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, “Is My Neighbor Obliged to Report Me to Immigration?”
I have recently employed a foreign national from Ukraine as a live-in home health aide to care for my wife, who is in a wheelchair, paralyzed and incontinent. The home health aide’s visa does not allow her to work in this country, and my neighbor found this out. My neighbor feels that she has an ethical responsibility to report me and the aide to immigration services if I do not terminate her employment. The aide is paid at the standard rate and has good living conditions, so there are no other issues. Also, I have tried for one year to get live-in aides from agencies that are acceptable to my wife but have not been successful for various reasons. Obviously, reporting the aide would be a great blow to my family. What do you think is my neighbor’s ethical responsibility in this situation? NAME WITHHELD
My response: What does adulthood mean? Part of adulthood comes through your body physically growing. You also grow mentally. As a child, you know little about the world. You have little experience to base decisions on. As you mature, you learn more how to handle things yourself. At least your greater experience gives you the potential to take responsibility for your actions and perspective on the world.
To ask a third party how to interpret someone else’s behavior implies, to me at least, a lack of perspective. It suggests the person wants to stay like a child, following someone else’s conclusions instead of thinking for themselves.
I can see the appeal. Thinking for yourself means taking responsibility. You could regret your choices. You could feel bad. Following someone else can absolve you of responsibility. If things don’t work out how you want, you can blame your parent or, if you absolve yourself of responsibility to a newspaper columnist or someone else, whomever.
I don’t like the would-be solution of abdicating responsibility because, however much you avoid feeling bad, you also teach yourself helplessness. In this case, you could think for yourself of all the options available to you—building your relationship with your neighbor, coming up with alternative solutions, thinking about the people whose job your aid might be displacing, and so on.
Instead of asking a third party their opinion on abstract concepts of “ethical responsibility,” why don’t you think of what you will do? What does a label matter, anyway? Do you think if a columnist says your neighbor doesn’t have the responsibility she thinks she does that she’ll just give up?
I see plenty of room to develop a relationship with her and to create an outcome everyone likes more.
The New York Times response:
Let’s start with you. Some philosophers have thought that we should be icily impartial, giving equal weight to the concerns of each human being. That has always struck me as just wrong. We are rightly partial when it comes to our near and dear. (And yes, ‘‘partiality’’ — or ‘‘special obligations’’ — is the term philosophers use.) What would human society be like if it were stripped of the warmth and loyalty we feel toward friends and family? In this case, your primary concern is the care of your wife; you’re partial to her and you ought to be.
At the same time, you also have an obligation to our country’s laws. Is that obligation absolute? There are two issues here. First, you can point to outrageous laws that command no such respect: Cue Rosa Parks and the segregation statutes. But the conditions on your health aide’s visa surely don’t rise to this level. And unlike state and local governments in the Jim Crow-era South, which kept whole swaths of the citizenry from voting, the federal government has a fair claim to legitimacy. If you find immigration rules to be badly drafted and lacking in wisdom, you can push for reform. The second issue is that, even if a law is just, you may have special obligations to weigh in the balance. It’s wrong to steal a loaf of bread. But here’s Jean Valjean with those starving children to take care of. You’d have to be Inspector Javert not to cut him some slack.
It’s generally wrong to break this law, then. Yet you’ve understandably concluded that your duties to your paralyzed wife trump your duties to immigration rules. And who could be so coldhearted as to blame you?
Your neighbor, it seems. Such a law-abiding soul. Your duty to your wife carries great weight; what about the countervailing responsibility your sharp-eyed neighbor feels to call the feds? Clearly, she’s no friend of yours, and, standing outside the web of partiality, she’s perfectly entitled to inform on you. That doesn’t mean she has a moral duty to run to earth every infraction she happens to know about, like Inspector Javert. Few people would want to live in a world of interfering busybodies, snooping on and reporting their neighbors. She probably wouldn’t, either. So she’s wrong to think that she’s obliged to snitch. If she’s eager to do the right thing, you might remind her that a little human compassion seldom goes awry.
Someone I know through friends is applying for a job at my organization. Unfortunately, she has developed quite the reputation for lasting mere weeks, sometimes days, at previous jobs. She doesn’t get fired; typically, she quits. Perhaps it’s boredom; perhaps it’s that working a day job is naturally beneath her, an aspiring filmmaker. Two years after her last major partner left her because of her inability to hold a job and take it seriously, rumor has it that she has begun to feel shame and might buckle down this time. However, as she applied for the post at my workplace, she asked a mutual friend what it is that we do anyway, and on the day of the interview, she showed up 30 minutes late, incorrectly taking as our address the one listed on Facebook for a public event we’d held last month. The particular position she is seeking is prone to turnover because of the cyclic nature of the work (editing reports that are produced only every few months). Do I have an obligation to my bosses to inform them of her reputation, or is my duty to this acquaintance — to not get in the way of her landing the job? NAME WITHHELD
My response: You spend three-quarters of a message putting her down. If she deserves what you say, she’ll leave or the company will kick her out soon. If she doesn’t things will work out.
Why are you asking about obligations and duties? Why can’t you decide for yourself what you want to do? Why don’t you talk to the people involved instead of a columnist who doesn’t know anyone involved?
Do you feel like if the Times tells you that you have a duty or obligation one way or the other, then you won’t be responsible for your actions? Like if your company or this applicant get mad at you, you can say, “It’s not my fault. I had an obligation. The New York Times backs me up!”? Do you think they’ll read the response and say, “Well, the Times did back you up, I guess I have no problem with you, then.”?
At what point in life do you plan to take responsibility for your actions, and taking up the struggle of creating options and deciding for yourself? I recommend starting as soon as you can. It may look scary and you’ll make mistakes that hurt, but in the long run, you’ll probably enjoy life more.
The New York Times response:
Once again, the issue of partiality rears its head. There are indeed things you owe people because of your relationships with them — friends, family, employers — and these demands can sometimes pull you in opposing directions. So you ask the right question. Does what you owe this applicant outweigh what you owe your boss?
Well, no. If this were a close friend, you might have reason for reluctance. But the applicant is no more than an acquaintance, not someone with whom you have an important relationship. And you owe something not only to your boss but also to your fellow workers, namely, not to saddle them with the burden of a hopeless colleague. Your position is different from that of the neighbor, who, I said, has no special duty to enforce the law. You do have a special duty to your company.
Even if you did owe this acquaintance something, the evidence suggests she’s not reformed and wouldn’t work out well at your company. Finally, given the way she behaved on the day of the job interview, your employer has plenty of reason to doubt her reliability. So there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be keeping her from getting the job anyway. And learning to be less lackadaisical could prove valuable to her. As an aspiring filmmaker, she’s in pursuit of one of the most demanding and detail-oriented vocations imaginable. Come to think of it, could there be a reason she’s still just aspiring?
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees