February 7, 2009

ethical dilemma

Let's suppose, hypothetically, that there's someone who is a public advocate on a particular subject, and is relatively well known for his or her advocacy. You happen to know that this writer/speaker/agency director/political candidate's behavior in his or her private life is dramatically at odds with his or her advocacy positions. We're not talking, "Leaves the lights on in the other room while writing about environmentalism," we're talking, "Owns four Hummers and has trophy heads from endangered species on his or her wall." Or, writes movingly about the importance of preventing child abuse, but has broken his or her own child's arm several times. You have this information, and you are also pretty sure you could contact someone who is integrally involved in facilitating this person's further advocacy, whom you reasonably believe would find this person's private behavior appalling, and whom you also reasonably believe might take steps to alter this person's public role given new information. What is your responsibility? Do you have an obligation to offer that information? To keep your mouth shut and not damage someone else's life? Does it vary depending on the severity of the infraction and the importance of the person's position?

I haven't been able to get a handle on this at all. So any thoughts you have, I'd like to hear.


THE FIRE BOSS (aka EFF BEE) said...

Interesting question. My first concern would be the kid -- is the kid still in danger of abuse? If so, my first stop would probably be the police. I would think that the process of getting the kid protection would bring public attention to the situation on its own, but maybe confidentiality issues would prevent that. I dunno. Still, I would think that someone involved in protecting the kid (social worker, etc.) would call the advocate on the carpet.

Assuming the abuse is past and the kid's out of the house, I don't think you have an obligation either way. I think it could be argued that the advocacy work has merit independent of private reality (consider, e.g., advocating the right to choose even if I myself would not feel comfortable having an abortion). Again, assuming the kid is safe, the issue seems one of hypocrisy. Would the person facilitating the advocate's career want to support that? That'd be my next question.

amelia said...

fascinating to see this particular analogy drawn out this way. i would argue that the most immediate question, assuming that False Advocate's kid is now safe, is whether other kids (or people) might be in danger from this person -- but that the questions don't end there. would outing False Advocate require some sort of due process that would put the kid in renewed distress? would outing False Advocate be about protection, responsibility, or just retribution?

and so on.

vigilante justice of this sort is scary, and most scary when it feels urgently necessary (cf. women's bathroom stalls at colleges and universities).

THE FIRE BOSS (aka EFF BEE) said...

Am, I was wondering if it's really vigilante justice to share information. Can it be vigilante to inform the police of a crime? Or just to share such info with the False Advocate's career facilitator?

amelia said...

i'm thinking vigilante justice as opposed to due process -- so sharing False Advocate's real status with the police, thereby beginning a "due" process, is not vigilantism, whereas sharing with the facilitator is vigilantism because it invites the facilitator to be the proverbial "judge, jury and executioner."

but i put quotation marks around "due" up there for a reason. police processes are what we've decided on as "due" in our democracy, but they often suck royally.

North said...

After more thought, I see two issues going on. First, perhaps one might wish to discredit False Advocate's views. This would be a Ted Haggard - Mike Jones kind of situation, and I think the clear winner for "most effective way to discredit a hypocrite" is to make False Advocate's hypocrisy widely known, not just among those who support his or her career (in Ted Haggard's case, the other staff at his church) but also to whatever general public might be interested.

But I don't want to discredit environmentalism, or the idea that you shouldn't hit your kids. So it's more complicated. Assuming the metaphorical kid is out of the metaphorical house (or the endangered species is dead), I don't see a protection issue. The proposed tactic isn't aimed at members of False Advocate's social circle - it's aimed at the professional circle and reputation he/she has cultivated via hypocrisy. So: retribution. But also responsibility. I can imagine a situation in which someone who has gravely violated his or her principles seeks to atone for that violation by being an advocate for said principles. But that involves accepting responsibility, um, responsibly. Like, on your own. Otherwise it's just fakery.

I think that, fundamentally, the urgency of this ethical dilemma comes from its emotional content rather than its ethical content. It's infuriating to see someone achieve prominence in a fundamentally dishonest way, and even more infuriating if the dishonesty was really harmful to particular people.

amelia said...


North said...

Ok, so I've been thinking about this some more. And here's the thing. There can be a protection issue even when the hypothetical child is out of the hypothetical house. Say you knew False Advocate actively sought baby-sitting gigs, or was considering adopting a child - does that change your obligations?

Second, I've been thinking about Bill Clinton. He mostly was accused of having consensual affairs (hypocritical, given the state of US political talk on sexuality, but which I basically think is a private matter); but there were also accusations of rape. But they weren't raised until he was already president, and already had an extensive defense system available. He didn't have to take responsibility for his previous actions, and was in a position to continue with various iterations of similar actions. If you knew that False Advocate were pursuing a career where he or she would be similarly insulated from even reputational reprisals, would that change your obligations?

Witt said...

For me the fundamental question is, To what end? What would I be trying to achieve?

If I'm trying to make sure that False Advocate isn't actively hurting another human being, then I'm going to be less focused on unmasking/humilating them and more focused on how to prove my allegations sufficiently that the relevant authority figures take it seriously. This is going to depend very heavily on what the betrayal is and which social systems are in place to combat it.

For example, the foster care system in many places is sufficiently horrific that I would think long and hard before setting in motion a chain of events that might subject any child to it.

I'd also think about the consequences to other people. If False Advocate is a great big anti-choice activist who has secretly taken his/her daughter for an abortion, that to me is entirely off-limits because the daughter didn't ask to be dragged into your fit of righteousness.

If my goal were *not* to save another person from active harm by FA, but instead to attack FA's authority on a particular subject, I'd probably start marginalizing them by doing end-runs around their expertise, and actively talking up other (competent) advocates' abilities. If I were a small cog in the wheel I'd just make sure to divert attention to interesting ideas at advocacy meetings. If I were a more powerful cog, I'd start actively cutting them out of meetings. Most people won't have the guts to ask why, and if they do, I'd answer honestly that I didn't feel comfortable working with FA on this topic. You'd probably get some unexpected allies -- it's rare that NOBODY else has identified that something weird is going on, but most people are going to be too scared or self-protective or paralyzed to do anything about it. Until you start the avalanche with a few small pebbles.

Mostly, I think it comes down to what your conscience can live with at three o'clock in the morning. If you're the kind of person who's a whistleblower by nature, then damn the torpedos and full speed ahead. Just be aware that you can never anticipate all of the fallout, good OR bad.

If you're the kind of person who is a pragmatic problem-solver, always trying to minimize pain and maximize good results, then proceed with caution. Better to open the door a crack by testing the waters with colleagues, such as "It makes me uncomfortable with I see FA ____" and seeing how they respond. It takes a delicate touch to do this, but can be dramatically more effective in the long run.