Sunday non-judgment: Coffee for young mormons?

October 5, 2014 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Tips

Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is my take on today’s post, “Should a Camp Counselor Stop a Student From Trying Coffee?

I work at a summer camp for high-school students. This year, a Mormon camper decided to drink coffee. Some staff members felt that we should try to stop him, to honor his parents’ wishes (they listed tea and coffee as a dietary restriction). I disagreed; coffee is not dangerous, and I think high-school students are capable of deciding which religious strictures to follow. The camp is legally responsible for students, and we strive to create a safe environment in their families’ stead. But are we ethically bound to enforce their families’ other preferences as well? NAME WITHHELD

My Answer: “Ethically bound”? Well, obviously you think not and some staff members think so. There is no standard everyone agrees to, as you know or you would have simply compared this situation to the standard, found your answer, and would not have asked anybody else. Since there isn’t a standard, you’re asking third parties their opinions on something they have limited information on.

I recommend you think for yourself what you feel is right for you. You have more information, not that you can ever have all the information potentially relevant to everyone. Instead of looking for absolutes—maybe you think there’s a book in the sky others have secret or privileged access to?—why not consider the consequences of your actions and see if you can find more alternatives. You could call the parents and ask them. Maybe the student would be content with decaf. Maybe the camp had a similar issue before and you could use a past solution again. Maybe your position in the hierarchy doesn’t allow you all the information or authority to conclude anything meaningful and you can sleep easy that way.

In any case, your description sounds like the student already drank the coffee and the staff couldn’t have stopped him. If the event happened in the past, what does it matter how you label it? The parents are still going to feel the way they’re going to feel and you’ll have to face them anyway. Or some higher-level staff member will and you won’t, in which case, why are you asking?

The New York Times Answer: I’m going to take for granted that this is not a “dietary restriction” in the literal sense — an allergy or some other adverse reaction to caffeine — and that the parents’ request is an attempt to force their son to live by the rules of a specific faith. And if that is indeed the case, I would let this person drink coffee.

As an authority figure, you have an obligation to approach the camper and ask, “Are you aware that your parents requested that you not drink coffee?” You might follow that with a second question: “Do you understand why your parents don’t want you drinking coffee?” This seems like a prime opportunity to have a meaningful discussion that might affect the rest of his life. But regardless of the teenager’s response, you should not physically stop him from consuming a beverage that is legally and ethically within his right to consume. It’s not as if you’re forcing him to drink coffee against his parents’ wishes or placing him in a position where there’s no alternative; he is choosing to do this, despite his spiritual upbringing. A 16-year-old has the intellectual ability to decide which aspects of a religion he will accept or ignore. He’s not an infant, and you’re not living in the town where “Footloose” happened. It’s the responsibility of a secular camp to respect the principles of any religion but not to enforce its esoteric dictates.


A Pilates-certification-program teacher uses the credentials “Ph.D.” after her name in connection with the course description on the studio’s website. However, her degree is in finance, which is never mentioned on the site. Is this acceptable? NAME WITHHELD

My Answer: It sounds like it’s acceptable to the teacher and studio. As for if it’s acceptable to you, only you know that. No one can decide for you. As for every other person on the planet, each will have their opinion. Did you think there was some checklist somewhere that determined acceptability for all humans to agree? Obviously not, since you asked the question.

Instead of asking third parties to judge, why don’t you use the opportunity to act? You don’t have to be a passive bystander or victim. You could build a relationship instead of what you’re doing, which feels like you’re trying to act holier-than-thou. You can call the studio and talk to the people who decided to put the title there. Maybe you’ll learn something you didn’t think of. Or they will. Or maybe you’ll decide it isn’t worth your time to call them and you’ll move on to other things you care about more.

The New York Times Answer: If you pressed her on why she lists this title as part of her credentials, I’m guessing she’d say: “Because that’s who I am. I earned that degree and consider it part of my identity.” Perhaps she does so to suggest that she’s a more sophisticated Pilates instructor, in the hope of attracting a higher class of consumer. But this is obviously deceptive and mildly preposterous. Anyone who includes an academic designation alongside the description of a class she’s teaching is implying that these things have a material connection. She is actively trying to make people misinterpret what she has to offer. The only way this could be construed as ethical would be if she periodically discussed the best way to save for retirement while explaining how to activate the abdominal powerhouse.

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