Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Hire a P.I. to Investigate a Relative’s Boyfriend?

July 10, 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 I Hire a P.I. to Investigate a Relative’s Boyfriend?


My husband’s sister has had the same boyfriend since she was in her early teens, and they are now engaged to be married. He has nothing in the way of character, morality or intelligence to offer. No one in the family cares for him, and all but me have expressed to her their unease with her relationship, which she patently refuses to discuss, causing strain between herself and the rest of the family.

Recently, she went to the emergency room with a black eye and a deep cut, casually writing it off as an outcome of monkeying around with him and cutting her face on the corner of a wall. I’m appalled that no one — not the clinic, not her family, not my husband — questioned the incident, but instead praised her fiancé for “being there and taking good care” of her. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but shouldn’t someone be concerned? Confronting her directly would be a disaster: She would never forgive a family member for being suspicious. I want to hire a private investigator to look into their relationship, but I worry that I’m overstepping my bounds or that I’m allowing my dislike for this person to color him negatively. But doing nothing feels wrong. Name Withheld

My response: Here’s another letter with no clear question. The only question mark follows “shouldn’t someone be concerned,” whose answer is probably not the resolution the writer is looking for. I could assume the writer’s question, but we don’t really know it. It looks like she wants judgment, which I expect wouldn’t be useful. If I had to, I’d guess she wants help choosing between alternatives, all of which she considers partly wrong.

I don’t think she’s asking any questions I think would be most useful:

  • What other options do I have?
  • What resources do I have?
  • Whom can I ask that could help me?
  • What would the results be of each approach?
  • What skills could I develop to help me here?

This column reinforces judgment, which I find pointless and counterproductive, over problem-solving and developing skills and relationships to create options and improve relationships.

I don’t agree that “Confronting her directly would be a disaster,” even not knowing her. I believe that she just can’t think of any way to talk to her without angering her, but that doesn’t mean she can’t, only that she doesn’t know how to yet. She also expects she could talk to her—that’s the point of the private investigator. She would hire an investigator because she thinks the information would help a conversation, if only she could resolve the problems, not to keep what she’d learn inside.

Judgment and vagueness undermine your ability to resolve conflict and work with people. I recommend learning to communicate with people so you can cover issues that they care about instead of newspaper columnists and philosophers. Abstract judgment won’t help you nearly as much as developing skills to communicate and work with people.

I would work on the questions I listed above and develop your skills to handle what for you now are difficult conversations but could become opportunities for you and your relationships.

The New York Times response:

The choice isn’t between doing nothing and hiring a private detective. Unlike the rest of the family, you haven’t told her what you think of her future husband. So you may be well placed to have a sympathetic conversation with her about what’s going on. While the episode you describe does have the hallmarks of domestic battery — which often involves the victim lying and refusing to accept that something is seriously wrong — people do have accidents. You may have a better chance of learning what really happened than a private investigator.

Bear in mind that there are two issues here. One is whether you think this man is an attractive human being. Plenty of people are happily married to spouses who aren’t popular with their in-laws. His flaws have apparently been drawn to her attention, and she still plans to marry him. That choice is hers. But the other issue is whether he’s engaging in domestic violence. A victim of such violence needs protection and probably, in the end, escape. If neither partner will acknowledge the abuse, there’s little chance that it will stop. And even then, while there are programs for abusers, they do not have a strong record of success.

Perhaps the reason you’re tempted to hire an investigator is the hope that he or she could build a case — based on medical records, 911 calls, witnesses or the like — that would enable the police to investigate, even without your sister-­in-­law’s cooperation. It’s possible to prosecute cases of intimate partner abuse without the victim’s assent, but it’s difficult, and I’m told that the police aren’t very likely to open an investigation on the basis of third-­party reports. Nor do arrests necessarily stop reoffense. So it may be that the most important thing you can do is let her know that she can call you or come to you if she ever feels menaced. You might also want to urge her to look at the website of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. If she is indeed a victim of abuse, understanding that others share her situation and that there is something she can do about it may save her from making a terrible mistake.

I recently moved to a fairly low ­income neighborhood, and as a young, white, single woman living on a street inhabited mostly by black families, I could probably be considered a gentrifier. As a graduate student, however, I don’t make very much money. Recently, I was walking my young dog up my street when another dog came from out of nowhere and latched onto him. It took two grown men to get the dog off mine, at which point I realized that it was my neighbor’s dog and that it was off-leash. My neighbor said that I should take my dog to the vet and that she would pay for it.

My dog was severely injured. The other dog pulled the skin away from the muscle, requiring surgery and extensive follow-­up care. The bills were over $1,000. When I took the invoices to the biting dog’s owner, she said there was no way she could pay the full amount, citing her limited income. She said that she had expected the vet bills to be closer to $200 and that she might be able to pay that much over a few months. She does not have homeowner’s insurance, which would cover such an incident. We eventually agreed that she would pay $100 a month until the full amount is paid off.

By the law of my state, she is fully liable for the costs associated with damage done by her dog. I would be fully within my rights to sue her for the full amount. However, I have pet insurance, which would cover around 75 percent of the total cost, the other 25 percent being affordable for me.

Should I press her for money it seems she may not have? She failed to give me the first payment we agreed on. On principle, I feel she should be held responsible for leaving a potentially aggressive dog off-leash when there are many other dogs living on the street. And there have been other incidents. Aggressive dogs have been tied to the gate of the house she lives in, and dogs have been left outside with no water in the summer. There’s also the emotional desire for accountability for almost killing my dog, who is, despite my full knowledge that animals are not children, the closest thing to a kid I have. If her dog had almost killed a child, the question would be much clearer. On the other hand, if she is living on a limited income, I don’t want to place an additional financial burden on her.

Should I hold her responsible for the full amount? Should I try to get her to pay the remaining 25 percent of the costs not refunded by insurance? Or, given her resistance to communication and failure to pay promised amounts, should I just let it go, because the financial hit is manageable for me? Name Withheld

My response: Here I count four questions: should I do this, should I do that, should I do another thing? All excellent questions for a child to ask a parent. Or for an adult to work on personally.

I two people with different values and abilities trying to distribute scarce resources—also known as a negotiation. Instead of asking closed questions of a newspaper columnist, I recommend asking yourself the questions I listed for the letter above of yourself.

The best resource I know of is the book Getting To Yes, or at least my post on it. Your neighbor has different interests, values, resources, and abilities than you, and that you don’t know. You won’t get far reaching an agreement without her. Talk to her and reach the best agreement you can. The more you develop your skills creating deals and knowing your interests, the better an agreement you’ll reach.

The New York Times response:

Your neighbor is an adult person responsible for securing her dog, and she has already breached an undertaking to pay you. Absolving her of her responsibilities gives her little incentive to protect others from her dog in the future. (Whether she ought to be allowed to keep this dog seems to me an open question. Indeed, you might consider contacting an animal-­cruelty organization: There’s a good deal of canine mistreatment in this story.) Still, there are obvious downsides to pursuing a legal judgment: the prospect of antagonizing a neighbor, the difficulty of enforcing a settlement against someone with few assets, the time and effort involved. And you’re right to be mindful of how the amount involved — even reduced to the direct costs you’ve incurred — might affect a possibly low-­income individual.

I wonder if there’s a middle way here. It does seem important that this woman be held accountable. Not doing so is to condescend to her morally. Are there mediation services provided by your community? She’d have some motivation to participate in them rather than going to court (as would you). It would be entirely understandable if, in the end, you simply let the matter drop. But I hope it doesn’t sound pious to say that holding one another responsible is central to the relationships of equal citizens.

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