Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: You’re Going to Sell Your Home. Should You Mention the Snakes?

July 3, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “You’re Going to Sell Your Home. Should You Mention the Snakes?


We live in a large house on a one-acre plot, and one-quarter of that is a wooded ravine, full of wildlife like deer, raccoons, the occasional woodchuck, possum or even fox — and quite a few copperhead snakes.

We have lived here for 45 years. I see one to three snakes a year. They are not aggressive, and you learn to take precautions. Nevertheless, I have been bitten, as have several neighbors. They can show up in the backyard, in the driveway or in the gardens. Once, I found one lying across the threshold of my front door.

We will have to sell in a few years. I am very worried about the snake problem. Suppose someone with small children wanted to buy the house? I cannot imagine anyone wanting to buy if they knew there were poisonous snakes nearby. I doubt any real estate agent would appreciate my informing prospective buyers of this. I thought of sending anonymous warning notes (very cowardly). Of course, if a potential buyer asks me directly about wildlife, I will mention the snakes (I think). Name Withheld

My response: I see only one question mark in your note, which looks like a rhetorical question, so I’m not sure what your question is, if any, or if you’re just voicing confusion. Houses with snakes have been around been around for thousands of years. Snakes have been around before humans. The issues you alluded have been handled. Talk to people in the business—lawyers, brokers, and maybe snake handlers.

I’m not sure why you’re writing an ethics column. I think you’re confusing your inexperience selling houses with morals and ethics.

The New York Times response:

Scruples like yours help explain why real estate agents don’t like to have the sellers around when they bring in prospective buyers. The snakes themselves are sure to keep better hidden. Because the North American copperhead is so well camouflaged, experts say, it will often freeze, rather than flee, when approached. The strategy usually ends well for all concerned, but not always. It’s that whole “don’t tread on me” thing.

Your lawyer or real estate agent would be able to tell you whether you have a legal duty in your state to reveal the facts that you have told me. As a moral matter, though, you ought to mention these snakes to anyone who is serious about the property; you know they would want to know. If you’re wavering in your resolve, ask yourself how you would feel if you learned, after you sold your place, that the buyer’s child had been hospitalized from a copperhead bite.

Rational, informed buyers shouldn’t automatically avoid your property, so long as you give them all the relevant facts. For one thing, the copperhead’s bite is considered mild, as venomous bites go; it’s virtually never life-threatening, although the risks are greater for children and the elderly. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that only about five Americans die of snakebites of any kind each year. We’re in far greater danger of being electrocuted by our Christmas lights, asphyxiated by dry-cleaning bags or stung to death by bees.

And the risk of being bitten in your yard is pretty small. How often have you been bitten over the last 45 years? All these facts, along with information on how to discourage these snakes, what to avoid doing (picking up logs in your ravine) and what to do if bitten, should reassure rational buyers. You’ll be warning people of a very low-risk possibility, and in so doing, you’ll help to make the risks even lower.

I’ll grant, however, that it may be easier for me to talk about a rational buyer than for you to find one. These slithery reptiles somehow have a special grip on our fear centers. There’s a reason they never made a movie called “Bees on a Plane.”

A few years ago I reconnected with and befriended a former high-school acquaintance. She has very strong and sometimes very different opinions from mine (especially when it comes to service providers and restaurants and things like that).

I referred her to one of my doctors who has an excellent reputation and has repeatedly given me excellent care over many years. My friend went to this doctor for a minor operation. After the procedure, she has repeatedly and vehemently slandered him to me, saying he punctured her uterus and misread or ignored ultrasounds. I suspect (from how she finds fault and forms strong negative opinions in other areas) that these are her mistaken conclusions, and there is no proof of her assertions of malpractice. Or she may be correct.

I would like to know what the doctor’s version of this is, and I wonder if my friend’s claims constitute slander. I’ve told her that it’s best we do not discuss this as my opinion and experience with this doctor are the opposite of hers. Should I leave it alone or say anything to my doctor? Name Withheld

My response: When I stopped eating meat I found that everyone wanted to tell me I should eat meat and argued with me about the ethics and morals of eating habits. Now no one does. The world didn’t change in the meantime—I mean, more people may be vegetarian than in 1990, but it’s still a small number. What changed is that I learned that I was communicating in ways that provoked the arguments. When I learned not to be confrontational, I stopped getting confrontations.

I since learned how to lead conversations to topics and moods I appreciated and away from ones I didn’t. People still disagree with me, but I value the conversations more. The result is more diverse people in my life speaking about more diverse topics with less anger.

I see the issue as your communicating in ways that motivate your friend to share in ways that make your life worse. I’m not saying her behavior is your responsibility, but you can influence her. You can’t change that she will disagree with you but you can influence what she shares with you and how. I suspect your reactions to her are prompting her to keep provoking you. For example, her getting a rise out of you will give her a sense of importance and emotional reward, which will motivate her to provoke you more. Also you telling her what’s “best” to discuss imposes your values on her on something important to her. As I’ve written before, judging doesn’t annoy people. Imposing values on others does. No one likes to take their values being dismissed passively.

I suggest learning to communicate without her getting a rise out of you. She and her doctor are adults and can handle their issues without you.

The New York Times response:

Your doctor has obligations of confidentiality to your friend that rule out his discussing with you what happened. She, on the other hand, is free to reveal what happened to whomever she chooses, though not to damage the doctor’s reputation with untruths. You seem to think that she is often mistaken in the judgments she voices about the services others provide. In this case, she’s effectively saying she was the victim of serious malpractice. Furthermore, believing it happened when it didn’t would require either a considerable capacity for fantasy or a serious misunderstanding of what she was told. Yet you are skeptical. That suggests you think that for some reason she may enjoy telling this story even though she knows it isn’t true.

Because you put her in touch with the doctor, and because you think she is prone to what you consider unwarranted criticism, you feel you have some responsibility for the (possibly unjustified) damage she is doing to his reputation. Now you’re caught between your relationship with a doctor whom you trust and a friend whom you don’t.

Why not tell your friend that you feel obliged to bring up the issue with your doctor? (Even though he won’t be able to discuss it with you.) That’s consistent with friendship. If you believed her, after all, you would have reason to confront your doctor with the charges and express your concern. If your friend has been less than truthful, your plan may encourage her to backtrack.

I’m a white, male middle manager in a consulting firm in Asia. I have a few junior staff members, about half male and half female. As you may be aware, white men in this part of the world have a reputation as incorrigible lechers, mostly for good reason.

I’m happily married and have no interest in sleeping with my junior female employees, and though I haven’t explicitly told them that (it would seem weird, no?), I have tried to communicate that through the way I act in general.

Mentorship is really important to career development in this business, and I’m conscious of trying to offer equal time to male and female employees in my mentoring of them. I’m also conscious of the fact that certain one-on-one things that I can do easily with male staff members range from difficult (after-work dinners or drinks) to pretty much impossible (overnight business trips) with their female counterparts. Even if I am able to convince my staff that my motives are pure, others’ expectations could make things uncom­fortable for them.

It really is just easier to mentor the men, but there are already so many more men in management. Taking the easy route perpetuates male dominance over power structures. How can I be part of the solution? Name Withheld

My response: “White men in this part of the world have a reputation as incorrigible lechers, mostly for good reason”? You said you are in Asia, so “this part of the world” means over four billion people. I’m not aware that four billion people think white men are incorrigible lechers. And what “good reason” are you talking about?

Maybe all white men are incorrigible lechers, or even just enough to give the rest a reputation, but your view sounds like belief filtering perception to reinforce itself, becoming orthodoxy. I think you may want to consider if the key person that thinks white men are incorrigible lechers with good reason is yourself. With that belief, you’re liable to see incorrigible lechery in white men everywhere. With a different belief—say that being white and male doesn’t make someone any more incorrigibly lecherous than being non-white or non-male—you will see different patterns.

Since you have the most insight into yourself—a white male—I wonder if you have inner conflicts you aren’t comfortable with. Maybe I’m extrapolating too far, but you believing there are good reasons to believe white men are incorrigibly lecherous, and you know yourself best, suggests you believe yourself incorrigibly lecherous. Believing all white men are that way would excuse yourself and deflect feelings of guilt—“It’s not me, it’s just because I’m a white male and can’t help it”—but at the costs of judging all other white men and of abdicating your ability to do anything about it—trading guilt for claimed helplessness.

I think you should be able to find ways to mentor all people without looking like an incorrigible lecher. If you are an incorrigible lecher, or are close enough that others may confuse you, your problems may be greater than a newspaper column can resolve.

The New York Times response:

I’m not going to be much use with tips, alas, but the sorts of events you mention — after-work dinners, drinks, trips — are things that you don’t have to do one on one, and they can involve mentoring regardless. Bear in mind, though, that most mentoring takes place in the office; it doesn’t have to involve activities that show up on your travel-and-entertainment account. You say you have “a few” junior employees: You have time to make sure that all of them, women and men, get the guidance that your greater experience allows you to give and the endorsements that move the good ones higher.

Sheryl Sandberg, who notes (and shares) the widespread perception that women have a harder time finding mentors than men do, says that employees are selected as protégés on the basis of their performance and potential. Mentoring is, in part, talent scouting. So if the concern is fairness in female advancement, we might think beyond the mentoring model. Treating the women on your team respectfully all the time is probably the most important thing you can do. It will make it easier for them to focus on doing the best job they can. Some of the women will outperform some of the men, and you’ll be able to report that in their reviews and in your informal discussions with your fellow executives. There’s more than one way to climb a ladder.

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