Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: How Do I Handle the Towel Saga Next Door?

August 16, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

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, “How Do I Handle the Towel Saga Next Door?


On Easter Sunday, we always have an egg hunt for our neighbors and the children of our Hispanic housekeeper and yard man. This past Easter, our next-door neighbor invited the kids to swim in their pool afterward. In July, a full three months later, we received an email from our neighbor stating: ‘‘Would you mind reminding your housekeeper that they have a large portion of my swimming towels, I was terribly short this weekend. Hope you had a great Fourth of July.’’ This was the first we heard of missing towels. We did not want our housekeeper to think that we or our neighbor thought the children had taken towels that did not belong to them, so we made the decision to purchase 12 towels and give them to our neighbor. We wrapped them up and left them with a note — ‘‘A little surprise for your generosity.’’ A week later, we found the box of towels with a note back at our door — ‘‘I cannot accept these towels and cannot keep them because it is morally as wrong for me to take your towels as it was for your housekeeper’s children to keep my towels.’’ We do not think the children were morally wrong in intent; they simply did what kids do when getting out of the pool — dry off and then wrap in a towel before piling into cars to go home. Had we known about the towels, we would have collected them at the time, but three months after the fact changes how we think the towels should be regarded. The cost of the towels is not really an issue for us or our neighbors. Should we have tried to retrieve the towels from several families before buying new ones? We are almost certain that our housekeeper was not even aware the children were given towels, as she was at our house the entire swim time cleaning up from the meal. Our effort to replace the towels was meant to defuse the situation, not continue into a towel saga. NAME WITHHELD

My response: In an issue involving your neighbor, housekeeper, yard man, and their children, you talk to none of them but instead write a letter to the New York Times? Instead of constructively looking forward and communicating and collaboratively working toward a solution, you ask distant strangers to evaluate the past?

While your buying towels sounds nice, you still acted unilaterally. You may have thought the issue was the towels, but acting unilaterally means you don’t find out other people’s opinions and interests. I don’t know anyone who likes their interests disregarded. Relationships are about people, not towels. You knew this when you wrote “The cost of the towels is not really an issue for us or our neighbors.” If cost isn’t the issue, why did you act like it was? How do you feel when you consider an issue important and others disregard it?

I’m not saying you’re right or wrong, but can you see how your behavior and focus on giving towels over communication may have contributed to this interaction? Can you see how changing your behavior and attitude might create new results, ones you might like more?

While your neighbor sounds moralistic and self-righteous, they sound no more so than you, with your gratuitous “a full three months later” and “they simply did what kids do.” How do you know? Why do you remain “almost certain” about something you could ask your housekeeper? I don’t know about anyone else, but your attitude and your story’s one-sidedness lead me to question what you may have left out from the neighbor’s perspective, or what you may have missed.

As for your question, “Should we have tried to retrieve the towels from several families before buying new ones?“, well, now that you’ve seen the result of your action, what do you think? Do you think your acting without talking to anyone involved with the incident has had results you didn’t anticipate? Whatever your opinion of your neighbor’s actions, do you think you’ve contributed in any way? Did you learn anything besides that your view is right but you aren’t moralistic while your neighbor is moralistic and wrong? Do you see the irony in that view?

What I don’t get: why didn’t you talk to anyone involved in this issue before writing the New York Times? Don’t you see them daily or at least weekly? How do you see that action as the best way to improve the situation?

The New York Times response:

Kenji Yoshino: ‘‘Saga’’ immediately suggests that it might be time to wind down your relations with your neighbor. You behaved in a perfectly magnanimous way, and your neighbor reacted in what might at best be called a punctilious, or even supercilious, manner. I’m reminded of how much of ethics is about letting the little things go. It seems as if your neighbor is completely unwilling to do so — both in asking for towels that were lent out three months ago and also in not embracing your offer. We need a little more give in the joints to ensure one another’s human flourishing. A truly ethical posture requires the generosity of mind and spirit that accepts the intent for the deed in a case like this.

Amy Bloom: This should probably serve as a reminder to all of us not to go overboard making sure that you cling desperately to the high ground. This is just appalling to me, especially the tone of ‘‘I cannot accept these towels.’’ Really? You cannot? It seems to me that the wish here is not to be moral; the wish is to be insulting. There may be some issues of race and class here as well. I’m sorry to say I’m now imputing all sorts of terrible things to the punctilious and supercilious and frankly rude neighbor. I hear all of this in a particularly Dame Maggie Smith tone: ‘‘I was terribly short this weekend.’’ You did a lovely thing, you tried to respond graciously and there was no insult in your offer.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I disagree slightly, not with what you said about the neighbor — who sounds like a prig, and if he or she were my neighbor that would be it, we would not be socializing very much anymore — but I do think it probably is a good idea to take this up with your housekeeper. After all, without talking to her, you have absolutely no idea whether the claim that the children were involved is even true, and she might want to do something about it. The assumption that she’ll just be embarrassed, which might be true, somehow doesn’t treat her fully as a responsible person. She might think, Well, I should tell these children that when you go to somebody’s house and they lend you towels, you return them.

Bloom: It occurs to me that for all we know, the towels are moldering in the basement or wherever the kids changed into their clothes. So if you’re going to ask the housekeeper, ‘‘Hey, did you notice a pile of extra towels when the kids came home from the pool three months ago,’’ I can appreciate that being somewhat uncomfortable. It would also probably behoove the letter writer to check all of the rooms in the house and make sure there’s no little pile of towels left behind.

Yoshino: I also want to say that if there was an objection to the housekeeper’s behavior, the neighbor should have taken it up directly with the housekeeper rather than involving you, given that you’re her employer. He or she could have asked for an email address. If you are going to be put in the middle, he or she should not fault your constructive gesture.

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