The Ethicist: Help Your Friends or Your People

What happens when a desire to help your friends conflicts with a desire to help your people? Host Debbie Elliott and New York Times Magazine Ethicist Randy Cohen talk to a listener who can't decide which side to choose.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. Many of us subscribe to list-serves, online mailing lists and discussion groups that pass around tidbits of information for specific audiences. Is it ethical to pass on these tidbits to others outside the targeted audience? That's the question today for New York Times magazine ethicist Randy Cohen. Randy, hi there.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (New York Times Magazine): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Our question about list-serves comes from Katrina Randolph of South Orange, New Jersey. We also have her on the line. Welcome, Ms. Randolph.

Ms. KATRINA RANDOLPH (Caller): Hi.

ELLIOTT: So...

Ms. RANDOLPH: Katrina, please.

ELLIOTT: OK, Katrina. What lists do you subscribe to, and what exactly is your question?

Ms. RANDOLPH: Well, I'm a lawyer. I'm an African-American woman who practices law in New York, and over the last several years I have joined organizations like, for example, the Corporate Counsel Women of Color, which is an in-house lawyer organization primarily for minority women, and the organization seeks to further the interests of minority women who are corporate counsel.

They have conferences where they invite speakers. They also have these list-serves or email lists that they send out that have job listings, and the idea is to increase the pool of minority or women candidates for those positions.

ELLIOTT: What have you been doing with that information?

Ms. RANDOLPH: I get that information and sometimes I forward it to friends of mine who I know may be looking for jobs, but a lot of times I have friends who maybe don't fit those demographics. They're not minorities or they're not women, but they're still looking for jobs, and if I come across something, this has happened at least three times in the last year, I have to think, well, can I send this listing to that person, too? So I have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But I feel kind of guilty about it.

ELLIOTT: Is there any sort of understanding in these groups that this is somehow exclusive information?

Ms. RANDOLPH: Well, I'll admit to you, Debbie, that I actually haven't looked at the policies because then I'll feel like I'm truly violating a rule...

ELLIOTT: Oh.

Ms. RANDOLPH: ...if the policy says you may not forward and then I do anyway.

ELLIOTT: I use that method sometimes. Seek forgiveness, not permission, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RANDOLPH: Yeah, right. Don't ask, don't tell is really what my policy has been. I'm just really unsure, but I have a feeling that if I ask they would say, well, we really don't intend you to forward the minority woman email list to your white male friends.

ELLIOTT: So, Randy, should Katrina be passing on these job listings?

Mr. COHEN: Alas, she should not. As a lawyer...

Ms. RANDOLPH: Oh!

Mr. COHEN: ...ignorance of the law is no excuse, I thought, you know, that while you haven't checked the actual wording that these organizations have to determine whether or not you can disseminate the list, your not knowing that, and your deliberately remaining ignorant, I'm sorry, you may step down, no further questions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Also, you know, then you feel guilty about it, as you said. That's usually a pretty good sign that at least you should, not necessarily that we're doing wrong, because I feel guilty about, you know, nearly everything, but that you might at least want to scrutinize your behavior.

And you got these lists as a member of a particular organization, and whether or not you formally agreed to their goals, you at least implicitly agreed to support their mission, and you shouldn't betray the trust they extend to you as a member.

And so if the list is meant to help African-American women, when you forward it to other people, no matter how kind and progressive and decent your friends are, you're undermining the purpose of that group, and it's a kind of lie, isn't it? It's a kind of deceit that when you joined, you were endorsing their goals, and you should support their goals, and maybe that's why you feel guilty.

Ms. RANDOLPH: Well, and I feel, I'll admit to you, although I'm even a little bit embarrassed to admit it, that part of my guilt, I think, stems from being a member of a minority group and wondering whether by helping someone in that way, I am sort of hurting my people overall.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, I think you are. I think you are. That, you know, we white men, we do stuff in the men's room you would not believe.

I mean, that is where information is exchanged, you know, that not every member of the larger legal community has access to, so that if this is addressing that inequity, this sounds like a good thing what these organizations are doing.

Ms. RANDOLPH: I find it interesting that you see it to be a fairly clear-cut issue, because to me I felt like I had two competing issues. One was I have personal friends about, you know, whom I care about and who find themselves in predicaments, and I have information that can be very helpful to them. And I don't share it. That strikes me as being ethically challenging or wrong too.

Mr. COHEN: The source of the information is really significant, that if you had information that might help them, but with confidential client information you wouldn't think of passing that on to your friends.

RANDOLPH: That is true.

ELLIOTT: Okay. I have a question now. What if she sees a job on these African American women lawyer list-serves and then goes and finds that job posting somewhere else in a non-exclusive place and forwards that to her friends, would that be okay?

Mr. COHEN: Debbie, you sound awfully cunning and perhaps - are you sure you're not considering law school now that you're not - not that you're not a fine broadcaster. But as an ethical matter, if the original source of that information, the way you learned about it, was through this exclusive list, you can't then go and look for another source, 'cause you never would have known about this but for your membership in a group. There's one thing we didn't mention, that Katrina has one out, which is always to just check with the group itself. Some groups may have a very easygoing, openhanded policy about passing on this information. And if the group doesn't mind, there's no reason she should.

ELLIOTT: Katrina Randolph, thanks for writing to the ethicist.

RANDOLPH: Thank you very much.

ELLIOTT: If you'd like advice from Randy Cohen, write to us. Got to our website, npr.org, click on contact us, and select Weekend All Things Considered. Put the word ethics in the subject line and please include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, thanks so much for being with us.

COHEN: Thanks again, Debbie.

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