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 a take on today’s post,”A Boy Named Dana.”
I have applied over email for internships with several high-tech companies in the Bay Area, and I suspect I have benefited from my potential employers’ incorrectly assuming that I am a woman. Many of these companies actively seek female applicants to balance out the field’s male dominance. Nowhere on my résumé do I state my gender, as that’s not typically done. Do I have an ethical obligation to mention my gender in the email? By refraining from doing so, am I taking advantage of a policy designed to counter social and institutional discrimination against women? Am I receiving some form of cosmic payback for having been given a woman’s name? DANA, CALIFORNIA
My Answer: I have not found taking responsibility for other people’s decisions or emotions helpful in any situation, at least if you haven’t deceived them or prevented them from making an informed decision. They have their criteria for their choices and behavior. You have yours. They make assumptions. You make assumptions. I try to check what assumptions I can that affect my decisions, but I don’t hold other people responsibility for checking my assumptions. I can’t check them all anyway. No one can.
Asking about “ethical obligations” is a red herring. Different people have different values so they’ll have different opinions. If there were an absolute standard you’d use it and get your absolute answer. There isn’t, which is why you don’t. Getting different people’s opinions may make for nice conversation, but even lots of people agreeing doesn’t add up to an absolute answer about obligation.
By the way, if you choose to take responsibility for other people’s decisions and emotions, I suggest that you take responsibility for the arguments and fights I predict you’ll provoke in meddling in other people’s business.
The New York Times Answer: If the internships were designed specifically for women (and if they were advertised as such), you shouldn’t be applying at all. But that doesn’t appear to be the case; these internships are gender-agnostic. Any advantage you might gain doesn’t come from a policy aimed at correcting a gender imbalance in the industry. This is not a systemic overhaul with a clearly outlined motive. You’ve just heard, anecdotally, that tech companies are trying to hire more women. And you suspect they’re lazily looking at applicants’ names and using that as the first criterion for consideration. If this is true — and if these companies subsequently hire interns they didn’t intend to hire — it’s their own fault.
When he was still an unknown comedian, Jamie Foxx (whose real name is Eric Bishop) adopted the stage name Jamie whenever he appeared at open-mike events, based on his belief that clubs tend to call women onstage first. He consciously fabricated a more androgynous name to amplify his career opportunities. But Dana is the name you were assigned at birth. You don’t need to worry about the ethics of being the person you actually are.
I recently attended a real estate auction. I had information about a property I wanted to bid on that I do not believe all bidders had access to. The information would have effectively devalued the property by 10 percent. Would it have been unethical for me to proactively share this knowledge with all bidders so as to improve my chances of winning the bid while, at the same time, helping them to not overpay? BRUCE PELLEGRINO, FAR HILLS, N.J.
My Answer: I can’t see any dilemma here. The only thing I can think of is that you think your benefit must require someone else’s loss. If so, I think you might benefit from looking inside yourself to see why you make that association. Sure, the seller might get less money, but the buyer would get less remorse.
If I asked your question, I’d want someone to look me in the eye, tell me I needed some tough love, and help me learn to understand my values better.
The New York Times Answer: Was your information true, verifiable and relevant? If so, there’s no problem with making it public. Yes, doing so gives you a benefit — but it would also benefit the other bidders and level the playing field. I understand your apprehension, since “doing the right thing” so often means taking on some kind of personal downside. But this is the rare case in which being honest helps both you and your competition. It hurts the people selling the property, but — assuming what you know is accurate — any loss in value is merited.
I live in a fourth-floor condo that faces an office building across the street. What appears to be a small business has recently taken over a third-floor office in that building. In the morning, before the rest of the office has arrived, the assistant, who sits with his back to the window, watches pornography on a rather large computer screen that is visible to me (and presumably other apartments in my building). This alone doesn’t bother me — though I think it’s a bad decision on his part — but I wonder about my neighbors. Should I alert the company as a way of protecting other, possibly under-age, people in my building? NAME WITHHELD, WISCONSIN
My Answer: “Won’t somebody think of the children?!” is the excuse puritanical, holier-than-thou self-righteous meddlers use to meddle in other people’s business.
If you think the guy is breaking the law, tell the cops. It doesn’t sound like the case. Instead, it seems you’re in Wisconsin, writing a journalist in New York to get moral support to talk to a company to report someone doing something legal and doesn’t bother you. I think you might benefit from accepting that others have different values than you and make different choices than you, some of which you don’t like. After you learn to accept this diversity, you might come to celebrate it. I wrote about this in my post “Acceptance and Celebration” and talked about it in my audio post “Audio interview: don’t just accept, celebrate!“
There’s nothing stopping you from telling on this guy. This country has a long history of puritanical, holier-than-thou self-righteousness leading to people telling other people what to do. You have every right to follow in that tradition. I’m not telling you not to. I’m suggesting that learning alternative ways of looking at the situation and reacting might bring you more happiness, emotional reward, and friendship.
The New York Times Answer: This is happening inside a separate building, 30 feet in the air. People have a right to assume their activities are not being monitored just because they happen to be near a window. I realize windows are transparent, but what lies beyond is still a separate existence. There’s no reason to report anything going on here, unless you witness a violent crime or an act that tangibly endangers the public good. A solitary weirdo enjoying pornography before work does not qualify. If you had any reason to believe the man was consciously trying to attract the attention of strangers by doing this, my answer would probably be different. But as it stands, I would classify this as “none of your business.” If you’re worried about the innocent eyes of children, inform any parents who share your street-side view that it’s possible to see glimpses of pornography before 9 a.m. if they stare out the window and across the street. But if that’s your concern, you might also want to remind them to check the browser history on their own computers.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees