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 a take on today’s post,”Can I Shop at Hobby Lobby?”
I am an inveterate crafter — I have a crafting room — but ever since the Hobby Lobby decision, I have studiously avoided its stores despite my deep and abiding love of the place. I know there are some decent retail substitutes out there, but none that can match the giant warehouse of glitter and balsa wood that is Hobby Lobby. Would it be ethical to shop there if I were to make a donation to Planned Parenthood every time I did, sort of like buying ethical carbon offsets? If so, what percentage of my total purchase price should I be donating? NAME WITHHELD, AUSTIN, TEX.
The New York Times’ response:
Amy Bloom: Kenji, do you want to just clarify a little bit why the decision of Hobby Lobby might prompt our letter writer?
Kenji Yoshino: Hobby Lobby is a closely held corporation that has a religious view that it should not have to pay for certain contraception for its employees. This writer is apparently pro-choice or believes that contraception should be paid for by employers. I should also say that the individual has really given a resounding advertisement for Hobby Lobby in talking about it in such fulsome terms.
Bloom: Part of what I would say is please don’t forget Michaels, don’t forget your local independent arts-and-crafts store. And I would say that actively supporting causes that you believe in is part of leading a good and happy life. As much as you love Hobby Lobby, if you feel very strongly about this, don’t shop at Hobby Lobby. Be actively engaged financially and personally with Planned Parenthood.
Jack Shafer: I don’t think that Hobby Lobby is a bad actor — I’m much more pluralistic than the letter writer — but the letter writer, if the heartfelt sense is that Hobby Lobby is a vile and bad actor, needs to boycott the place.
Yoshino: I would just add that we can and probably should take Hobby Lobby out of this and just say that this is a self-assigned ethical stand — but you don’t get out of a self-assigned ethical stand by paying your way out of it. You either take a stand or you don’t take a stand, and that’s up to the letter writer. But don’t pretend that paying your way out of it is going to resolve the issue.
Bloom: This often comes up: Somebody says I want to do this, can I persuade you that this is the ethical stance, and in their heart, people actually know it’s not the ethical stance, but they’re hoping that maybe there is, in a back room somewhere, a highly technical definition of what an ethical stance might be.
Yoshino: The writer intuits that there’s not a way out of this, because the writer asks how much she should give to Planned Parenthood in order to offset going to Hobby Lobby. But this is categorically different from carbon offsets. In the carbon-offset context, there is at least in theory a quantifiable cap of acceptable emissions and then you trade off that so that society in the aggregate doesn’t go above that cap. Here it’s hard to say that there is a quantifiable cap of acceptable unethical behavior: Nobody could objectively say, “This is the amount we’re willing to tolerate.” So we couldn’t come up with a sum of money that the letter writer should donate to Planned Parenthood as an offset.
I live in a small building where everyone has lived for more than 10 years, and we function well together. A woman in one apartment is frightened that a mild-mannered fellow in another apartment is angry with her. More than a year ago, she actually met with and told him about this; he has tried to reassure her that he is not angry. Since that time she has frequently left messages on my answering machine, talking about her worry. She begs me to not tell her husband that she calls me, saying that he gets angry about her fear. I have advised her to see a psychiatrist, and she has. When she told me the neighbor was plotting against her, I advised her to tell her doctor, and she did. She leaves me messages when she is less afraid, telling me her medication has been adjusted and she is feeling better. We never speak, as she is very shy and uncomfortable speaking face to face. She seems totally harmless. I do not tell her husband or the neighbor about her calls or messages. Am I doing the ethical thing by keeping her confidence, or do I have an obligation to tell my other neighbors about her problems? She seems to want only reassurance from me that he is not angry or plotting against her and seems to respond to my texts to her saying this and advising her to speak with a psychiatrist about her fears. NAME WITHHELD
The New York Times’ response:
Yoshino: I don’t see the letter writer as having made any promise to keep this information confidential, so I would go to the husband so long as we don’t suspect abuse. I wouldn’t say, “Go to the man in question,” because it seems like that’s far outside the sphere of intimacy. For all we know, she’s telling the man in that apartment that she’s scared of the letter writer. Talking to the husband is the right way to go, because the woman needs help, so when you think about the quickest way to get her that help, the husband seems to be the person who would be able to provide her with that.
Shafer: When you’re practicing lay therapy, as this letter writer seems to be, it is incumbent upon you to first do no harm, and the letter writer has already gotten way too involved in this person’s personal psychodrama. I would back off and say: “This is not my role to play intermediary between you and your husband. I barely know either one of you, it’s just an accident that we live next to one another, and what you really need to do is talk to your doctor about this.” Really, the highest and most ethical (and difficult) thing to do sometimes is just to turn around and walk away.
Bloom: I would have some concerns about sharing this with the husband, because she says he gets angry. On the other hand, I completely agree with Jack and with Kenji that this is none of the letter writer’s business. Also, I am concerned that the letter writer believes that he or she knows things that in fact it’s not clear to me he or she knows. The writer states, “I told her to go to a psychiatrist, and she did.” How would you know that?
In fact, what you have is her self-report. She says her medicine is helping. Well, that may or may not be true. So it’s entirely possible that the neighbor is using this pseudotherapy relationship as a place to put all of this energy — phone calls, messages, encounters — instead of seeking therapy. And that would be my only inclination toward maybe going to the husband, which is to say: “Listen, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, I know this has been a concern. I am really not the right person, and I hope that you’ll be able to find some way of finding some kind of treatment that is more useful, because I am not the vessel.”
Shafer: Let me shoot one back to you, Amy. If the letter writer promised not to go to the husband and now goes, is that unethical? Because it appears from the tone of the letter that she has given the woman assurances that she will not speak to the husband. If the letter writer does what Kenji says, it seems as if you’re crossing an ethical tripwire here.
Bloom: Well, it’s tough, because the letter writer says, “She begs me not to tell her husband.” And I was going with Kenji’s reading that although the letter writer says that, the promise hasn’t been made.
On the other hand, that is often a way to end this kind of relationship, which is to say: “Mrs. Neighbor, I am so clearly not the person who can help you, and I am very concerned, and the more messages and the more phone calls I get, the more concerned I am. Were they to continue, I would really feel the need to share this with your husband because of my concern for you.”
Shafer: Kenji, we’re going to give you a chance to join the complete and absolute true verdict.
Yoshino: I guess my response would be: How would all of us feel if you did walk away and then something terrible happens? Maybe, Jack, I would be more inclined to agree with you if we were on a blank slate. But this person is already so embroiled that I think the writer needs to redirect that toward a more proper person, and the most likely candidate here is the husband.
Bloom: The letter writer could also say: “Mrs. Neighbor, I am really concerned. I’d like the name of your psychiatrist so that I might contact him.” The doctor doesn’t have to say anything at all except goodbye at the end of the conversation. He or she can receive the information without violating confidentiality in any way.
Yoshino: I love that solution, actually. I’m being persuaded here — that reveals to me that what I really want is some affirmative step. Not just “I’m the wrong person, go away” but rather “I’m the wrong person, let’s get this to the right person.”
This conversation is an edited-and-condensed version of a podcast in which the panelists answer more questions and engage in further debate.
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