The Ethicist: 29 November 2017

Should I Keep Working for a Raging Bigot?

Question:

I am a graduate student…. I have a job as an assistant…. It is just the two of us, and he pays me very well, allows me to work the hours I want, gives me a good deal of responsibility and is willing to give me in-depth training. He is, however, racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and sexist. I am very liberal and find his ideas on many subjects to be repugnant. Though I have asked that he not talk about politics when we are together, he still does so from time to time. I often just let him speak and barely engage … I feel guilty …

Correct answer:

You describe your views as “very liberal,” which is to say that they are what’s fashionable today. If you are a graduate student now, you are probably in your early to mid 20s, which means you were probably born in the 1990s, which means you probably don’t remember a time when what’s now considered “racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted and sexist,” was fashionable. Fashions change, but your boss’s opinions haven’t changed with the fashions, and this has caused cognitive dissonance for you.

Because you are probably young, you probably have not yet had the opportunity to observe how quickly and how (apparently) senselessly fashions evolve, or can be made to evolve; consequently, you probably have never experienced your boss’s cognitive dissonance at being described as a “raging bigot” for having beliefs that were well within the norm when he was your age.

Quitting your cushy job because you can’t bear the physical proximity of someone whose beliefs are wrong and obnoxious is certainly one way to deal with your situation, but before taking this approach, you should carefully consider two other questions:

  • First, of all the beliefs that you do not share, which are you willing to tolerate and which do you find intolerable? Are you willing to interrogate all of your close friends and family members to determine whether they hold any beliefs on your black list, and proceed to block them out of your life? How supportive and loving would, say, your elderly grandparents need to be in order for them to be exempted from the horrible consequences of your graduate school Inquisition?
  • Second, how will you feel in the future when fashions inevitably change, turning your own beliefs into what graduate students consider to be raging bigotry? How frequently are you willing to change what you believe – every decade, every election cycle, every season? Is there anything that you believe so firmly that you will never change your mind about it? If business opportunities are denied to you in the future because nobody will agree to work in the presence of a raging bigot like you, to whom will you turn for financial support?

Here is an important lesson: when you arrive at work, you are arriving to work. Don’t engage in political discussions with your boss. Don’t encourage him to discuss politics with you under any circumstances. Don’t let yourself be drawn into anything controversial.

Here’s another important lesson: it’s helpful to forget the terms “racist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” “bigoted” and “sexist.” They aren’t very descriptive, obscure more than they reveal, and are subject to definitions that shift so rapidly that they can hardly be committed to print. As someone preparing for a career working with rare books and manuscripts, you should nurture an appreciation of the timeless and the sublime, rather than the transitory and the fashionable.

Question:

My boyfriend is a great person … He could be the one…. he made me promise not to talk to my ex-boyfriend and said that if I did, it would be the end of us as a couple…. When my current boyfriend made me promise not to talk to my ex, I accepted, and my ex did, too, and wished me luck…. I reconnected with him, without remembering my promise to my boyfriend….. It has now started to bother me that I’ve been lying to my boyfriend… I believe he will eventually soften up, but he has not. What is the right thing to do?

Correct answer:

There’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that your boyfriend is not “the one,” and the good news is that your boyfriend is not “the one.”

As someone who doesn’t do the jealousy thing, I don’t quite entirely understand when other people do it, but it seems like it’s being done to you now. Your choice, then, is not whether your boyfriend is going to be jealous or not, but whether you’re going to comply and enable his jealousy thing or not.

I recommend the following test to determine where your boyfriend’s limits really are: invite your ex-boyfriend, along with anyone he may be dating, to share a meal with you and your boyfriend. If your boyfriend will not allow you to eat and speak with your ex-boyfriend even in that sort of setting, then his opposition really is absolute, and I recommend that you break up with him immediately, without waiting to find out how many other people he wants to cut out of your life.

The Ethicist: 20 November 2017

Can I Let My Friend Pay Off My Mortgages?

Question:

My closest American friend here in Japan, of more than 30 years, is worried about me and wants to pay off my mortgages. He says he doesn’t want to be paid back; he just wants to make sure I am out of debt before he dies. He is not dying, but he is 98. He has been mentioning this more and more, and says he wants to write a check the next time we meet. I never talk about this with him unless he brings up the subject. The amount he would give me would come to about 3 percent of his assets. It would have no impact on his financial needs. And frankly, it would be helpful for me…. I have a gnawing feeling that I would be taking advantage of him…. he is not suffering from dementia…. he depends on my help more and more… Should I decline and feel noble? Or should I be practical and take the offer….

Correct answer:

Talk to the old man’s children, who otherwise would stand to inherit his estate when he dies. If you’re afraid to speak with his children about it now, while he’s still alive, then that is probably a sign that you know something is wrong. Explain the situation to them and weigh their response. If they reject the idea that their father could give you money of his own volition and threaten you in some way, you don’t necessarily have to comply with their demands, but if they act unreasonably, that may be an indication of why their father isn’t entirely keen on leaving everything to them.

Question:

I recently spoke on the phone with an old friend from college. During the call she mentioned that her son is taking a drug for A.D.H.D. and that it really helps him focus. I know there is controversy surrounding this class of drugs, but I didn’t feel comfortable bringing that up. I assume she has looked into the pros and cons, and I know her mother is a psychiatrist. But should I mention my concerns nevertheless? Or should my concerns about seeming a busybody outweigh concerns about her son’s future health?

Correct answer:

This is a great opportunity to mind your own business.

Question:

I teach at a prestigious private art school. Every year, we take in 600 or so young people with little understanding of how the arts work as an industry. We charge a very high tuition, offer almost no scholarships and load them up with a lot of debt. Even though we claim to offer “career planning,” the illusions of our students are not addressed. Our graduates, even those with a degree in design, rarely find a job in their field. Those who do rarely last long before realizing that they are in a hopeless situation. Most have given up on art … By preying on their naĂŻvetĂ© and ignorance, I feel that we are essentially robbing our students…. Is it wrong to take the “caveat emptor” approach and let these naĂŻve young people continue to pay me through their student loans?

Correct answer:

Don’t lie to your students. In general, don’t lie to anybody, but especially don’t lie to your students. If they ask you a question that isn’t directly related to the curriculum and that you strongly prefer not to answer honestly, don’t answer it.

The Ethicist: 15 November 2017

My Wife Is Done With Sex. Can I Turn Elsewhere?

Question:

I … have been happily married for decades. I have always been a very sexual person and consider myself healthy and normal… my wife’s health worsened, and she declared herself no longer interested in sex of any kind. I continue to cherish her, but find the lack of sexual intimacy exceedingly difficult. I asked her permission to seek a friendly but not competitive sexual relationship elsewhere…. on a dating site… My profile received a great deal of rejection…. I was a “dirty old man”; and I was — even with permission — “cheating” …

Correct answer:

This is almost certainly why the word discretion exists in the English language.

Question:

An extended family member posted very private information about me on a social media platform under the guise of honoring me. I do not value this person, whose past actions reveal the character flaws that would lead someone to do such a thing. I do, however, value the person’s family.
I am a very private person who only uses social media to observe what is happening in the lives of close friends and family. I never post anything about my private life. The shock of this invasion caused me to close my account immediately, but many people did see the post and commented on it…. this has caused me great anguish and embarrassment…. I want to make clear that this person crossed a line.

Correct answer:

You’d like to eat the cake of social media stalking, and then proceed to have the cake of humility and privacy, but that’s not the way it works. Choose one: engage in social media (at a level that suits you) or do not. Both options are correct, but whichever you choose, bear in mind that people do talk about one another, and there’s probably nothing you can do to prevent that. If you keep social media accounts active, it will encourage your family members to talk about you.

Question:

A friend forwarded me an email she received about a college classmate of ours who recently died. It turns out that this classmate ended her life because of some psychological issues relating to an unusual condition that materialized in the last two years.
The woman who wrote the email that was circulating was my classmate’s sister; she shared some conversation screenshots with time stamps that demonstrated her sister’s growing mental distress. She made it clear that she was sharing this material because she wanted to raise awareness of this condition.
I had never heard of the condition, so it was illuminating, but I feel unsettled and guilty for knowing these details, as my classmate took so much care to keep them secret while she was alive…. is it O.K. that it is circulating after her death?

Correct answer:

When someone kills himself or herself, there’s often so much uncertainty and confusion among that person’s peers and extended group of family members and friends, which is why so often we hear things like, “If only he or she had reached out to ask for help…” If a family member chooses to provide answers as a way of helping others who could find themselves in similar situations, that’s a good thing and should not be criticized.

The Ethicist: 1 November 2017

Can I Turn In a Bad Fraternity at My Son’s College?

Question:

My son is on his college football team…. One of my son’s teammates joined the “football frat.” During the hazing process, the young man was severely injured and had to quit the football team…. My question is whether I should alert the chancellor of the university to the situation. The teammate explicitly requested that no one be told about what happened to him…. I think the chancellor needs to know…. I am debating sending an anonymous letter or arranging to meet with the chancellor in person.

Correct answer:

There is a reason why “anonymous coward” has a certain meaning on the internet, and 99% of the time that someone is considering sending an anonymous letter, the answer is no. The only exception is when someone genuinely does not know what’s happening and must be alerted to it.

Your son’s friend is an adult and knows about the hazing that cost him the chance to play football; your son is an adult and knows about the hazing that cost his friend the chance to play football. The football team and fraternity are both comprised entirely of adults who know about the hazing that cost your son’s friend the chance to play football. Most critically, the university administration almost certainly already knows what’s going on.

Avoid the urge to be a drama queen. This is not your business, so stay out of it.

Question:

A relative of mine, after the breakdown of his long-term relationship with his boyfriend, fell into a deep depression, losing his job in the process…. His depression is severe…. He traveled to Southeast Asia and met a much younger man, with whom he fell in love…. money he had saved up disappeared. He invested heavily in the new boyfriend’s business and lost it all. During the last visit, the new boyfriend claimed he had to go visit his family and never returned. My relative says that if he can’t find a way to stay in Southeast Asia, he will kill himself…. Is the moral and loving thing to do to let him continue the search for love, which ruins him, or should we try to intervene?

Correct answer:

Suicide is permanent, so when someone is suicidal, or potentially suicidal, the right thing to do is always to intervene. Everything else is irrelevant: it doesn’t matter if or how you are related to the person, what caused his depression, that he’s on a “search for love” or that somebody else says it’s “situational.” So you must intervene, but you also must draw a line beyond which you will not cross.

Where should that line be drawn – what is acceptable and what isn’t? It’s difficult to say, but after speaking to your relative and referring him to psychiatric support, you might consider alerting the State Department, and border authorities in the unnamed Asian country, that an American citizen has been threatening suicide over or during trips there. Don’t kidnap your relative, though. Ultimately, depressed people need to want to get better in order to get better.

The Ethicist: 25 October 2017

Should I Reveal That My Dad Pretended to Be a Vietnam Vet?

Question:

… [M]y father sometimes talked of his military service during the Vietnam War…. he offered enough details about his service … that [everyone] … believed he was a veteran. My mother and I, however, were never sure he was telling the truth about the nature of his service…. he instructed my stepmother not to include his veteran status in his obituary…. After he died, she wanted to know more about his military service … and received back his DD Form 214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty) showing that he had been honorably discharged in 1968 for being medically unsuitable for duty before he even finished basic training…. she did not want to share what she had found with me, my siblings or our friends and family, lest we think less of the man whom we had all respected…. My stepmother, mother and I are the only ones in the family who know the truth. I attempted to tell my sister once, but she flatly refused to believe me…. Do I tell the rest of my family and our friends what he did, or is it all water under the bridge now that he has passed away and is unable to explain or defend himself?

Correct answer:

If someone tells a serious lie, that person usually has a positive obligation to contact anyone who heard that lie and explain the truth, and can mean initiating contact with people who might not otherwise have been in contact. Your father, however, is now dead, and that obligation died with him. You have no positive obligation to clean up the mess that he made.

You should make a reasonable effort to tell the truth to all of your direct family members, as well as close friends who would have heard the lie, as soon as opportunities present themselves. The first reason for this is to prevent a situation in which you could trick yourself into telling additional and further lies that you had no intention to tell. Whatever your father’s rationale, it’s clearly not yours; you have nothing to gain by pretending that your father was a veteran. The second reason is to give your other siblings the opportunity to stop spreading a lie that they believe to be the truth. The third reason is to prevent a future situation in which you could inadvertently benefit from someone believing that your father was a veteran.

Question:

While going through my mother’s papers prior to moving her into a nursing home (she has Alzheimer’s disease, so I cannot ask her about this), I found an eight-page love letter that she saved for 66 years. At first glance, I thought that it was from my late father…. I was shocked to discover that it was dated four years before my parents met and was from someone I had never heard of…. I read the letter in its entirety. I have no idea who the gentleman is, and there is no one I can ask. My question is simple: When faced with such a personal letter from the past, is it wrong to read it? It doesn’t change the present, and it seemed wrong just to throw it away.

Correct answer:

The letter was addressed from somebody else to your mother, and not to you – so if you were wrong to read it, then it would have been wrong regardless of who wrote it, your father or another man. So why did you include all of that extraneous information? Could it be that you feel as if you infringed on your mother’s privacy by reading a letter that some other man wrote to her in a way that would not have bothered her or you if you’d read something that your father wrote? In other words – what exactly is the ethical question here?

If your mother were healthy, you would not have read the letter at all. If she were dead, you would have no problem reading the letter, and presumably you would justify it by telling yourself that if she wanted to keep it private, she would have destroyed it. Your mother’s dementia, unfortunately, is so severe that she can not have a conversation with you. She’s still a person who deserves to be treated kindly and with whatever dignity is possible, but reading the letter did not harm her in any way. After all, you would have read it if your father had written it.

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.