Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: His Qualifications — and Mine

February 1, 2015 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 a take on today’s post, “His Qualifications — and Mine.”

While volunteering at a local charity, I became friends with a fellow worker. I considered recommending him for membership to a local service club. The club requires vetting, so I checked him out and discovered that he had been convicted of tax fraud, disbarred from practicing law and sentenced to three years in prison. That ended the possibility of club sponsorship. But our friendship continued. He has now asked me for letters of reference. Would it be unethical for me to write these letters, even with careful wording that my recommendation applies only to the time I have known him? NAME WITHHELD, VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA

My Answer: Why don’t you talk to the guy about it? You can use this opportunity to build your relationship. The situation affects him intimately and I don’t see how you can recommend him without taking such knowledge into account. You sound like you weren’t snooping in a way that would embarrass yourself and you remained friends after finding the information.

As always, I recommend considering the consequences of your actions, not asking about abstract concepts of ethics. Carefully wording something probably still won’t result in as effective a recommendation as he’d expect. Wouldn’t you want to know why you got an ineffective recommendation if someone wrote you one?

You might consider the consequence to your reputation in recommending someone with careful words. How might it affect you?

The New York Times Answer: Your letter of recommendation would be unethical only if you didn’t believe what you wrote. As I see it, you have a number of options: If you feel comfortable discussing only the period during which you and this man have been acquainted, preface your advocacy with the phrase “In the time I have known him. . . .” If you believe this man can do good things despite his past indiscretions, write that in your letter. If you believe his past mistakes have nothing to do with who he currently is, don’t cite them at all. But don’t write, “This man is a lifelong paragon of honesty,” because you know that’s false. The value of a recommendation hinges on your integrity, not his.


During a pledge drive for a public-radio station, an on-air personality made an accusation I’d never heard: that regular listeners who never contributed were behaving unethically. Do you agree? PAUL SANDBERG, ALAMEDA, CALIF.

My Answer: No, but everyone has their opinion, and that’s all there is to it. It’s not like there’s an absolute measure of ethics.

The relevant question for me is what are the consequences of saying that. I imagine the statement polarized people, attracting those who agree and repelling those who don’t.

The New York Times Answer: I do not, for three reasons. One is that public-radio stations receive a portion of their funding from federal, state and local governments, and that money is ultimately generated from taxation. Granted, this is only a fraction of their revenue — about 5 percent for NPR member stations — but a small portion is still a portion. The second reason is that you can’t offer something free and then argue that anyone who accepts your offer is unethical. You can call them cheapskates, but you can’t question their morals.

The third reason is that this model of revenue-gathering presents an inherent (and reasonable) risk for the content provider. When you listen to an FM rock station, there are commercials every few minutes; whether or not you purchase those specific products does not have a relationship to how much you like the music. During a public-radio pledge drive, the station is essentially delivering a commercial for itself. The relationship between advertisement and product is more intertwined. But the consumer is still faced with the same choice: Is this product worth my money? If a person cares about the program he or she is listening to, that answer should be yes. And they should donate money — not for ethical reasons, but for practical reasons.

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