Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: What Should I Do About a Nanny Who Drinks?

May 10, 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, ”What Should I Do About a Nanny Who Drinks?


Last April, I hired a woman to take care of my then-8-month-old daughter. The references she gave me all spoke highly of her, though only one family seemed to know her well. Fast-forward three months. I come home one evening, and the nanny is not yet back with my daughter. When she arrives, half an hour late, she is visibly intoxicated and reeks of alcohol. I immediately fire her after getting a verbal admission that she was drinking. I later found out that the nanny was previously fired by another family for being drunk on the job. The nanny lives with her 10-year-old son in my neighborhood, where many people use a local email list to seek out nannies. I know that she responds to these email ads, and I have just found out that she currently has another job with a family, but I don’t know who the family is or how to contact them. My husband does not want me to post anything on our local email list, for fear of retribution. I am losing sleep that this woman is still taking care of children, and I am also worried about her son’s safety. What can I do that does not put my family at risk but does not make me feel complicit? NAME WITHHELD

My response: I’m pleased to find another question not dwelling in judging or labeling. You’re asking for advice for what you can do.

I suggest that the first and most important part to handle is the intensity of your emotions. Losing sleep over the issue will lower your ability to come up with effective solutions and then to implement them. You may be angry and you may be justified, but if you want to help others, you want to be effective.

Since your actions will affect her, if you have effective communication and negotiation skills, talking to her will involve her in solving the problem. It affects her more than it affects you so she has motivation. Not involving her risks making her feel self-righteous and dig in her heels in opposition.

Listening to her also opens you to understanding her motivation. You may feel she has no excuse, but she does have motivation. If you want to influence her, you will be more effective knowing her motivation than not. Guessing at her motivation will likely lower your ability to influence her.

If you think she is dangerous you might feel obliged to tell the police. Only you know where she is relative to that line.

If you don’t think she’s dangerous but you don’t have effective communication and negotiation skills, I would develop them if you have time and find someone else to help you if you don’t. I would still try to involve her in the process if you want her to change her behavior.

If she agrees to change and you accept the solution, you can act like a project manager to hold her accountable to the solution and enable you to sleep. Part of the solution may involve telling everyone in the community of her past problems if she feels that might help her, for example.

If she doesn’t agree, then you have more freedom to act unilaterally, like by researching whom else she may be sitting for. If you act unilaterally before involving her, you wouldn’t have that freedom, at least from my perspective.

The New York Times response:

Kenji Yoshino: Many of the ethical principles implicated here are captured in a famous legal test called the Learned Hand Test, after the eminent jurist. The duty of care relies on a formula that starts with the probability of loss and harm (P) and the gravity of loss (L). The question was whether P multiplied by L was greater than B, the burden to be placed on the defendant to take adequate precautions. The probability of loss here is high, because if the woman has shown up intoxicated on the job at least twice, we might assume that she has issues with alcohol. The gravity of loss arising from an intoxicated caretaker is also high, ranging from everyday negligence to death. So on the first side of the equation, we have a very high value. Whether the burden on the letter writer is high, only the letter writer can say. I would want to know if she is really sure that this woman is going to retaliate. Are there ways to mitigate the risk of retaliation? Can the letter writer go to this woman and have a conversation about how she might be hurting even her own child by not getting help?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: As far as I can see, she has no special information about how this nanny is as a mother and no special reason to think that she’s dangerous to her own children. The children who seem to be at risk here are the letter writer’s own child, through retaliation, and the children who are currently in her care. The question is, does the fact that she knows about this risk impose upon her an ethical burden to do something about it? I would have thought the answer to that question was obviously yes.

There is a cultural attitude here worth making explicit, which is that we all have a suspicion of people who snitch on other people, and we often use it as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility. In this case, the woman is not under an obligation to expose her own family to a high degree of risk, but there must be things she can do. To try and talk to the nanny is not likely to be very helpful, but that’s just a guess. Perhaps make a general suggestion to people on the list that they ought to be checking the bona fides of their nannies. Directly naming the person would expose the letter writer and her family to some risk, so I’d try to avoid that. But that isn’t an excuse for doing nothing. She’s in possession of information that means she can’t do nothing, as her husband apparently wants her to.

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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