I have longtime friends who, despite being the type of people who would give you the shirts off their backs, have become extremely xenophobic and express hateful social views. They will say they are socially liberal but fiscally conservative, but they nonetheless like to fearmonger, warning that the United States is becoming a nonwhite nation.
Recently they circulated a hateful email to a large group, including me. They know I disagree with them and think this is repugnant. Do I (1) ignore the email, (2) respond individually that it is hateful or (3) respond to the entire group? My husband, who feels the way I do, tells me to just ignore it because they are part of a larger group of very longtime friends, and he thinks that over all, their personal charity and loyalty outweigh their misguided political views. I think I am not speaking up when I should. What to do? Name Withheld
First, let’s take up the question of consequences — of whether voicing your objection will do any good. Your friends already know, you say, that you find their social views repugnant. Will a further protest now, especially in front of a larger group, whose members probably have a variety of opinions on these questions, affect either their views or their willingness to express them? People who circulate messages of this sort are apparently unashamed of their bigotry (which usually means they don’t consider it to be bigotry in the first place). Certainly, you’d have reason to denounce the email if you thought it would help them reconsider their views. Experience suggests that success on this front is rare, if rewarding.
But moral philosophers have often supported approaches that aren’t principally guided by a consideration of consequences, and one of them is called virtue ethics. Where “consequentialism” is concerned with the effects of an action, virtue ethics is concerned with what sort of person you are. (The approach is also called “aretaic,” from the Greek arete, meaning virtue or excellence.) Staying quiet when someone says something morally repugnant means not standing up for your deeply held convictions. That can feel like the action of a moral coward. It can also feel like letting down your side, the decent people who agree with you. Sometimes, that is, we stand up for our views even though it won’t make any difference to the person we’re arguing with, simply to express which side we are on, what kind of people we are. It’s a matter of your character.
What about your friends’ character? Here, I have to disagree with your husband’s apparent moral accounting: You don’t make up for an ethical lapse in one area by being decent about something else. (“I know I stole the old lady’s handbag, your honor, but first I gave her a hand across the street.”) Our vices and virtues aren’t entries in a single column that can be summed up in a single score, like the “social credit” rating China apparently plans to assign its citizens. Yet maybe what your husband is asking you to think about is a third question: Do you really want to damage your longstanding relationship with these people over this issue?
This question brings together the issues of consequences and of character. You may feel that you can’t, morally speaking, be friends with someone who is mistaken about such an important ethical matter. When you recognize that someone is morally misguided, it can be a natural response to break off the relationship. And, though doing so may not change the person’s mind, it does impose a penalty.
Here’s a final consideration for you, though. We live in a society full of clashing views about matters like immigration and racial justice. Cutting off everyone with whom we have serious disagreements about these things undermines our capacity to have political conversations with one another as friends and fellow citizens. People are a complex mixture of good and evil, virtue and vice. (Not you and me, of course, but everyone else.) So you might want to consider hanging in there with these people while continuing to insist, when occasions like this come up, that you will make reasoned objections to what they say. Think about responding to your friends not by airing your abhorrence but by carefully explaining why their views are wrong.
In college, I had an on-and-off relationship with a boy one year below me in school — let’s call him John. He was funny, smart and great to talk to when sober, but he became pushy and sexually aggressive when drunk. While I was always successful in fighting him off, his unwillingness to accept the word no was deeply concerning, and I had several sober conversations with him explaining that he should never assume I (or anyone) was playing hard to get and that he needed to stop the first time he was asked. I permanently ended the sexual side of our relationship after a particularly flagrant and physically scary interaction, but we remained friends.
However, his behavior in subsequent social settings, in particular his refusal to stop following and touching me at parties despite frequent requests, left me convinced that his “no means no” issues had not been addressed. Reflecting on this fact, following my graduation, I wrote John a letter expressing my concern at the dynamic within our relationship and my fear that if he did not seriously re-evaluate his attitude to consent, he would sexually assault someone, wrecking both his and their lives. I never sent the letter. A year later, I was told that he was accused of sexual assault during his senior year. I am racked with guilt at the thought that I could possibly have protected the unknown woman.
My question is this: Was it my responsibility to send the letter, and by failing to do so, am I in part guilty for the trauma inflicted on a fellow student? Furthermore, in being reluctant to cut off all contact with my friend after the consent issues in our relationship, am I to blame for giving him the impression that lack of respect for consent is a trivial and forgivable offense? Name Withheld
The responsibility for any trauma John inflicted lies squarely with John himself. We don’t know that your sending the letter would have made a difference; repeated warnings during your relationship didn’t seem to change his ways. But even if the letter would have had an effect, he should have known, without your assistance, that sexual assault was wrong. Nor was it your job to be even clearer than you already were that his aggressive behavior around you was unacceptable. You certainly didn’t treat this behavior as if it were trivial. So if you want to think about guilt, think about John’s.
That’s not to say that it wouldn’t have been a good thing to send that letter. There are lots of things it would be good to do that we have no duty to do. And if you didn’t have a duty to do it, you did nothing wrong in refraining. Ethically speaking, guilt is one thing, and regret is another.
A few friends and I recently visited the summer house of a mutual friend (let’s call him Jack). Jack’s partner (let’s call her Jill) was out of the country. She is not very well liked by a lot of us (for various reasons). The summer house is equipped with a number of security cameras so that the place can be monitored while the owners are not in residence. We were told that they would be turned off. A few days after my return home, I was sent video clips from Jill, who was irate about some of the conversations about her, including some discussion of her medical and psychological issues. Is it ethical for her to eavesdrop on us? Should I confront Jack about what happened (he knows we are not fans of his partner)? Name Withheld
Spying of this sort is obviously unethical. It violates your reasonable expectation of privacy and confirms, by the way, your judgment about Jill. I don’t know that you should “confront” Jack. But it’s reasonable to tell him that you didn’t appreciate being spied on while in his house. You might anticipate, however, that he already knows what happened. Given that Jill apparently doesn’t realize that what she did was wrong, why wouldn’t she have told him? And be prepared for him to tell you that gossiping about other people’s medical problems can raise ethical issues, too.