Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of oneâ€™s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on todayâ€™s post,”Can I Ask My Neighbors to Quiet Their Baby?“
A couple downstairs has started letting their baby cry it out. Having no kids myself, I donâ€™t know if this is a valid parenting strategy. What I do know is that it kept me up for an hour at 2 a.m. last night and has woken me up several times this week. Is it within my rights to talk to them about it? J.B., BROOKLYN
My Answer: I get that The Ethicist column isn’t in the New York Times to teach people ethics or legal rights. I guess they figure it would bore people. I suspect their goal is to give people something to read and chat about over Sunday morning coffee. I can’t argue with that goal. The front page of the paper can get so heavy, so they probably want contrast.
Still, you’d think one major point of the column would be to help people live more the way they consider right. This column adopts a fundamental perspective that it can answer better than others what’s right or wrong. Over and over it publishes letters of people asking what’s ethical, what someone’s obligation is, what they should do. Every time it answers without addressing the fundamental perspective that the reader can answer as well as anyone.
Implying to someone “I can answer your question about ethics better than you can” treats them like an infant and holds them back from learning and growing on their own. Figuring out answers for yourself is a struggle, but once you get past the first realization that no absolute measure of obligation and ethics exists, your learning and growing qualitatively changes to look to your experience, interactions with others, emotions, and all these other places instead of a newspaper columnist or other outside source.
Your ultimate source for answers on ethics and obligation is your own empathy and compassion. These questions are all rooted in your relationships with others and yourself, which are rooted in your emotions and behavior. Accepting the perspective that one person has greater authority or access to ethical knowledge keeps you asking questions instead that you never answer instead of answering questions, however much you have to struggle.
This column answering questions accepting that perspective leads people away from self-discovery, discovering and developing empathy and compassion, considering the consequences of their actions, knowing thyself, examining their lives, and so on. This perspective impedes your growth.
The column doesn’t have to abandon compelling writing to abandon that perspective.
Anyway, to address this person’s infantile question, you can best learn your legal rights from a lawyer. Most lawyers will give you an hour free consultation and this question will take less than an hour to answer. But any lay person knows you have the right to talk to someone about this. You may want to ask yourself why you asked such a misguided question. Your issue isn’t to know your rights but to sleep more.
If you had asked about how to get more sleep, you’d find asking about your rights a minor issue. The bigger one is how to reduce noise. I recommend talking to them, creating a relationship, and trying to find a mutually acceptable solution. Not talking to them seems a consequence of the perspective I described above, that it creates dependence and weakness instead of self-reliance and strength.
Amy Bloom: Well, I love that the only ethical question we are being asked to answer is, Is it within my rights to talk to them about it? Which strikes me as a very sweet approach.
Jack Shafer: Yes, I think itâ€™s fine to approach them, but I want to know how the letter writer knows that the parents are letting the baby cry it out. That indicates to me that he has already talked to them. If theyâ€™ve already had a discussion, I would say advance that discussion. If they havenâ€™t, I would approach them very gingerly, perhaps bring a gift for the baby, knock on the door and say, â€œOh, I hear your baby has had trouble sleeping, and I thought that this little cuddly might help.â€
People are suckers when you give their babies a present.
Kenji Yoshino: I was troubled by â€œhaving no kids myself, I donâ€™t know if this is a valid parenting strategy.â€ If you really care about this, then just use Google and figure out that this is a very common and valid method.
The other thing that troubled me about the letter writer â€” not to pile on â€” was â€œthis kept me up for an hour last night and has woken me up several times this week.â€ How long has this been going on, exactly? If this is just a matter of a week or two while this child learns to self-soothe, thatâ€™s one thing. If it looks as if itâ€™s going to be a colicky stretch of months and months, that might be a different thing. I am left wondering whether or not this person has done his or her diligence.
That said, it may be that these neighbors who are Ferberizing their baby donâ€™t know you are bothered. So Jackâ€™s approach would be a beautiful way to open up the conversation that puts them on notice if there is some kind of help that they can engage in, like moving the crib to a different room or something that you can work out together. There might be a very easy, happy solution here.
Shafer: I donâ€™t want to be tagged as a softy on this one. If the gift and the direct approach donâ€™t work, call the landlord and complain. You have a right to tell your neighbors that they have an ethical responsibility to you as a neighbor to control the noise, whether itâ€™s a baby or a rock band playing in their apartment at 2 a.m. I would escalate, but I would escalate slowly.
Bloom: The option of escalation is always there. I also suggest that since the letter writer describes the couple as being downstairs, itâ€™s hard to imagine that the person upstairs has never made a lot of noise that has bothered the people downstairs. This is the way in which the ethical responsibility goes both ways.
But I donâ€™t think you can go wrong going downstairs with a little gift and saying, â€œCongratulations on the new baby, and I wonder if thereâ€™s any way that we could make this better?â€ Certainly it seems possible to me that the solution is to move the crib and get a pair of earplugs.
If that doesnâ€™t work, if youâ€™re in for a stretch of colic, you have to decide what kind of neighbor you want to be. Iâ€™m not sure the landlord can make people move because they have a colicky baby, so Iâ€™m not sure where thatâ€™s going to get you in the end â€” except, of course, making your downstairs neighbors feel very distressed and probably very quick to pick up the phone when you are thumping around in your Cuban-heeled boots.
Yoshino: In some ways what weâ€™re all saying is that you could either make friends for life if you approach it in a way that you and Jack have articulated, or it could go really, really badly if you frame it as a noise disturbance like playing your stereo too loudly and you must stop.
Shafer: We agree: Speak softly and carry a stuffed animal.
Yoshino: Speak softly and carry an even softer animal.
I had some work done on my home by a contractor. He didnâ€™t bill me. I called the company, asked for the bill and offered to pay on the spot with my credit-card number. The person answering the phone declined and said that he would tell the owner of the business, who would get back to me. No one did. How many times should I ask a company to be billed? N.M., COLUMBUS, OHIO
My Answer: Another misguided question adopting the perspective I described above. Instead of asking someone else what you should do, why not consider your choices and their consequences? Then you can answer for yourself, which will make you more able to solve such problems in the future.
While getting others’ opinions can help, you must have learned by now that asking people with relevant experience will help most, much more than just from ability to write well enough to get a column in the New York Times—a hugely respectable qualification, but not that relevant for billing issues.
What are the issues? You want to balance your budget and save money. You don’t want to think you don’t have to pay and then some time in the future find yourself on the hook after you spent the money.
Your best bet is likely to talk to someone with experience working with contractors, maybe an accountant. It seems to me that getting something in writing will protect you best in case of legal problems. In other words, the quantity of requests probably matters less than the quality. In the meantime, not spending the money for a while will probably help.
The New York Times Answer follows in conversation form again:
Bloom: I certainly appreciate the effort on the part of this person.
Shafer: Well, I think this person is probably a knucklehead. Trying to pay your bill once doesnâ€™t absolve you of the responsibility to pay your bill. You keep on doing this for weeks. You do it for months. You imagine if you were the contractor and how you would want your customers to hold up their end of the bargain by paying their bill.
Bloom: Wow. I think that is a high bar of ethical behavior. Iâ€™m really interested to see what Kenji has to say about it.
Yoshino: Kenji is feeling like a terrible person right now, because I have a very different intuition. I take a kind of legalistic approach. Iâ€™ve signed lots of contracts that have said, â€œIf you donâ€™t invoice us for this lecture that youâ€™re giving within 90 days, we donâ€™t have to pay you.â€ The responsibility for invoicing is on the part of the contractor. The letter writer probably has the obligation to write to the owner of the business directly and say, â€œLook, I tried to pay this bill, but you need to invoice me.â€
The reason I feel like a bad person is from not wanting this contractor to come back and say, â€œYou didnâ€™t pay this, you have no proof that you tried to pay it and now weâ€™re going to slap you with a bunch of interest.â€ So I was thinking more defensively. I think that the ethical duty lies with the contractor to invoice properly.
Bloom: It seems to me that the ethical duty would lie with both people. I do feel that Jackâ€™s idea that you would make the phone call weekly and even monthly until they finally send you an invoice seems to be beyond ethical. I would send an email or even a certified letter to the company saying, â€œI would like to pay your bill, I have not received an invoice.â€
Shafer: You seem like deadbeats, you seem like bill evaders. Iâ€™m totally with Kenji about the legal issue, but this is not a courtroom proceeding. Weâ€™re asking what is the ethical thing to do. Imagine if the person who answered the phone was the janitor who just picked up the phone and said, â€œNah, I canâ€™t take that informationâ€ and didnâ€™t identify himself as the janitor. I donâ€™t think that itâ€™s ethical to accept the goods or services from somebody, promise to pay the bill and â€” based on calling once for a bill and not getting it â€” say: â€œHey, Iâ€™ve done my part. Iâ€™ve done my legal part. Itâ€™s up to them to bill me.â€ I differ with both of you.
This conversation above is an edited and condensed version of a podcast in which the panelists answer more questions and engage in further lively debate. To hear the full podcast, visit our website or search for The Ethicists on iTunes.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees