The Ethicist: 18 October 2017

My Wife Found My Sexy Phone Pics and Won’t Let It Go

Question:

My wife and I have been married for just a few years. Early in our marriage I started chatting with a female acquaintance, and things got verbally sexual and eventually led to sexual pictures between the other woman and me…. We’ve gone through marriage counseling … I’m ashamed of the photos and don’t want to see them, let alone have my wife keep them…. When my wife is mad at me, she changes her lock-screen image to one of the photos…. I’ve felt emotionally abused by my wife … I love her. I don’t think it’s a very healthy relationship, but it’s what I’ve got. I feel that her keeping the photos is a way to keep her power over me. I know I was wrong in the past and would like to move forward, but I find it difficult when my wife keeps the photos. Should I confront my wife or just let it be?

Correct answer:

I’m concerned about several things here.

First, the phrasing, “things got verbally sexual and eventually led to sexual pictures,” sounds extremely wishy washy. Did you, or did you not, have an extramarital affair? Did you, or did you not, exchange nude pictures with someone who wasn’t your wife? Why is it so difficult for you just to state what it is that you did?

Second, you seem consumed by shame and guilt, but you don’t state anywhere that you have apologized explicitly and directly to your wife. I find that when I’ve done something wrong, a clear apology is a good first step towards correcting the damage.

Third, you’re letting your wife manipulate you emotionally, and you should have learned not to let anyone do that to you when you were an adolescent, so that you could teach it to your own children in adulthood – so I hope you don’t have children unto whom you’re supposed to be imparting important life lessons.

Fourth, your wife is manipulating you emotionally, so after you’ve apologized to her, you should tell her to knock it off and make sure she understands that she should either accept your apology and move on, end the relationship altogether, or figure out what it’s going to take to “work through it.”

Fifth, you don’t think your marriage is “a very healthy relationship [I agree – it’s not], but it’s what [you’ve] got”? Doesn’t that strike you as rather pathetic? Are you doing any favors to your wife, or to your relationship with her, by making yourself seem so unattractive?

Stop being a crybaby about the damn pictures. Apologize to your wife. Make sure she understands that this episode is in the past, or ending soon. If you show sincere contrition, but she’s not interested in making amends, then the relationship might just be beyond repair. And that happens in relationships – in fact, it happens in most relationships. Be prepared to move on – and note that that will mean being a better man before you can ever hope to be attractive to women.

Question:

I have been divorced for many years. My ex-husband is now married to a dentist. As part of our divorce agreement, I am responsible for the children’s health insurance, including dental coverage…. I bought health insurance for myself and my children but did not purchase dental insurance…. The dental practice my daughter visits is her stepmother’s office. When my ex-husband sent me the bill for this visit, which came to $400, I asked if the visit could be postdated by just a day, so I could submit it for insurance. He told me that doing so was illegal and that I needed to pay, and that he didn’t appreciate the fact that I didn’t have any dental coverage…. Do I pay it just to make it go away or try again to reason with my ex-husband and his wife to please drop these fees?

Correct answer:

You took a moderate sized risk, attempting to save money on dental insurance, and the risk backfired. You owe $400. Pay it.

Do not commit insurance fraud. Do not try to get your daughter, ex-husband, or ex-husband’s new wife to help you to commit insurance fraud. Do not try to use your daughter to guilt your ex-husband or his new wife. Do not pass Go or collect $200.

The Ethicist: 11 October 2017

Can My Cat Go Out if He Bullies Other Cats?

Question:

Playing outside is my cat’s greatest joy…. Jasper loves people and dogs but loathes cats…. Keeping Jasper inside would lessen Jasper’s quality of life, and arguably those who love him would be sad. But I know he’s bullying a handful of cats. What’s the ethical thing to do?

Correct answer:

Your property is an extension of yourself, and your neighbors’ property is an extension of themselves. Your cat is your property. When you intentionally let your cat outside, knowing that it will attack, intimidate and potentially destroy your neighbors’ property, you are posing a direct threat to your neighbors. Keep your cat indoors until he can be trained to behave in a civilized manner with other animals.

Question:

I’m an undergraduate researcher at a center focused on policy work…. We committed to working 30 hours a week and are expected to sign in and out. I noticed that my co-worker was spending significantly less time at the office than I was… He said he spent two whole days at the center when he wasn’t even there…. What should I do?

Correct answer:

In general, you should mind your own business, but as an employee in a business, you are ethically obliged to act, in part, in the best interest of your employer. You have been made aware of theft targeting your employer, so you must share that information. It is best to do so in a way that is subtle, but well documented, to cover your own ass. Send an email to your direct manager asking if it would be possible to establish or to negotiate a flexible schedule like your colleague’s, which would allow you to work remotely. This will signal to your manager that one of his employees is not at work at the appointed time, while giving you plausible deniability if you are ever accused of ratting out your pal.

The Ethicist: 22 February 2015

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.

Question:

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

Correct answer:

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.