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, “Dorm Wrecker.”
I’m a woman who lives in an on-campus apartment with three male roommates, one of whom was just nominated to run for president of his fraternity. If he is elected, he will be required to move into the fraternity house. My university’s coed housing policy stipulates that if one of the roommates moves out, the other residents could be split up and forced to live with students of the same sex. At the beginning of the year, we were all on the same page regarding our university’s policies with respect to coed living. Is this roommate ethically obligated to stay in order to prevent this? L. RODRIGUEZ, TROY, N.Y.
My Answer: As if this column didn’t bother with ethics and obligations by themselves, now it’s asking about ethical obligations.
Ms. Rodriguez, you already know there is no absolute measure of what is or is not an ethical obligation. If there was you would have consulted it, answered yourself, and not bothered to write anyone. There isn’t, so you don’t.
What you’re left with is opinion. You’re roommate doesn’t think he has an ethical obligation. So what if some newspaper columnist thinks he does. Do you think that will change your roommate’s opinion?
Instead of arguing about ethical obligations, confusedly thinking you’re not talking about opinion, you can talk to the guy and figure out what you can do about your situation. I recommend looking forward to the future. Maybe you can keep his name on the lease while he lives somewhere else. Maybe you can talk to a housing officer and keep the rest of you together.
People break contracts all the time. You can call people wrong all you want. You can only do what you can do. You still have to figure out what you do afterward. You aren’t going to die, so you might as well figure out how to live as best you can, subject to the limitations of what you can do. Arguing about ethical obligations won’t fill the extra room and keep you together if he leaves.
The New York Times Answer: This is a question of perspective. You ask, Is this roommate ethically obligated to stay in our apartment in order to maintain the status quo? But your housemate could have just as easily written me and asked, Are my roommates ethically obligated to allow me to pursue an opportunity that’s important to me? This, of course, assumes that being president of his frat is important to him and that the experience of moving elsewhere on campus does not entail more than a weekend’s worth of inconvenience for the rest of you. Certainly, these issues must be weighed when making this type of decision.
Even more important is this: Aside from signing a contract, the four of you made an implicit agreement about it (“we were all on the same page”). That might mean you all agreed that you would stick together, regardless of circumstance. Or it might mean that you merely understood that these were the risks of the contract, and that nobody would leave without a valid reason. These are interpersonal issues, subject to interpretation. And so here is what would happen in a perfectly ethical world: The frat boy would politely ask the other three roommates if the agreement you made at the beginning of the year meant that no one would ever break the contract, regardless of the reason. And if the three remaining roommates all agreed that these were, in fact, the absolute terms, then he would be obligated to decline the nomination and stay put. But if even one of the remaining three roommates disagrees — in other words, if anyone else says that he or she always believed unforeseeable circumstances might potentially alter such an agreement — then the frat boy can move out. Because if that were the case, it would mean everyone’s interpretation of the agreement you made about the contract was potentially different.
There’s something else you might also want to consider: On one hand, your roommate’s ambition complicates the lives of three other people, so it seems unfair that three individuals must suffer to satisfy the needs of one. But consider the alternative: You would essentially be forcing a person to live with you against his will. Do you really want to live with someone who doesn’t want to be there? If you value this relationship at all, it’s probably better to let him go where he wants to go, even if that temporarily complicates your own life.
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