Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should a Friend Have Been Told That His Date Was H.I.V. Positive?

May 1, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should a Friend Have Been Told That His Date Was H.I.V. Positive?


More than 30 years ago, five years or so into a world shaped by AIDS, I had two friends. One of them, “Dean,” was coming to New York City for a job interview; he didn’t know anyone in the city and was planning on being there for a few days near Christmas. He was 24, smart and ambitious. The other man, “Bill,” was the last lover of a man named “Colin,” who was my first love. Colin didn’t tell Bill that he was H.I.V. positive; when Bill became positive, Colin “discovered” he was, too. Colin had died by the time Dean was visiting New York.

Bill called me to ask if I wanted to go to Lincoln Center. I couldn’t, but I mentioned that my friend Dean was coming to town and that they worked in related fields. They talked; they went to Lincoln Center. I felt I was doing the “correct” thing in not revealing Bill’s status to Dean. You can guess where this is going. They had sex, dated briefly, broke up, didn’t talk. Years passed; Bill died. One night, I had dinner with Dean and told him the Colin/Bill story. Dean’s reaction made it clear that he hadn’t known Bill’s status. Dean looked at me, and our friendship, which had cooled for other reasons by this time, stopped. Dean died a year or so later of AIDS. Was it my fault? Dave, Location Withheld

My response: I post a lot on the strategy that has served me well: “Don’t look for blame but take responsibility for making things better to the extent you can.” Say it was your fault. What does that change? Would you behave differently now? If you could improve something, why wouldn’t you do that anyway? If you were asking if you were guilty of a crime, your question wouldn’t be about fault but if your behavior matched a legal description, which is different from an abstract concept of fault. There is no book in the sky with a similar definition of “fault.” It’s an abstract concept with as many definitions as people who disagree on it.

In any case, you’re asking if you’re responsible for the behavior of two adults doing something private without you around. If you’re responsible for their behavior, why not ask if you’re responsible for the behavior of all adults everywhere?

The New York Times response:

No. The primary responsibility for avoiding sexually transmitted diseases lies with the people having sex. By the time you’re talking about, it was known that AIDS was caused by a virus, that it could be sexually transmitted and that the probability of sexual transmission could be significantly reduced by various “safe sex” practices. Bill and Dean presumably were aware of all this. And in any case, people shouldn’t rely on third parties to inform them of a partner’s status. They have a right to be told directly by their partners.

At the same time, medical privacy is an important value. In emergencies, it may be necessary to reveal a person’s health status to protect others. But you’re talking about a situation in which there were easily available steps your visiting friend could have taken to protect himself. Nor did you have reason to think that Bill was going to endanger his date — or that his date was going to endanger himself.

Maybe Bill acted blamelessly. (We can’t be sure that Dean got the virus from him. One baleful stare doesn’t settle the matter.) If Bill failed to mention that he was H.I.V. positive, though, Dean had no grounds to infer that he wasn’t. And if Bill falsely claimed to be negative? Even in the early years of testing, medical authorities made it plain that a negative result was consistent with a person’s having been infected but not yet “seroconverted.” If someone was having unsafe sex, a negative test result wouldn’t have meant that he was uninfected. Sex and rationality are, of course, not the steadiest of companions. That’s why it has been important to promulgate safe sex as a practice — a habit. Make it a default, and you don’t need to be especially rational to stick to it.

I’ve said that you’re not morally responsible for what happened to your two friends and that you were right to have respected Bill’s medical privacy. Still, with a visitor who was “not a New Yorker,” you could have reinforced the importance of safe sex in this epicenter of the disease, whatever a sex partner’s avowed status, and done so without revealing what you knew about Bill. Second, while duties of confidentiality are less demanding when the person you’re talking about is dead, it might not have been a great idea to reveal what you knew about Colin and Bill. My father was fond of the Latin proverb De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Speak only good of the dead. It has limited applicability, I grant, but over the dinner table, it’s a decent enough rule of thumb.

I am the president of a community garden in a large city. The city was among several that applied for grants for gardens and green spaces. (The awards totaled nearly $200,000.) We won one of the four awards! I excitedly shared the news with my garden members. We have several large projects that we could complete with these funds. The impact on our garden and the community would be significant. But a number of gardeners argued that we should refuse the funds. It turns out that the company funding the grant is partnered with an international agricultural giant, Monsanto, well known for its use of G.M.O.s, pesticides, herbicides and other practices that are perceived by some members as contrary to the values of our small garden. Is it wrong to accept these funds? If we do, are we condoning those practices? If we refuse, should we do it quietly or take the opportunity to make a big show of our opposition to Monsanto? Name Withheld

My response: The point of democracy is not to decide right or wrong but to allow people to collaborate, at least as far as I can tell. If there were a definition of right and wrong that everyone could agree on, everyone would do what was right. If people did wrong things, everyone would agree on their punishment.

People disagree on right and wrong. Hence laws. Asking abstract philosophical questions distracts you from acting as a group. Instead of arguing over right and wrong, why not try to figure out how to continue, given that not everyone agrees? What else can we do in life?

Why don’t you figure out for yourself what you think is right for yourself, accept that others will disagree, and figure out a process to move forward, also accepting that not everyone will agree on the outcome? Is your goal to definitively decide right and wrong among people who disagree, as if you could, or grow a garden?

The New York Times response:

Here’s another Latin adage: Pecunia non olet — money doesn’t stink. The idea, of course, is that money is not tainted by its origins. The Roman emperor Vespasian is often mentioned in this connection, because when his son Titus complained about his infamous urine tax, he held a gold coin near the boy’s nose and asked if it smelled. When the boy conceded that it didn’t, Vespasian said, “Yet it comes from urine.”

The adage leaves many people unpersuaded. They regard money acquired by sketchy means as itself sketchy. That’s a backward-looking impulse. If the money was made through an immoral process, you can try to repair the wrong or punish the guilty, but neither of those results is achieved by letting the money go to someone else who doesn’t know or doesn’t care how it was made.

There are forward-looking reasons for socially responsible investing, to be sure: You encourage companies to act ethically by making a pool of money available for the ones that do. I prefer these forward-looking arguments, though I’m not against punishing companies that have behaved wrongly — in part for the forward-looking reason that it discourages further wrongdoing. But the situation is different when you’re accepting money, rather than providing it, and not taking someone’s money is an odd form of punishment.

I understand your concern about the symbolism of accepting funds from a business with values that are contrary to those of your association. Yet have you satisfied yourself that practices you avoid in your garden are in fact morally objectionable in industrial agriculture? Conventional agriculture requires reform; you know its problems well. But could we keep feeding the earth’s population of seven billion if we simply eliminated pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers and genetically modified crops? Rice cultivation emits as much as a hundred million tons of methane each year; should we one day consider genetically modified strains that would reduce emissions while increasing productivity? How such benefits net out against the potential environmental hazards of these practices is a complex empirical question. But feeding the hungry surely counts for something.

We need to be better stewards of our fragile environment. Spurning this gift, however, will deprive you and your excellent cause of a benefit, without making any difference to the corporation’s behavior. Surely effective action toward a better future — one that will include small-scale agriculture — is more important than the satisfaction of having clean hands. And if your hands get dirty, well, isn’t that part of gardening?

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