The Ethicist, The Enabler, The Busybody

Abandoning the insanely worthless and boring approach to its Ethicist column, the New York Times dropped its multiple voices format back to its old method of one person answering an ethical question.  The new voice belonged to NYU philosophy prof, Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Ethics, in general, is one of those fascinating intellectual endeavors that provides for a person to substitute their baseless sense of propriety for other people’s.  It’s not like legal ethics, which is guided by defined rules and limits, but a huge open field with no limits beyond empty rhetoric. For the most part, it doesn’t matter too much, as it’s a lot like fortune telling, but entertainment only.

But when the Times’ Ethicist gets into the weeds of legal issues, as it has in the past on occasion, the distinction between someone’s feelz and the law suddenly matters. And it happened again.

Several months ago, a female friend told me that, six months earlier, a close male friend of mine sexually assaulted a female friend of hers. The alleged assault was described as clearly nonconsensual; alcohol was purportedly involved. Nothing was reported. (I am in high school and am male myself; my male friend recently graduated.)

Hearsay much? Conclusory statement that it was a sexual assault? The third-hand story was “clearly nonconsensual”?  And the introduction of an externality, alcohol, into the story which means . . . what?  And to make it all far worse, the writer is a high school student.

I generally believe in talking about serious issues in our society as a means of tackling them, and I also generally believe in due process of law and in giving people the benefit of the doubt. But I have had issues with my friend’s treatment of others before, and this incident fits into that pattern, though it is notably more extreme. I don’t feel that it would be appropriate for me to report the alleged assault, as I heard about it indirectly. I don’t really think that cutting off contact (the current situation) is the best approach, as it will do nothing to change his behavior. The friend has generally been honest with me in the past when confronted about various issues, but again, those were of much lesser magnitude.

For a high school student, this guy is quite a writer. A little too good a writer, in fact. But putting such thoughts aside, his question was classic SJW.

I am searching for an approach in which I am not morally or practically complicit in his potentially continuing to assault women. 

There can be only one rational response to this letter.  You have nothing to do with this. You know nothing about what happened. Your narcissistic approach, where you have bundled your self-serving assumptions together and inserted yourself into the middle of other people’s affairs, reflects your disturbing need to believe that you are the center of the universe and have a critical role to play in other people’s lives. Grow the fuck up. Mind your own business. Worry about what you do instead of the stories other people tell you and your insipid views of social responsibility. You aren’t involved. Stay out of it.

And that’s what he said. Almost. Well, actually, not so much.

But I do want to touch on a question you didn’t raise directly, which is what you owe to the woman who was assaulted. Let’s assume that what you learned via your friend is true. In that case, it seems to me that there was a crime here.

Let’s be clear about something: it cannot “seem to you” that there was a crime here.  Having chosen to leap over the multiple hearsay problem by assuming truth, you were given conclusions. There isn’t a single fact offered, not an iota of actual conduct.  Conclusions aren’t facts; they’re the inferences we draw from facts.  Facts make up conduct that may be criminal. Conclusions without facts are meaningless. But what the heck, right?

Whether this should be brought before the authorities, however, is fundamentally her choice to make. It’s her story. She’s the one who would have to face the burden of testifying, the public exposure of her life and all the other consequences. I’m not even sure that the person who told you about this should have told you; it depends on what the victim’s expectations were. Gossip about sexual assaults — as opposed to serious discussion of what to do about them — can be one of the harms that surround them.

Wait. Is this the lengthy yet tedious way to say this is none of his business?

Because you’re not close to the victim, you’re not in a good position to help her think about her decisions. (If you were, you might ask her to consider whether she should do something about what happened to prevent it from happening to someone else.) But you are in a good position to talk to your friend who, it seems, carried out the assault.

If by “not close to the victim,” you mean don’t know her at all, then the writer is definitely not in a good position to “help her think about her decisions.” But even if he was her bestie, so what? If the victim didn’t seek his advice and counsel, where does this flaming narcissist come off sticking his nose into the middle of her business?

So since he can’t tell the “victim” what to do, not because it’s none of his friggin’ business, but because he doesn’t know who she is, and since it’s just not possible for someone who hears gossip to not think it’s his duty to cure other people’s misguided views of the world (because it is, of course, all about him), he should reach out to his friend, whose past conduct otherwise fails to meet his feelz of propriety, and give him a piece of his mind about this “sexual assault.”

Oh wait again. Did we forget that there is no information that a sexual assault happened? It’s fine to assume truth for the purpose of pontificating in a newspaper, but if you’re going to confront someone by accusing him, third hand of course, of the commission of a crime, then wouldn’t it ethically behoove him to be in a position to know that a crime had, in fact, occurred beforehand?

You could help him see that what he did was wrong; and probably, if your other friend’s account is correct, criminal. You could also help him decide what he should do about it. Here we enter very difficult territory. I’ve explained why you shouldn’t file a report. Might the same considerations apply to him? (Not that it’s likely he would want to, were you to propose it.) Mightn’t it seem to her like a noxious power move to go to the authorities without consulting her first? And can he consult her without imposing himself on a woman who has every reason to want never to see him again?

So the best advice is to march down to the precinct, turn himself in and confess his crime, except that it might be a “noxious power move” without the victim’s permission?  There has to be some way to thread that needle.

On the other hand, a straightforward letter expressing deep remorse for what he did might be welcome. And maybe the woman who knows you both can help figure out if it would be. (Of course, your friend might balk at the legal risk.) It’s a hard call. The main point is that the victim here has the right to control the agenda.

Yes, the victim has the right to “control the agenda,” if indeed there is a victim at all.  Would it have killed you to just tell him to keep his nose out of it in the first place?  Or have we reached the point where every busybody is ethically bound to involve himself in every bit of gossip that he has the misfortune to hear? And it’s good because some guy at the New York Times told him it was the ethical thing to do?


9 thoughts on “The Ethicist, The Enabler, The Busybody

  1. Osama bin Pimpin

    I believe personal ethics is real and a lot less complicated than experts like the Ethicist make out. Crazy stuff like tell the truth.

    I’d tell the dude that this chick is going around saying that the dude raped some other chick. That is the only thing I know is undeniably true. Whether that accusation is true or false, dude has a right to know people are saying that about him and respond if he chooses.

  2. Paul

    NYU lists Appiah as a professor of Philosophy and Law. NYU Law lists him on its faculty page.

    First, if he is a professor of law he really should know better than this. Second, a generation of NYU students will be corrupted by a professor telling them someone accused of rape is ethically required to confess to the police, but only if the complainant says it is OK first. Third, hopefully some professor at NYU who actually understands law will have a talk with him about the real world.

    1. SHG Post author

      While he’s listed on the law school’s faculty, I see nothing to suggest he actually teaches law. What that means isn’t clear.

  3. mb

    I used to be a lot like this kid. My advice to him would be that he has to hunt down and murder his friend, or, failing that, he needs to lower the standard he wants to hold himself to down to a level that he could reasonably expect from others.

      1. mb

        Well, I would guess that he’s not accustomed to having other people leap into action at the slightest indication that someone might have wronged him. So where does this need to be everybody’s hero come from? I’m sure he’d like to think he’s taking an enlightened approach, but srsly, this kind of thinking is pathetically basic. And if you’re gonna be that, you ought to go all out.

  4. Marc not-R

    With this title, I was expecting a joke. Something along the lines of “The Ethicist, The Enabler and The Busybody walk into a bar . . .”

    In my experience, philosophy students (and professors) best even lawyers in their ability to spill vast amounts of unnecessary ink saying something that can be summed up in four words (or less): It’s not your business.

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