Once upon a time, I was a 21 year old college student, living alone in Manhattan, and I considered myself to be “between ethical systems at the moment.”
Fast forward more than a decade: at 33, I have moved to Jerusalem, then Tel Aviv, then San Francisco and back to Manhattan (with some time in the suburbs in between), acquired a career and a dog, grown horizontally, and still not quite settled down with any particular ethical system.
Back then, I was introduced to “The Ethicist,” Randy Cohen’s ethical questions column in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, by this question:
The courteous and competent real-estate agent I’d just hired to rent my house shocked and offended me when, after we signed our contract, he refused to shake my hand, saying that as an Orthodox Jew he did not touch women. As a feminist, I oppose sex discrimination of all sorts. However, I also support freedom of religious expression. How do I balance these conflicting values? Should I tear up our contract? J.L., New York
Cohen’s answer was not just stupidly wrong, but destructively wrong: he actually advised the writer to terminate her business agreement because she didn’t approve of her real estate agent’s religious practice (not to touch women besides his wife), while attempting to compare this practice to Jim Crow laws.
As the case was, I had a lot of observant Jewish friends at the time, and had myself experienced a similar situation in the past: when introduced by my social circle to a Jewish woman, I reached out to shake her hand, but she shook her head no. Later somebody else had taken me aside and explained נגיעה to me. I was extremely embarrassed, but more for her than for myself: her refusal to shake my hand was so rude and inappropriate that it made her look deeply petty and irresponsible. The friend who explained this to me added that the way he was raised was that he should not initiate physical contact with women who weren’t his relatives, but that he should never refuse a handshake in a way that would make a stranger feel uncomfortable, lest he hurt that person’s feelings and create a חילול השם.
Randy Cohen’s questioner’s real estate agent may have handled his handshake situation terribly, but it’s difficult to tell from the question whether that’s the case; another possibility is that the questioner chose to create drama where none was necessary. Either way, Cohen was very wrong to advise someone to let her feelings – probably immature and narcissistic – get in the way of a rational business decision. I decided then to start reading The Ethicist every week, and think about how I would answer the questions differently.
Until now, I have done so.
Today, The Times is relaunching The Ethicist as a podcast with discussion-format articles, so I have decided to take my hobby of Ethicist critiquing online as well. Can I Ask My Neighbors to Quiet Their Baby? will be my first blog post in an ongoing series.
A couple downstairs has started letting their baby cry it out. Having no kids myself, I don’t know if this is a valid parenting strategy. What I do know is that it kept me up for an hour at 2 a.m. last night and has woken me up several times this week. Is it within my rights to talk to them about it? J.B., BROOKLYN
Rights are imaginary. You could call them a “social construct,” even. It’s best to set them aside, because what you really want to know is the answer to two questions: first, whether you are entitled to speak with your neighbors about their crying baby, and second, whether you ought to do so.
In civil society broadly and in a community (like an apartment building) narrowly, any time you want something from anybody, you may ask for it. If the request is unreasonable, or if it’s presented unreasonably, you may not become angry, but there is no reason at all that you should think that you are forbidden from asking for something, or that you don’t have a “right” to ask it.
While noise complaints can be a tricky matter to digest, the central question is whether the complainant’s expectations are reasonable. Unfortunately, what is reasonable changes in different circumstances: obviously by time of day, but also time of week and year, location, &c.
For example: in my view, a person’s decision to reside in New York City means that this person must accommodate himself to more noises, and more kinds of noises, at more times of day, than someone who lives in a rural or suburban environment. While I never heard my family’s neighbors from inside our suburban home in Rockville, Maryland, I hear my neighbors, in one form or another, every single day in New York, and it would be unreasonable for me to expect never to hear them.
I have never made a noise complaint, in part because the noises are mostly kept to a minimum after 11 pm, and because sounds like somebody occasionally coughing or slamming a door don’t strike me as excessive or disrespectful, and because I’m sure that I sometimes make noises that other people can hear, too. But I also take efforts to prevent my habits from bothering other people: I have trained my dog carefully over many years not to bark, and I keep an eye on the volume of my stereo by noting the decibels displayed by my receiver.
Suppose I never gave my dog any instruction at all about barking, and he barked loudly and constantly in the middle of the night, or suppose I watched action movies loudly at 4 am. Then my neighbors would have a problem, and they would be right to make their problem into my problem. The fact that your neighbors’ instrument is a baby instead of a dog or a stereo is immaterial. While you should be expected to be more tolerant, as a New Yorker, of inevitable city sounds at any time of day, crying babies are not inevitable, and your neighbors’ crying baby is bothering you at a time – the middle of the night – when they have heightened responsibility that they have shirked.
Your desire not to be woken up and kept awake by a crying baby in your own apartment is reasonable. You should ask your neighbors to quiet their baby when it cries at night. If they are not prepared to do so, then they should pay for soundproofing immediately, or they should be prepared to raise their baby in a more isolated setting.