Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Is It O.K. That Our Friends Are Constantly Suing People?

April 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, “Is It O.K. That Our Friends Are Constantly Suing People?

Close friends of our family have been plaintiffs in a number of lawsuits in the past few years. This litigious trend seems to have begun after financial strain caused by health issues and a string of bad luck with their small business. They sued a local arts charity and our synagogue after being employed briefly at these organizations. The details of these two suits are murky, but we do know that a sizable — but not life-changing — sum was garnered from each suit. They have also tried five or six other lawsuits against various parties, which they either lost or eventually dropped. Most recently, they tried to sue the manufacturer of their car when they wound up in a ditch after a run-in with a patch of black ice.

Admittedly, my family does not know many details surrounding these lawsuits, but this couple’s litigiousness has nonetheless changed the way my siblings and I view them. On one hand, there should be nothing unethical about initiating a lawsuit. On the other hand, my family members feel that the volume of these suits is problematic. Surely, they argue, this isn’t just a coincidental string of bad luck; the couple must be going out of their way to assign blame, seeking out these lawsuits for monetary benefits. The tenuousness of the culpability in the car incident in particular seems to support this view.

What bothers me is that a number of the defendants have been small nonprofit organizations. Suing a tiny arts-outreach organization just strikes me as very different, ethically, from suing a huge corporation. Our family agrees that their behavior is unbecoming. But is it unethical? Name Withheld

My response: Multiple times you say you don’t know details and describe your views as speculative. Then you want others, who know yet less, to judge their ethics? How are we supposed to tell if you can’t, and you know these people?

Why don’t you just talk to them about it? I’m not asking rhetorically. You can get more information, improve your relationship with them (or limit it if you feel it appropriate, but based on knowledge, not assumption), and stop having to speculate so much. If you don’t, whatever is inhibiting you seems to be worsening your life, which suggests to me that learning to handle this inhibition will improve your life.

Besides, the ethics is a matter of opinion. If there were an objective measure, you’d use it instead of sharing your speculation with the world through a newspaper column. There isn’t, so you don’t. Obviously, they consider it ethical. You don’t, but not enough to feel confident in your judgment, so you write the New York Times.

Instead of asking about abstract philosophical concepts, you can talk to them. If you don’t feel comfortable or confident enough to talk to them about it, you can improve your social and emotional skills to enable yourself to do so. It’s not that hard and you’ll find the skills apply to many places in your life.

Speaking of social skills, I’d suggest practicing your writing style. “Was garnered,” “problematic,” “a run-in with a patch of black ice,” “unbecoming,” and a few other examples call attention to your language, and I would say pretentiousness or affectation, and distract from your message. They seem vague too. But that’s just my opinion. If you like that style and choose it deliberately, then boring people like me may be worth the cost for you.

The New York Times response:

Legal outcomes don’t always accord with ethical assessments. When people like your friends sue, they can sometimes get a settlement, perhaps from an insurance company, simply because it’s more expensive to prove they’re wrong than to buy them off. After they got lucky a time or two, the temptation to abuse the system may have grown; they become professional plaintiffs.

What your friends are doing is wrong if, as your family members suspect, they are deliberately taking advantage of this weakness of the system and bringing cases they know they shouldn’t win. In some legal systems, like England’s, the incentives to sue can be diminished by the fact that the loser may end up paying the winner’s costs. But there are disadvantages to that system, too, among them that it can make it easier for those with deep pockets to frighten off people who have a reasonable case. Perhaps a more promising approach would resemble the program that New Zealand has had for decades: If you have a valid personal-injury claim, you don’t need to sue anyone, because an independent Accident Compensation Corporation will award compensation. (It’s like a single-payer replacement for part of the tort system.) But it sounds as if your friends aren’t just suing for personal injuries.

Given the frailties of our current system, people should think about whether they really have a case before they bring a suit, rather than just whether they have a shot at making money. Otherwise they’re just legal-minded grifters, indifferent to the burdens they impose on synagogues and other small nonprofit organizations. The decision to sue is an ethical one, not just a financial one.

An elderly distant relative of my husband’s visited us for a few days. During his visit with us, he proudly told us of his 30-something girlfriend. She is his physician assistant at the doctor’s office or hospital near his retirement home. He showed us her photo: She’s blond and pretty. He has given her an expensive ring and a check to help her pay her large college debt. Another jewelry gift was in the offing for Christmas. Here’s the question: This man is a widower with no children and is well off. My husband and I are not interested in his money; we have enough, and in any event, he is leaving it to charity. Is this woman’s acceptance of the gifts and money ethical? If not, what should be done about this, and by whom? There is a difference of opinion in the family, with some saying let him have this fling. I wonder if there are other elderly men who are helping her with her college loans. What do you say? Name Withheld

My response: On the question of ethics, I repeat the third paragraph to my response above.

On the issue of you making your business the behavior of two consenting adults, I recommend you watch a few Saturday Night Live “Church Lady” sketches, which satire you and may help you get past judging others and on to things that may improve your life more. You could use your spare time to read Walden, for example, about a guy who lived in the woods to avoid people like you.

The New York Times response:

If, as you plainly think, this young woman is preying on vulnerable older men, what she’s doing is exploitative and, therefore, wrong. Whatever “girlfriend” means to your kinsman, it does suggest the possibility of a sexual involvement. She may also be violating the terms of her employment, then, and the ethics of her profession. The American Academy of Physician Assistants is clear: “It is unethical for physician assistants to become sexually involved with patients.”

So voice your concerns to your relative. Because you’re not in the will, he should recognize your remarks as disinterested expressions of concern for him. But don’t be overly insistent. The scenario you’re suggesting may be humiliating to him. If he were to come to see things as you do, he might have to give up on the pleasures of his late-life adventure.

It’s also quite possible that he knows he’s playing the role of a “sugar daddy” and is content with its limitations. Discouraging him from pursuing his relationship might serve the interests of his charitable beneficiaries, but if he knows what he’s doing and is doing it clearsightedly, you shouldn’t give this factor much weight. It’s a good thing to leave money to good causes, but he’s not obliged to stint himself to do so. And though you raise the possibility that this physician assistant has other older gents on the hook, there’s not much you can do with these suspicions that wouldn’t violate his trust.

One of my father’s best friends shared with him nearly 50 years ago that he had abandoned a woman and a small child in his native country before moving to the United States. He married here, had a family and built himself a new life. He said then that his new wife knew nothing of this first woman (whom he never married) or of the child. He never talked to my father about the mother or the child again. My father, now in his 80s and for no particular reason, shared this story with me a few years ago. He asked that I say and do nothing.

This friend and his family have been very close to our family throughout my life, so much so that his daughter and I are very close. She is a part of my family life, and she is close to my wife and our children, as we are close to her husband and their children. Family — and community — are very important to all of us. That said, I imagine that in the same situation I’d want to know about a long-lost brother. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t want to learn anything that would probably cause upheaval in my present family. I know this woman well enough that she would almost certainly have shared with me the knowledge that I have about her half brother. Complicating all this are the facts that this half brother may no longer be alive, or accessible, and the father (my dad’s friend) remains married and is elderly and unwell. He’s also cognitively disabled after an accident, and he may not remember any details or, conversely, may not be able to continue to keep them secret if questioned. He has a right to keep his personal life personal, and the immorality of abandoning a single mother and a child now seem moot if the mother may well be dead and the son, if still alive, is in his late 50s. The father really has nothing to offer them at this point in their lives.

But an ocean away, there may be a middle-aged man who has questions about who fathered him. Deep down, I feel that I should honor the original request to my own father to keep all this confidential. I’m asking you to confirm to me that this is a secret to keep. Name Withheld

My response: While I know of no absolute measure of what you should keep secret, of the strategies you could pursue, I don’t see how keeping it secret hurts others, so I can confirm that keeping it secret is fine with me.

I can see value for you in getting others’ opinions, advice, perspectives, and so on, since they see things from different perspectives, but you didn’t ask for them. You’re an adult. Why do you want or need confirmation from others so much that you write the New York Times about it?

Regarding your father’s confidentiality request, did you agree to it? If so, you aren’t honoring his request, you’re honoring your word, on which your credibility lies. If you didn’t agree to it, I don’t see why your father’s request would bind you. He sounds like he didn’t keep secret something that he probably agreed to, probably because he didn’t have the emotional skills either to handle keeping such juicy information secret.

Personally, I’d work on developing those emotional skills. Can you make your happiness and freedom independent of keeping this information secret or not?

The New York Times response:

The world is full of people who would like to know things that other people have been told in confidence. But the point of confidentiality is to allow the transmission of information with conditions. Your father told you something in confidence. Although there are circumstances that may justify the breaking of a confidence, they aren’t present in your case. Sad as it may be for that man an ocean away, you aren’t entitled to go looking for him to pass this information on. And you aren’t entitled to reveal what you know to his father’s other children either.

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