Monday, February 12, 2007

Mock The Ethicist: 2/11/2007

Mr. Cohen manages not to embarrass himself too much this week, though as usual he pads his conclusions with a mountain of unnecessary verbiage. This weeks questions:

  1. Should a translator translate documents which he knew were fraudulently obtained?
  2. Should someone do the right thing when the rest of their peers are behaving unethically?

Mr. Cohen answers "no" and "yes", respectively, so I can't really fault him for his answers. The second question is actually simple enough that his answer suffices, but with respect to the first question he asserts the answer without actually justifying himself.

Why should a translator decline to translate under the conditions described in the first question? Mr. Cohen doesn't really delve into that question, choosing to assert that the fact that the documents are stolen is sufficient to proscribe the translation. While I happen to agree with this assessment, I believe that a more thorough discussion is in order.

The cuckold has the diary pages, but in their untranslated condition they're pretty much useless to him; he needs access to their semantic content. The translator's act of translation provides this semantic content. The translator is then morally culpable if the following conditions hold:

  1. The cuckold's wife has an expectation of privacy with respect to her diary.
  2. The translator should respect this privacy right in this situation.

Item 1 seems reasonable after due consideration. Belief in the autonomy of the individual suggests that no person should be compelled to divulge their private thoughts. While I might question the wisdom of committing these private thoughts to paper, I don't believe that doing so implicitly waives this right. Neither does the woman's marital status; in Western marriage we generally discourage the keeping of secrets within the marriage, but we still assert the individual autonomy of husband and wife.

In this case the wife has an expectation of privacy with respect to both the physical diary and its semantic content. Usually those two things are indivisible, but they've become decoupled in this case because the diary is written in a language which the husband can't understand. The husband has violated his wife's privacy to some degree by making copies of the diary pages, but a further violation will be committed by the translator if he makes the semantic content available to the husband. I can see no reason why the translator shouldn't respect the wife's right to privacy in this situation, ergo he should not translate.

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