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, ”What Should I Do About a Nanny Who Drinks?”
Amy Bloom: Right, and if somebody had known this about this nanny in the neighborhood and failed to tell her about it, she would be upset; she would feel that that neighbor had let her down. Although it’s true that we don’t like snitches, I suspect parents of young children would make a big exception in this case. It might be possible to post something on the email list that says: “Hey everybody, thinking of hiring a nanny? I strongly suggest that you check every reference and press for details. I didn’t, and I regretted it.”
Near my house is a big open park. Dogs aren’t allowed, for the sake of the children and families who fill the park on weekends. Yet on weekday mornings, it’s empty, and thus the conditions on which the validity of the rule stands are absent. So I walk my dog through the park and let her play off leash. I’m respecting the spirit of the law, yet I’m often harangued by passers-by, occasionally even threatened. Am I bound to respect not only the rights of fellow parkgoers — who are directly affected and may feel encroached upon by my dog — but also those merely passing by, whose objection is apparently one only of principle? JOEL E. TAYLOR, LOS ANGELES
My response: “I’m respecting the spirit of the law” This is your opinion.
“… yet I’m often harangued by passers-by, occasionally even threatened.” Their behavior results from their opinions.
They disagree with you, suggesting you aren’t right in any absolute sense. You just feel you are. You can do what you want based on your belief that you are correct, dismissive of their beliefs. This is known as being self-righteous. They can react how they want.
Since they have the law on their side, I suggest that the question you might want to consider instead of if you are “bound to respect” others is the results of your behavior—that is, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. In your case possible “time”s include nothing, a small fine, a large fine, neighbors getting mad at you, or things like that. Doesn’t sound like that much, especially as long as your self-righteousness protects you from feeling empathy or compassion for the people you consider wrong.
If you develop empathy for them, you might start feeling regret, though.
The New York Times response:
Bloom: There are situations in which it is important, even imperative, not to obey an unjust law — history is filled with them. But this is not one of them. If you feel the actual law should be different, take it up with your neighborhood council or the Parks Department. But what you are doing is creating an interpretation of the law’s intention in a way that suits you and gives you the opportunity to feel ethical and to act for your own convenience. In my experience, these things don’t often go together.
Appiah: If we all went around defining the purpose of the law in order to tailor its application to suit us, the legal system would soon collapse. We have a general duty to sustain the shared fabric of our common lives, and the law is part of the scheme of cooperation from which we all benefit. So provided this law is not extremely unjust — and as far as I can see, there’s no claim of that sort — I think you ought to go along with it.
Yoshino: I totally agree with you both. I might be trying to get into the park when I see the dog and be chilled from entry. I might also be a passer-by on that particular day and, not being a mind reader, not realize that you, the letter writer, walk your dog only on weekday mornings. That could lead me to not use the park on weekends as well. One reason we surrender our power to the law is that the law solves these collective-action problems. When people defect from those common arrangements, it makes it very hard for us to organize our lives. You are assuming that you can read the minds of the people who promulgated the law, but you’re also asking other people to read your mind and understand that you walk your dog only on weekday mornings. How are they supposed to know that?
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