Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mock The Ethicist: 3/18/2007

I'm going to go easy on Randy because he doesn't screw up too badly this week. I actually like his analysis of the tuition problem, or at least I would if it wasn't padded out with his usually barrage of filler material (".. Hawaii! And how will he get there? A brand new car! That drives underwater!"). But he shows an utter lack of intellectual curiosity with respect to the whole "kosher pot" question.

That may be my fundamental problem with everything that he writes; there doesn't seem to be any inclination on his part to examine issues in any depth. Its not like he's pressed for space, what with the "Hawaii" comments and that sort of thing. So why not expound a little on some of the genuinely interesting questions that cross his desk?

If he's going to abdicate then I'll rise to the challenge. The second question from this week's column is as follows:

My wife’s sister and her husband keep kosher, so we have a special pot for their visits. Recently my wife caught me using the pot for my traif soup. She insists we must buy another pot, but I say as long as my in-laws believe it’s kosher, they won’t violate their faith by using it. Would I be unethical to keep this secret or simply cheap? — Paul Kramer, Montclair, N.J.
As Randy rightfully notes, its not a good idea to sign your name to a question that you want to keep secret. But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Kramer hadn't disclosed his identity and let the cat out of the bag. How do you go about answering this one?

Let's select, as our frame for this discussion, the following definition: An act is unethical if it can reasonably be foreseen to causes someone unnecessary harm. That seems like a reasonable enough definition, so how do we apply it here? This is where it gets interesting since this determination hinges, in part, on Mr. Kramer's attitude towards keeping kosher.

If Mr. Kramer believes in the importance of keeping kosher then this question doesn't require very detailed analysis. Both he, and his in-laws, would agree that using the non-kosher pot would constitute a small, but avoidable, harm. That being the case there's really no question that Mr. Kramer would be acting unethically to use the pot.

It's apparent, however, that Mr. Kramer and his in-laws have different opinions about the importance of keeping kosher. The subtext of Mr. Kramer's question, and this is why I'm accusing Mr. Cohen of a lack of intellectual curiosity, is whether its OK to disregard someone else's beliefs if such beliefs fall outside the realm of testability. More plainly spoken, he wants to know if he's actually doing them any harm by allowing them to eat out of a pot they would consider tainted, even though he himself doesn't agree with that assessment.

Here I will part ways with Mr. Cohen, though I recognize that my views on this subject probably put me squarely in the minority. I believe that using the pot, provided that Mr. Kramer's in-laws remain convinced that it's still kosher, doesn't represent an ethical violation. I say this because I can't, from Mr. Kramer's assumed vantage point, identify any harm that would be done to his in-laws through the use of the pot.

Now here, of course, someone will raise the issue of misrepresentation (or "lying", as it used to be called). If Mr. Kramer were to represent the pot as kosher to his in-laws wouldn't he basically be lying to them? Yes, undoubtedly, but consider the following:

  • The lie does no identifiable harm.
  • The use of a genuinely kosher pot also involves a misrepresentation since it validates a belief that Mr. Kramer himself apparently doesn't hold. It essentially constitutes a lie by action.
To hold that a lie is always unethical leads to a lot of practical problems; that's why Western folk morality has the concept of "white lies" i.e. lies which do no harm. I contend that the claiming the pot is kosher represents an instance of a white lie. The alternative, holding that a lie is always unethical, calls into question the entirety of Mr. Kramer's interactions with his in-laws. I tend to think that if Mr. Kramer doesn't believe in keeping kosher he shouldn't pander to his in-laws, but I believe that the majority of society would hold that its more important to get along instead.

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