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, “Can I Wear Jewelry If I Don’t Support Its Origins?”
When my mother passed away, I inherited an antique necklace made of carved ivory beads. I love the look of — and am sentimentally tied to — this necklace, but I am also a supporter of anti-poaching programs and organizations. I have avoided wearing the necklace because I don’t want to appear to support the ivory trade. On the other hand, I hate not being able to wear one of the few pieces of jewelry that I have from my mother. What should I do with the necklace? J. F., TUSTIN, CALIF.
My response: “What should I do?”
Sigh. Back to the juvenile questions.
If this writer is under eighteen years old, or thereabouts, I could understand why she (assuming a daughter is asking about wearing her mother’s jewelry and not a son), having lost her mother is asking others to help her make sense of the world. Children haven’t had that much experience and are still developing. Parents can help instill values in their children.
If she is over eighteen, which looks likely, answering a question like “what should I do?” would seem to reinforce a juvenile perspective of asking others to tell her her values.
The natural response to me seems, “Well, what do you think you should do? What resources do you have to guide your decision? Have you made decisions before? What of your experience can you apply here?” Things like that. These questions don’t give the answer the writer was looking for, but they can help an adult learn to think and act like a mature person.
I don’t know why the New York Times Ethicist column keeps answering and supporting this immature behavior. I guess it brings readers.
Since we’re not in person to have a dialogue, I’ll volunteer that I would answer that the main two questions I see to guide me are 1) if wearing the necklace would promote the trade as feared and 2) would I be comfortable myself with wearing something resulting from a practice I opposed.
The second question you can answer without anyone else’s input. In fact, no one else can answer it for you.
The first question you could research. I don’t think New York Times columnists are a particularly effective place to start. I don’t think you could answer it definitively. They’ll probably just decide on a label to attach to your behavior, like right, wrong, ethical, not ethical, etc.
Personally, I’d focus on the second question. You can tackle it yourself and will likely learn about yourself in the process. How do you feel, independent of anyone else? Answer that, behave consistently, and you’ll develop integrity, no matter what your answer.
The New York Times response:
Kwame Anthony Appiah: I’m a bit puzzled about why wearing an antique ivory necklace involves appearing to support the ivory trade. If it’s antique, then the ivory was taken before restrictions on ivory were imposed. Of course, the reason ivory exists is that somebody killed an elephant to be used in this decorative way. Somewhere in the chain, there’s likely to be a moment when something rather awful happened. But I don’t think that you’re contributing to that wrong in the present by wearing this antique necklace.
Amy Bloom: Any antique jewelry, with or without stones, was likely to have been made under conditions that would make a decent person shudder. If the necklace was made before any trade ban, you’re not supporting those terrible conditions now. The other thing this question made me think about is people who criticize you for wearing ivory. There’s that wish that people have to comment on other people’s choices, whether or not they have the necessary information. It doesn’t seem to me that intrusive self-righteousness qualifies as ethical behavior, either. I would very much encourage you to wear the necklace and enjoy the feeling of closeness to your mother. Most of what I have from my mother is a couple of rings and a couple of necklaces, and I’m sure those pieces were not made in a charming, well-lit atelier. I’m still going to wear them. Ethical behavior does not consist of accosting people at cocktail parties about what they’re wearing.
Kenji Yoshino: I found myself more conflicted about this question than either of you appear to be. The letter writer fears that she will look like she is supporting the ivory trade if she is seen wearing the necklace. I do think that this is a real possibility. In an ideal world, any person who interprets her behavior that way would raise the issue (civilly, of course), and she would be able to explain her position. But for each one of those individuals, there will be many who misinterpret her behavior and don’t challenge her on it. What do we owe those individuals? I am not encouraging her to sell the necklace, but I did wonder if the wiser course might be to enjoy the necklace in private and not wear it in public.
Bloom: I cannot imagine spending your life getting invested in the opinions of people who are standing there judging you, silently or aloud.
Appiah: It would be O.K. to care about those judgments if they were correct. But given that they’re incorrect, and given that making this incorrect judgment isn’t going to lead these people to do anything terrible to elephants, it seems to me that your responsibility to these people is discharged if you tell them the truth, which is that wearing these beads doesn’t contribute in any way either to the thought that it’s O.K. to kill elephants now or to the actual trade in modern ivory.
Yoshino: Is that true, though? I agree that the incorrect beliefs of others should not guide our own ethical decision-making. My concern is that not all the beliefs of others in this instance may be incorrect. By wearing this ivory necklace, the letter writer is signaling to the world that ivory is still a luxury good, that it is something to be prized and admired. By wearing the necklace, she may encourage others to engage in unethical behavior — that is, participation in the modern ivory trade.
Appiah: If I thought that the wearing of this necklace in the community in which it will be worn would encourage people to go out looking for modern ivory, I would worry a bit. But you’re not responsible for thoughts that other people have that are a result of misinterpreting what you’re doing unless that misinterpretation is a natural one. This is an antique necklace — it’s a mistake to infer from it that it’s O.K. to go on treating elephants in the awful ways that are required to get ivory.
Yoshino: Assuming that you are correct — that there will be no natural confusion between antique and modern ivory — I would be persuaded that the letter writer could ethically wear the necklace in public. If other people engage her in conversation about it, that’s great. If they don’t, that would be their issue, not hers.
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