Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Must I Pretend to Like My Artist Friend’s Work?

December 20, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

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, “Must I Pretend to Like My Artist Friend’s Work?


A good friend of ours is an aspiring painter. Recently she held an exhibition at her studio of her latest efforts. We love her, but we’re not fans of her art, which is definitely a work in progress. She invited us to her ‘‘party,’’ but we knew that if we attended, we’d be expected to buy one of her paintings, which cost a few hundred dollars each. She’s struggling and could use the money, but here’s our question: Are we obliged, out of friendship or sympathy, to buy art from her even if we have no interest in it? Name Withheld

My response: No.

As usual, treating feelings like obligation as abstractions, as if there were some objective measure of obligation in some book in the sky, distracts you from thinking about what you would do and the results of what you do to others. In other words, it distracts you from compassion, empathy, and creating more options.

I recommend, instead of asking third parties if you have an obligation, ask what options you have, what more options you can create and how doing them affect others.

Some new options that come to mind for me: you could encourage her in other ways, you could bring someone else who might buy, connect her with other artists who could help her, tell her what’s holding you back from buying the art to help give her direction, tell her “I’d like to come to support you but not if attending obliges me to buy something,” ask her “does attending mean I have to buy something?”, find something else to do in that time that she would understand to be a higher priority, help her learn something that may support her better, and so on.

It’s your relationship. You know her, yourself, and what results you can expect. Instead of asking third parties like newspaper columnists to judge you, why don’t you think of how you can take initiative and think of what you can do?

The New York Times response:

Friendship and sympathy might make you want to help her, but they don’t oblige you to pretend to admire her paintings. Indeed, if she’s struggling, it may be because no one is a fan of her art — and she may never progress to the point where she’s making a living from it. Buying art and suggesting you think it’s good denies her the feedback she needs to make a reasonable decision. In this respect, false support may not be so very friendly or sympathetic.

That’s not to say you should trample on her self-regard with hobnailed boots; you can be gentle as well as honest. And certainly there’s no reason to go further and express doubts about her career prospects as an artist. You weren’t asked, and (I’m guessing) you’re not an art expert. Besides, if you did tell her exactly what you think, she might not continue to be your friend.

My wife has worked in a specific niche of health care for more than 10 years for the worst supervisor imaginable. Recently, she applied for a parallel job from another local provider. When she interviewed, she was struck by the civility of this potential new work environment.

Her present employer hired someone new about a year ago who is 15 years younger than my wife chronologically and even younger emotionally. Her sexual boundaries with clients are at times inappropriate. My wife and I are good people, and given what this person has told us about her life, we’ve tried to mentor her a little. She’s clingy, emotional and doesn’t respond well to pressure; my wife has had not just to coach her but also to help her complete her work on time. We both feel fortunate to have been supported early in life, and wish to give back. I even polished her résumé.

This person found out about the same position my wife wanted and applied. Another co-worker who used to work with them and now works at the second office also viewed this person as a train wreck but elected not to speak up, figuring she was so much weaker than my wife and would be found out anyway.

The boss preferred my wife, but is perhaps overly concerned about collegiality in his office, so when other workers spoke up in favor of this other woman (whom they knew socially), he honored their wishes. In fact, he trusts his colleagues so much that between the friends’ raving and the former co-worker’s not saying anything, he apparently neglected to conduct any background or reference checks before offering the job to this other woman. It’s a travesty.

Still, my wife and I are content to let karma find this woman. The boss has since been given more complete details and is likely to be aware of his mistake. My wife wouldn’t take the job now anyway.

Here’s the dilemma for me: In coming in to work and blabbering about her many one-night stands, etc., this woman also shared that she was fired from a previous job for snooping around in patient records and has since been overheard covering up for a similar ‘‘accidental’’ click on private patient material in her current job. This new service works with a major sports team in the area; sexualizing and snooping seem inevitable. In looking over her résumé again this evening, I found many errors and lies. Injustice to my beloved aside, I now feel this woman should not be working in health care at all, which would never have happened if she told the truth or if her prospective (not to mention current) employer had done his or her due diligence. Is blowing the whistle on her the ethical thing to do, even aside from the injustice and betrayal to my wife? Name Withheld

My response: You and your wife are “good” people. Her behavior is “inappropriate,” yet multiple others who know her support her. The boss got multiple reviews from people in his office, yet you feel he didn’t check her background. Your wife wants a job from him, yet is already criticizing how he does his job. Your wife is the best candidate but somehow for ten years worked for the worst supervisor imaginable. You say nothing positive about the other woman, yet others do.

I believe that you believe your wife is better for the job, but I don’t otherwise find you credible. You sound self-righteous enough to ignore other information that might support the boss’s choice, either supporting the other woman or not supporting your wife.

“Injustice”? “Betrayal”? I wouldn’t want people who second-guess decisions like that in my work environment. I want people to collaborate, understanding that people make choices you disagree with—sometimes for different values, sometimes for reasons you don’t know about, sometimes mistakes—not people who judge and condemn. If the new boss made a mistake, experience living with the results will teach him.

If your wife is like you, I suspect the boss had plenty of reasons not to hire a judgmental self-righteous person incapable of helping herself for ten years out of a superlatively bad work environment. Living in a glass house, you may not want to throw stones.

The New York Times response:

The boss’s decision here strikes me as irresponsible. If you’re hiring someone who will have access to confidential information, you have a duty to check up on her properly. The fact that someone is pals with people who work for you is no reason to skip a proper review. Pals aren’t the best source of information about someone’s previous job performance, and a supervisor who allows his employees to push him into hiring a friend in the name of ‘‘collegiality’’ isn’t taking his role seriously. There’s a more general problem with hiring in this way. Filling jobs through social networks like these is, in itself, a major source of unfairness in our society. Highly talented people without connections are overlooked when this happens. When you have someone with an inside track, you have an especially strong reason to take a serious comparative look at the outside candidates. Otherwise we’re not taking seriously our commitment to meritocracy.

On your account, the decision here was not just procedurally flawed; it also had an unfortunate outcome. If this woman has not changed her ways — and her chattering about her previous abuses of confidentiality suggests neither embarrassment nor remorse — she may indeed breach the privacy of the clients at her new place of work. You speak of karma. Are you basically saying you’re going to leave the boss to find out the hard way that he or she has made a mistake? While that will no doubt cause problems for him and for his new employee, the largest problems will be visited on innocent third parties.

I’d leave things there if you hadn’t made it clear that your motives are mixed. You’re upset that your wife was treated unfairly and didn’t get this job she really wanted — and for which, let’s stipulate, she was better qualified. Then there’s the ingratitude factor: The vibe here is somewhere between ‘‘All About Eve’’ and ‘‘Showgirls.’’ So naturally you wouldn’t mind seeing the person who beat her out for the job getting booted from the profession. You reassure yourself with the thought that your wife wouldn’t take this job now — that you’re not advancing your wife at someone else’s expense. But you both knew this woman’s weaknesses when she was a co-worker. You responded by mentoring her and helping polish her résumé. If she shouldn’t be in health care, why didn’t you do anything about it before now?

Your feelings may have distorted your view of the situation. But now you’re reporting objective facts — her C.V. is inaccurate; she was once fired for snooping in files — that her boss can evaluate and might have found out on his own if he had done his job. The real question here is whether someone whose motives are uncharitable is the right person to pass on the information. Ideally, people do what’s right because it’s right. Schadenfreude may be Germany’s most successful export, but it has never been a particularly noble sentiment. Still, if nobody else speaks up, it may fall on you to do so. Just try not to take the wrong kind of pleasure in it.

I have a question regarding things that don’t seem to belong to anybody. I live in an apartment that has been inhabited over the years by students at the local university, and since I’m now in my mid-20s, I’m looking to finally move on. I’ve become somewhat attached, however, to several kitchen items and a piece of furniture that were among the many things left in the apartment when I moved in. Is it ethical to take these items with me, or do they belong to the apartment? Name Withheld

My response: Why are you asking a newspaper columnist instead of the landlord? Even if you have the right, your choices affect the other person. Why wouldn’t you involve them in a decision that affects them?

How would you feel if those items disappeared on you, even if you didn’t have a legal right to stop someone from taking them?

What does it matter if someone applies the abstract term “ethical” to your behavior or not? Doesn’t it matter more how your behavior affects others? I recommend guiding your behavior with compassion and empathy more than abstract philosophical definitions.

The New York Times response:

Ah, the things students leave behind. The sky-blue pleather beanbag chair. The toaster oven with the expressive dent. The baking sheet with scorch marks that trace Christ’s countenance, miraculously resistant to scrubbing. I can imagine the temptations, but I fear such articles belong to the apartment. The landlord has the right to let you take them, though. So ask, and you may receive.

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