A Quiz from The Ethicist
Questions and Answers Covering Sensitive Situations
Listen to Part One of the interview.
Listen to Part Two of the interview.
April 11, 2002 --
Feeling ethically challenged? If you didn't do it yesterday, take a moment to take our pop ethics quiz with The Ethicist, Randy Cohen. Answers follow each question. Good luck!
I am seven weeks pregnant and looking for a new job. We've tried for a long time to have a baby and I'm thrilled it's finally happening. But what should I tell prospective employers? Is it unfair to look for a job at this time?
What you should tell someone at the job interview is your qualifications for the job. That's it. At seven weeks, many women haven't even told their families that they're pregnant. What's more, this is a matter of law; they cannot pry too deeply into this question. There's something called the Federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act that protects the rights of pregnant women. As long as you're able to do the job, you should have the job. Now I realize it's slightly more complicated than that, because if you get the job, and a few months down the road you ask for maternity leave, your boss may very well feel he has been deceived. So you should try to find a way to tell him as soon as you can, once you have the job, but you needn't say so in advance if you feel it will hurt your chances of getting the job.
I walked by my neighbor's house on trash day to discover what I'm pretty sure is a very valuable antique chair sitting on the discard pile. It was just going to be hauled away, so I took it. Should I have, or should I have told my neighbor what I think it was worth? When does it stop being his property and start being anybody's?
I should preface this by saying I'm not a lawyer. But there's a great body of law that deals with abandoned property, and the question here is both a legal and an ethical matter and this is: is it really abandoned? Is it really something that can't be reunited with its owner? Is it something that someone intended to throw out? If you're pretty confident that your neighbor intended to throw it away, then it's yours. But if you think that he might have made a mistake and thrown something out by accident, then there's nothing wrong with knocking on the door and checking.
I was called for jury duty and asked if I would be able, if seated on a jury, to impose a death sentence. I'd like to see the death sentence abolished, but if I said that, I'd have been left off the jury and someone else who believes in the death penalty would be seated. If I had lied, perhaps I could have saved the defendant's life. What should I have done? What's the higher right?
That's a really, really hard question. But I think that lying is not only unethical, it corrupts the judicial process. And the risk is, it cuts both ways: no one wants a cop on the stand to lie about a defendant that he "knows" is guilty. However, if you exclude all jurors who are opposed to capital punishment, you produce a biased jury pool, as you were saying. I talked to a fellow named Stephen Bright who is the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights -- he's a capital defender -- and he says this tends to racially skew juries because there is indeed a higher opposition to the death penalty in the minority communities than in the general population. But I think you might get a different answer if you asked the question just a little differently. Think of it like this: are you too close-minded to serve on a jury in which the death penalty might be a possibility?
You're free to hold the prosecutors to the highest legal standards, to consider matters of race and class as they're presented in the courtroom, and you can well decide, when you weigh all the factors, that the prosecution has not met all the criteria you must meet in order to impose the death penalty. You're not asked to forsake your entire history or your values or your opinions about capital punishment. What you're being asked is, can you be fair?
I'd like to go one step further than this, because I think perhaps I'm depicting this as more optimistic than it is. The only real solution, I believe, is in political action, not in personal action. It's an interesting thing about ethics: sometimes the only way to achieve an individual ethical goal is by group action.
One rainy evening I wandered into a shop, where I left my name-brand umbrella in a basket near the door. When I was ready to leave, my umbrella was gone. There were several others in the basket, and I decided to take another name-brand umbrella. Should I have taken it, or taken a less expensive one -- or just gotten wet?
If your umbrella was actually stolen, then no, of course you don't take someone else's (If your house is burglarized and you lose your TV, you really can't go into your neighbors' house and steal their TV to make up for it!). Here in New York, it's a more likely scenario that there's been a mix-up, and it's an innocent exchange. We use cheesy, $3 umbrellas here -- they all look alike -- and someone is always taking yours. And in that case, if you take theirs, it seems a fair exchange. And at the end of the day, everybody has one umbrella. You shouldn't trade up. Don't exchange your $3 model for a $30 one! The other thing is, this is a very casual system, and it should be applied to very inexpensive items. It doesn't really apply to cars left in a parking lot...
The Tavis Smiley Show had its own question for Randy Cohen:
My best friend is a beauty, but her 12-year-old daughter isn't. The daughter is like an honorary niece, and she often speaks to me about things she's not comfortable talking to her mother about. She has often fretted to me that she does not have her mother's good looks, and because I've known her mom for years and years, I'm one of the few people on earth who knows that her mother wasn't a beauty at age 12 either. In fact, she's only a beauty now because she's had, as we say out on the West Coast, a lot of work done. Is telling the daughter more important than keeping her mother's secret?
If you've promised your friend, the girl's mother, when she confided in you about her "work," then you have to respect that; you can't betray that confidence. You have to find other things that will help the daughter, that will cheer her up and give her confidence about her appearance. (One thing is: stop reading so darned many teen magazines!) I understand that an adolescent girl is going to have questions about her appearance, but you must find ways to put (looks) in perspective, and to let her know that there are so many more things about her other than looks that are valuable and that make her valuable to others, that she ought not worry so much about this. And no, you may NOT anonymously mail her a childhood photo of you and her mom that shows her mom in her pre-worked-on state! Anything that begins "anonymously mailed" is unethical! (Anyway: can the mother really erase all vestiges of her childhood self? What
did she do, lock up all the family photo albums or something?!)
The New York Times Magazine Web site.
The Good The Bad and the Difference Web site.
Randy Cohen's column, "The Ethicist," appears in the New York Times Magazine each Sunday; a syndicated version, "Everyday Ethics," is carried by 40 newspapers around the country. And he's the author of The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How To Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations (Random House, 2002). Write him with ethical dilemmas of your own: firstname.lastname@example.org
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