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, “Is It O.K. to Take a Gender-Non-Conforming Child to North Carolina?”
For the past 10 years, my husband’s family has convened for an annual summer reunion at a beach house in North Carolina. It’s great fun for the many young cousins who attend, and our two children spend the year looking forward to it.
Our 6-year-old child, J.G., is gender-nonconforming. We had been in denial about this fact until several months ago, when J.G. articulated to us how scary and demeaning this felt. We are now out in the open about our child’s gender nonconformity, and J.G. has blossomed from a moody, secretive child into a rambunctious and irrepressible little soul. We live in a liberal area in a liberal state, and J.G. has been accepted with love and generosity in our community. My husband’s large Southern family has also surprised us in recent months with their unconditional love and acceptance.
We planned and paid for our travel to North Carolina long before House Bill 2 was passed, but as the visit looms closer, my husband and I are feeling increasingly ambivalent. Not only are we worried that residents might single out our somewhat ambiguous-looking child, but we also wonder if we are obligated to explain the situation to J.G., who doesn’t know about the law or the extent of the animus toward L.G.B.T. people. And while we want to stand in solidarity with residents of North Carolina for whom HB2 is such a burden, both of our children would be devastated if we canceled the trip. What is the ethical thing to do in this situation? M.H.
My response: You already considered the results of your choices on the relevant parties—your, your child, the North Carolina communities, your family, and so on. After you take into account the effects on everyone and that people have conflicting values, what difference does the New York Times’s labeling this or that action ethical or not matter? You already know that no matter what you do, many people will consider some actions ethical that others will consider unethical. Neither the Times nor anyone else has the final word.
The choice isn’t easy, but you have to do something. Considering and balancing the effects of your actions on those affected would base them on empathy and compassion. What more can you do? Does an abstract philosophical label that you know people will disagree on make a difference?
The New York Times response: Your worries illustrate the consequences of this absurd law. Although defenders of the “bathroom bill” often speak in the name of the children, it’s children and teenagers who are most likely to be harmed by the hate-laden atmosphere the law has fomented. But you won’t be able to keep the truth about these attitudes from J.G. forever. And now that you have accepted J.G.’s sense of gender identity, you need to tell both your children what’s going on. If you decided not to go, you’d want to give an honest account of why. Skipping the reunion doesn’t mean the issue won’t come up.
What you need to get across — and you may have had to do this already — is that, just as you once failed to understand who J.G. was, new people may also not be fully accepting. But you’ll be at a beach house, surrounded by supportive family and friends. According to recent surveys, a large percentage of people in North Carolina oppose HB2. In fact, because of the news coverage of the law and the moving resistance to it by so many people in the state, you may encounter more expressions of support than you’d expect. Your husband’s large Southern family could be more representative of the region than the state politicians who voted for the bill.
My 5-month-old’s caretaker lives 40 minutes away by train. She commutes daily. We loved her when we met her, but we expressed our concern over her commute. We were not expecting to pay for travel time and were ready to hire a local caretaker. She explained that she wasn’t looking to be paid for her travel time. Her previous job in the city hadn’t, either.
We recently asked her to stay late on Friday after working the full day. We paid her overtime after 4 p.m., plus $50 for staying the night, to spare her a late commute. I took my son into our room as soon as we got home, and she was off the clock. It was our first night out since he was born, and the peace of mind was worth the expenditure. But, looking forward, we would like to hire a local sitter who won’t need overtime or to spend the night. The expense is just too great for us. When I explained this to her, she offered to work the job anyway and not be paid overtime.
Is it ethical to hire her and underpay her at her suggestion, or do we deny her the job opportunity? We want to do right by her. M.B.
My response: When you wrote that you’d want to hire someone local I felt myself preparing to write to involve your current caretaker in the process. Then I see you did. When rational adults come to agreement, I’m not sure what more to say.
You describe her as suggesting working for you, implying her agreement. You don’t sound like you fully agree. From my perspective you sound paternalistic, like you know her situation better than she does or that you’re concerned you would exploit her, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe you do know her situation better than she does. Maybe you would end up exploiting her. Why don’t you talk to her? Understanding her situation from her perspective will help you choose. It can also help you find alternatives. Lots of people commute forty minutes each way daily.
The New York Times response: If I were thinking like an economist, I’d say: You are two rational agents making a bargain. You want someone who wouldn’t require overtime. She thinks that she’s better off relinquishing overtime and keeping this job than pursuing whatever other options she has available. (I’m bracketing the spend-the-night part for the moment.) So the outcome in which she works for you is better for each of you than the one in which she goes elsewhere and you have to try to find a local person who is as good. What’s to object to?
But I’m not an economist. I’m a moral philosopher. And there’s more going on here than economic arrangements. You and your infant son have a relationship with this woman. It isn’t an arm’s-length transaction, governed by self-interest alone. As it happens, Adam Smith, one of the first great modern economists, was also a great moral philosopher. He wrote “The Wealth of Nations,” in which he explained economic transactions as fundamentally governed by self-interest, and “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which explored the role of sympathy in our dealings with others. So let’s enlist both sides of Smith. One question sympathy might lead you to ask is why she’s willing to accept a job with no overtime. The answer, I suspect, is that you and she are operating in an economy in which people doing the kind of domestic work she does often don’t get overtime, even when they’re entitled to it. And you have to decide whether the circumstances of her choice are just.
If the background conditions in a labor market are seriously unjust — as they are in much of the world — people’s willingness to work for a particular wage isn’t enough to make that wage fair. We exploit people when we take advantage of their vulnerabilities. That’s why many think that American companies can’t defend the wages they pay in Bangladesh by saying that the workers there are willing to accept them. You’re concerned that you’d be taking advantage of her by accepting the terms she’s offering, and there’s good reason for that.
Adam Smith lectured on legal theory as well. So he would have pointed out that you also have legal constraints here. Because people in her situation tend to be in a weak bargaining position, federal and a few state statutes create widely applicable overtime provisions. But the costs of commuting are generally covered by the employee, and the time spent doing it is not paid time. From that point of view, if she stays overnight on Friday and is not working, you are, in effect, allowing her to avoid the cost and the inconvenience of a long commute late Friday, followed by an early commute back, if she’s to work on Saturday morning. Giving up the discretionary payment of $50 would seem reasonable on her part, in view of the elements of convenience to her.
There’s one more factor that’s ethically relevant. Simply ignoring her own judgments about what options are best for her would be less than respectful. It seems to me that you can discuss all this with her and come to a judgment together about what terms you both think are fair. That might still be somewhat more than what you would pay to a new caretaker, because you recognize, out of sympathy, the burden of her long commute; and because there’s a final argument of self-interest here: You know this woman and you trust her alone in your house with your son. That peace of mind has a value, too.
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