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, “Must a Quaker School Care for Its Neighbors?”
A wealthy private school that espouses Quaker values is buying property contiguous to its main campus. On that land is a hospice center and home for Medicaid recipients; residents were reportedly given about 15 months to relocate. Some said they had nowhere to go and were very distressed at the prospect of moving. The facility has apparently been in poor financial condition and was forced to sell. Discussing this story, my friends and I agreed that the school acted in keeping with its educational mission and that the facility’s owners appear to have had little choice. However, a heated discussion ensued as to the ethical obligations of the buyer and the seller with regard to facilitating a harm-free transition for the residents. Some felt that the onus falls entirely on the seller. Others felt that the school should share in smoothing the potential disruption to these people’s lives. What do you think? Name Withheld
My response: Want to know why the discussion got heated? Not because you have different opinions or values. No two people have the same values and opinions on everything, but not everyone gets into heated discussions, so the differences didn’t cause the heat.
I suggest that confusing personal opinions and values with universal right and wrong made the emotions intense. What you wrote about “ethical obligations” looks to me like you’re suggesting an absolute measure of obligation that they have to agree to. No such measure exists. In my experience, the people who claim they know one most get into the biggest fights, implying many people disagree with them.
You wrote that you also talked about what others should or shouldn’t do. Do you like when people tell you what you should do? If you agree, they didn’t need to say it. If you disagree, don’t you feel like they should mind their business, not yours? So here you and your friends are doing things you don’t like when others do.
What did you expect?
I suggest you reconsider your perspective from abstract obligations and what others should or shouldn’t do to the results of people’s actions on others. Then to consider what options people have and to create more. Labeling something as an obligation just confuses opinion with absolute. Figuring out more alternatives that you like more, considering others’ experience, expands your horizons and increases your compassion and empathy.
It’s like saying “That’s a good movie,” or “The President is right on this issue.” If I don’t like the movie or disagree with the President, then it’s difficult for me to talk to you if you say those things. You’ve imposed your values on me. If, instead, you say “I like that movie” or “I agree with the President on this issue,” I don’t feel my values imposed on. I can hear you say what you like or agree with without feeling I have to disagree.
The New York Times response:
‘‘Supererogatory’’ is the marvelously Latinate adjective that philosophers favor for acts that go above and beyond what morality requires. Let’s see if this notion helps explain the dissonance you report.
Here, the beleaguered residents seem to be victims of a troubled enterprise. There’s no reason to think the new owners of the property aren’t entitled to do what they’re doing. Case closed?
Not quite. An educational nonprofit that is explicitly committed to Quaker values might be expected to think about this question within the framework of its distinctive ideals. And those surely include recognizing the worth of doing more than you are obliged to do. The primary duty of the school’s trustees is to run the place as a successful educational institution. This limits what they can responsibly spend for things beyond their remit. But if the institution is wealthy, it has greater latitude. Part of the school’s mission involves teaching certain precepts, and concern for ‘‘the least of these’’ is surely among them. There might even be opportunities for students to play a role in the lives of the residents and to learn about aging and death. Either way, the school might see some educational value in teaching respect for acts of supererogation.
Who knows? Maybe it is already planning to do all these things.
An elderly neighbor ran a stop sign in our village as I was driving through the intersection. Fortunately, she was going only 5 miles per hour, otherwise she could have inflicted grievous bodily harm, because she plowed right into the driver’s door. Of course, she accepted blame for the accident. (‘‘My foot was stuck on the gas pedal’’ was her explanation.) And naturally, her insurance company paid for the damage. Given the number of dents in her car, I assumed the company would probably refuse to insure her after that. I hoped she would give up driving.
Whether or not the company took away her insurance, my neighbor neither sold nor retired her vehicle. A few months after the accident, I saw her car in our village and later that same day saw it parked in her driveway. Do I have an obligation to call the Department of Motor Vehicles, tell it about the accident and ask that my neighbor be submitted to a driving test? What if a child happens to walk across a street and that same neighbor runs a stop sign? If I don’t report her, won’t I be in some way complicit in that child’s injury, or worse?
I was on the verge of calling the D.M.V., but then I asked myself: How would I feel about taking away my neighbor’s mobility in a rural area with no real public transportation? Shouldn’t that be the responsibility of a relative, friend or physician? Do I really want to act as our village policeman? Paul M. Coopersmith, Marin County, Calif.
My response: Obligation? It sounds to me that you want to turn her in and want to avoid responsibility. How simple to get the New York Times to say, “Yes, you have an obligation. Of course you aren’t guilty of minding others’ business. The universal abstract laws of ethics require you to act.”
Nobody knows of any universal laws of ethics. All we have are opinions and everyone on the planet has one.
I suggest you ask yourself why you don’t do what you believe is right for yourself. You might make yourself more consciously aware of the other issues involved that are conflicting you but that you don’t bring up. Specifically, you only mention the harm that could happen if you don’t act. You don’t explicitly say, “Would I be acting like the Church Lady in Saturday Night Live, self-righteously butting into others’ lives, believing I’m right and they’re wrong, unilaterally appealing to authority instead of actually talking to the other person involved?”
I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. I don’t know. You know more than anyone. I’m pointing out that you can resolve your quandary on your own. Not doing so deprives you of learning your values, treating yourself like a child who needs adults to guide his behavior. Thinking for yourself is hard and forces you to take responsibility and hold yourself accountable. When people condemn you, you couldn’t say “But the New York Times said I should.” You’d have to say, “I did what I thought was right and if you disagree then we’ll have to talk it out.”
I’ve found that the benefits to taking responsibility over abdicating it are worth it.
The New York Times response:
Some states — yours is one of them — allow residents to fill out a form, asking, confidentially, that a re-evaluation be given to someone who they believe may not be a safe driver. Assuming that your neighbor is still driving, your D.M.V. may have a competent expert assess her driving ability. If she is deemed unqualified to drive, you will have saved both her and others from the risk of serious harm.
She won’t be grateful, of course, and you’re right that it would be better if someone closer to her intervened. Still, if she does have friends or relatives in the area and she loses her license, they’ll be able to step in to help. If she’s alone, you can hope, not unreasonably, that someone who can afford to keep and insure a car can afford the occasional taxi. And there may be organizations that help people in her situation with travel. You could look into this and mail her some information about the options. That would be a generous act of supererogation.
We have friends who are fairly well off. The husband is an entrepreneur and likes to talk about how much money he makes. Sadly, their son was just found to have a treatable cancer. Despite having insurance and an annual out-of-pocket cap that can’t be more than $13,000, they have started an online fund-raising page and are having multiple fund-raising events to pay their son’s medical expenses. Within a few short weeks, they have raised nearly $30,000.
Is asking people for money to pay for your or your child’s medical care ethical if (a) you could pay for it with little sacrifice and (b) you may raise more money than the care costs you? Name Withheld
My response: Oh brother.
To the New York Times: since your response talks about shame, don’t you feel shame promoting these immature perspective? You could use this platform to promote people maturing, thinking for themselves, caring about others, developing and acting with compassion and empathy.
Instead you indulge their immaturity and not thinking for themselves. You can feel however you want, but I’d feel ashamed of myself with this academic, abstract approach to labeling instead of personal development and growth in learning new ways to approach challenges, conflict, and so on.
The New York Times response:
In the United States, almost no one thinks he’s rich enough. Some fantastically wealthy folks may believe they have sufficient resources, but they usually don’t draw their good fortune to other people’s attention. (O.K., there’s Donald Trump and the Kardashians.) People who make much of the fact that they’re well off are sometimes fronting: They’re not doing as well as they want you to think.
If that’s what’s going on here, what your friend is doing isn’t so awful. What’s awful is that we live in a country where many people, even those with health insurance, are thrown into financial crisis by a medical emergency. There are plenty of countries where this situation couldn’t arise.
Let’s suppose, though, that you’re right, and your friend is not facing a financial emergency. When I see people raising money for medical expenses online, I assume they can pay their bills only with great sacrifice or can’t afford treatment at all. I certainly don’t suppose the money they raise is going to leave them better off than they were before! So, if the situation is as you think, I’ll confirm your suspicion: Your friend is receiving charity under false pretenses. That’s especially shameful because he’s taking advantage of people who are inclined toward … yes, supererogation.
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