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, ”Do I Have to Tell About a Co-Worker’s Rape?”
My first job out of college was at a major political campaign. Late in the year, an intern told me she had been raped by one of my colleagues and that campaign higher-ups made the problem go away. I’m not sure what that means, but the police weren’t involved, nothing made the news, all the people involved kept their jobs. To my knowledge, this young woman told me and one other colleague. I kept the secret to myself for the last seven years until the other night. I let slip to a journalist friend the very basics of what happened, and now I’m being asked for contacts who can confirm that it happened. The candidate I worked for is running again. I still support the candidate, and I do not want the opponent in office. On the other hand, I am aghast that the organization would cover up such a heinous crime. I’m ashamed of myself for not saying anything at the time. Thinking about it makes me feel physically ill. Do I have any obligation to disclose information to this journalist friend? Would I be doing right for the country? For the victim? I signed a nondisclosure agreement when I went to work for the campaign — would leaking information about this to the press put me in any potential legal trouble? NAME WITHHELD
My response: While what the intern described is horrible, the structure of the questions is as immature as most of the letters the New York Times chooses to respond to.
First, regarding the law and agreements you signed, only a trained lawyer can answer.
Regarding what you share with journalists or anyone else, what conceivable obligation could there be?
Somebody shared personal information with you. Why aren’t you talking to her? Don’t you see that she is the one most affected by what you tell the world about her? Why would you ask the New York Times for what affects her more than anyone else? For that matter, accused people have rights, you don’t have any evidence, nor, by your account, do you understand what happened, and publicizing something based on one person’s word could hurt yourself and others. Police are trained to handle such situations.
Regarding doing “right for the country,” instead of asking a closed question, why not ask an open question like “How would my actions affect my country?” and use your imagination to answer yourself? You are as much a part of the country as anyone else and the country is made up of the behavior of everyone in it.
Instead of looking at ethics and obligation as some abstract absolute set of rules—existing in a book in the sky perhaps?—that takes away power from you and pushes you to look for answers in authority, you can take responsibility your actions. That forces you to think about their consequences to other people. It’s hard but it gives you power to think for yourself and act independently instead of following authority. I recommend it.
Regarding the intensity of your emotions, I recommend reading my posts “Why people flip out (including yourself) and what to do about it” and “How not to lose your composure: Rational Emotion“.
The New York Times response:
Kenji Yoshino: In general, nondisclosure agreements cannot be used to impede the disclosure of criminal activity, so that feels like a side issue. The major issue here is “too little, too late.” The time to intervene would have been seven years ago. Even then, it would have been the intern’s story to tell, not yours. So I find myself wondering why you are aghast and sleepless now rather than seven years ago. To put it more kindly, I don’t think that you must or should do anything now other than approach the intern herself to ask whether she would like to make the story public.
Kwame Anthony Appiah: Look, when people feel they can’t sleep and feel sick, that’s a sign: That’s one of the ways in which we know that we’re in moral trouble. It is clear that something went badly wrong here, but what went badly wrong happened a long time ago. Now that you’ve revealed something to a journalist seven years later, you are responsible for doing what you were responsible for doing at the start, which is talking to the woman in question and asking her what she thinks ought to be done. People have a right not to have these sorts of episodes in their lives thrown into the glare of a political campaign. You may or may not agree with her, but I don’t think you have the right to overrule her judgment.
Amy Bloom: Also, although I appreciate the letter writer feeling ashamed for not saying anything at the time, I think he or she ought to be ashamed for saying something now to a journalist friend without permission. The intern didn’t say, “I’m going to tell you this, and I hope whenever it suits you in the course of a conversation you share this with a journalist.” I realize that she didn’t forbid that — or at least we don’t know that she did — but the thing that’s wrong now is that the letter writer brought it up.
Yoshino: I really hope this journalist friend can be prevailed upon not to make this story public unless and until the intern makes it known that she wishes to make it public.
Appiah: When you tell a journalist something, you’re no longer in control of the story. It would be wrong for the journalist not to pursue something that may turn out to be of genuine public interest and significance, so there’s nothing wrong with your friend’s feeling, as a journalist, that he or she has to get on with this. But that problem arose because you put the journalist in a position to follow up on the story.
Yoshino: The only question we haven’t answered is: “Would I be doing right for the country?” A lot depends on whether the candidate knew or should have known of the alleged rape and then did nothing. It could be that the candidate knew and did do something about which you are unaware. Alternatively, the candidate may not have known, may have had no reason to have known.
Appiah: One reason we don’t have the right to settle this question is that you haven’t consulted the woman. But another is that you have absolutely no idea what happened. You don’t know, for example, whether this woman is actually telling the truth. This is an allegation you’ve heard in a conversation with the person.
Bloom: The ethical thing would have been to have never brought this up. Now, having brought it up, you can hope that it doesn’t get pursued and let the young woman know that you made this terrible breach.
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