourself, or if you get help, to get it for creating options and figuring out to do will help you more than getting it to label you or your actions.

The New York Times response:

I appreciate your concern for this child. But if you’ve had nothing to do with her grandfather for many years, you have no reason to believe he is at high risk for reoffending. As The New York Times has reported recently, empirical research doesn’t support the widespread belief in a high recidivism rate among sex offenders, a great majority of whom aren’t known to reoffend. Nor does the crime for which your former teacher was convicted entail that he is a pedophile prone to intrafamilial sexual abuse.

There are further reasons to doubt that the intervention you propose would help secure the child’s safety. For one thing, her mother (assuming that the people in the picture are related in the way you suppose) probably already knows that her father was once jailed for molesting a minor. Nor have you any reason to assume that the young man himself is in the dark. If something’s there for you to read online, it’s there for everyone else. And if he doesn’t know, you simply can’t say how he’ll react. Would he want to keep a child away from a loving grandfather who may pose no risk? Is he prone to violence? You have no idea. In circumstances in which you’re not sure there’s a danger, there’s something to be said for the Hippocratic principle: First do no harm.

My husband owns a salon in our small, affluent suburb. He is increasingly unsettled by something some of the staff members are doing and is unsure if he has the authority to put a stop to what he sees as opportunistic, unethical behavior. We have a client who is a quite wealthy man around 60. He admits (often through tears, after he has been drinking) that he is very lonely and longs for a relationship and marriage. While he has dated women who are well suited to him (age, station in life, desire for him, eagerness for a relationship), after he has slept with them for a couple of months, he ends things, because he says, for example, that the woman’s life is complicated, or that there is ‘‘drama,’’ or that she has children, or that her nose is too big. He seems to have a penchant for much younger women, and for the past few years, he has been vocal about having a crush on one of our stylists, who is 20 years his junior, as well as the women on our reception team, who are in their early 20s. As the French say, ‘‘à chacun son goût.’’

One of my husband’s assistants, a married man also around 60, has consistently pursued a friendship with this wealthy client because of his money. Our employee ingratiates himself, presses our client to have him over for dinner, follows the client to a nearby restaurant (which is owned by a family member of ours and at which our employees receive discounts), usually with the younger women tagging along as ‘‘bait’’ and has the wealthy man foot the bill. He then invites himself, and anyone who is with him, to the man’s house after the restaurant closes.

Our male employee encourages the wealthy man to pursue these young women. If the two are at the restaurant and the women are not there, our employee will call them and put them on the phone with the wealthy client, or he will call them and tell them to get over to the restaurant because the wealthy client is there.

The younger women have all said they have zero interest in this wealthy man, sexually or romantically. However, all of them are more than happy to use him as their personal sugar daddy — the last time, the bill was more than $500. I might add that the male employee, the one who pursues the connection for its benefits, never reciprocates.

Surely nobody is forcing the wealthy man to pay for other people’s drinks and food. He could, if he so desired, ask our employees to pay their own tab. I understand that he decides whom he finds attractive and what he is willing to endure, on the outside chance that one of these days one of these girls is going to want to sleep with him. I also acknowledge that our employees get to make their own decisions about their personal lives.

However, all of this leaves a very bad taste in my husband’s mouth. My own opinion is that while I find it cringe-worthy behavior on all their parts, I am not sure we have the right to mandate another’s behavior (much less their ethics). Even if we asked our employees not to take our client up on the offer of meeting him at the restaurant after his appointments, are we allowed to tell them what they can and cannot do on their time off?

My husband feels quite concerned about all of this, not just because it seems our staff members lack integrity but also because other people may begin to notice what our staff members are up to. And once they do, they will begin to say what seems obvious to us: Our employees are opportunists profiting from their connection to a very wealthy and quite lonely man. This, in turn, could affect not only the public’s opinion of our employees but also of my husband and his salon, impugning his character and negatively affecting his bottom line. Is this any of our business? Name Withheld

My response: You describe everyone as pathetic losers: one has money but no social skills or intimacy, another as a fawning self-serving sycophant, others as not liking him but acting like they do for his money, and your husband as a meddler.

You seeing them all as pathetic losers suggests two things.

First, if everyone involved is a pathetic loser, the chances of you fitting the bill seems high.

Second, they may have problems, but you definitely have one. After all, you wrote the New York Times to help you find peace.

Since the evidence, as I see it at least, suggests you have these two problems, I’d focus on improving yourself before meddling in the affairs of consenting adults. I’d start by either removing people whose values conflict with yours from your life or, since everyone you’ll ever meet will always have some values that conflict with yours, learning to live with such people without becoming unhappy.

The New York Times response:

The reputation of your business is indeed your business. You’re perfectly entitled to ask members of your staff to bear this in mind when they’re at work. But you also happen to know about how they behave when they go out with your rich client, because they’re meeting at a restaurant that a member of your family owns. And this behavior is worrisome: They’re evidently sponging off someone whom they know through your husband’s business. They’re moochers. You and your husband aren’t wrong to take a dim view of this.

Yet what your employees get up to in their free time, away from the office, isn’t ordinarily something you’d have a right to control. And it’s not very respectful to your wealthy client to seek to protect him from a dynamic he can perfectly well recognize himself. In fact, there’s no reason to think that he doesn’t. A man with more money than charm, and little aptitude for long-term relationships, may find the situation — boozy evenings of ingratiation and eye candy, on his tab — quite satisfactory. He may well feel he’s getting value for money. As you say: ‘‘à chacun. . . . ’’

So you should ask yourselves whether the financial risks you mention are genuine or whether you’re merely reaching for business interests to align with your understandable sense of disapproval. If you’re really sure about the situation and about your motive, you could have a courteous conversation with your employees, in which you urge them to be mindful of your salon’s reputation. Of course, it may provoke some stony silences, which may also affect your husband’s work life. Weighing these consequences, however, is a matter of prudence, not ethics.

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