Is it unethical to pry? The Times's Ethicists say 'butt out' | Bleader

Is it unethical to pry? The Times's Ethicists say 'butt out'

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Is it unethical to snoop? I don't think so. The weekly conversation among the Ethicists in the Sunday New York Times Magazine is usually pretty interesting, but the one this past weekend surprised me with its opacity.

Here was the situation. "Last night," the correspondent began, "I witnessed an assault on a taxi driver. After the passenger jumped out of the cab and kicked it repeatedly, the driver got out and confronted the man. The man suddenly began throwing punches, and a legitimate brawl ensued during which the man yelled things like 'go back where you came from' and 'I was born in this country, you weren't.'"

A crowd gathered, the police arrived, and our correspondent approached the police to put in a good word for the cabbie. They listened, he told the Ethicists, "but told me they did not need me as an official witness." What's more, the police didn't arrest the passenger, a "black man [who] was claiming that the cabdriver would not take him to Harlem but that he probably would have if he were white." And in fact, the police barely bothered to collect information. (Our correspondent seemed perturbed that the police treated the matter as a mere cool-down-and-move-along situation instead of with drawn guns and handcuffs.)

But as luck would have it, during the scuffle he heard something bounce his way. It was a wedding band—a Cartier band that, it turned out, would sell new for well more than $1,000. Our correspondent approached the cabbie and asked if the ring was his. No, said the cabbie, it was the passenger's. In that case . . . "I asked somewhat conspiratorially if he wanted the ring anyway, but he said no."

The upshot is our correspondent has the valuable ring and it's burning a hole in his pocket. What's more, he spotted a notice on Craigslist asking for a reward for a missing ring and he's pretty sure it's the ring he's got. What should he do?

The Ethicists in question are philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, novelist Amy Bloom, and law professor Kenji Yoshino. Everyone said pretty much what Bloom said, which was: "The smarter thing is to just butt out at this point, just bring it to the attention of the police and say, 'Here's the ring, here's the Craigslist posting and here you have it,' and get out of the situation with your partial knowledge." "The police are better equipped to resolve these issues," said Yoshino.

I stress partial knowledge because it needs to be stressed, not that any of the Ethicists entirely understood its significance. Yoshino did observe that the correspondent had "no idea" what went on in the cab before the irate passenger jumped out. And Appiah, declaring that the correspondent mustn't keep the ring no matter how badly its owner behaved, pointed out that the correspondent doesn't know how badly that is—"You didn't see the whole story."

First of all, I question what I think is the fatuous advice to just turn the ring over to the police. It'll probably get to its rightful owner but it might not, and I'm sure the Ethicists recognize that but don't care. Wash your hands of the problem, they say, and let the real world go its own way. Second, I question their failure to consider the obligation that a person who doesn't know the whole story might put himself under to find out!

Surely this is human nature speaking now, not just the professional training of a journalist. If it were me with the ring, giving it to the police wouldn't enter my mind. Knowing when, where, and how the ring was lost, I'd easily establish beyond any doubt whether the Craigslist guy was its owner, and if he was I'd bring it to him myself. I wouldn't do it for the reward. I wouldn't do it out of human decency. I'd go to Harlem and give it to him in order to size him up. I'd chuckle at the melee I'd witnessed and ask him, "What set that off?" and he'd give me his version of it. I'd believe what he said or I wouldn't. But I'd come away with a fuller understanding of what actually happened.

Is it unethical to pry this way? Is it unethical to want to know more and to indulge that want? Some will say it's risky and stupid, and it may be, but that doesn't make it wrong. When journalists pry it's the height of virtue. Our correspondent made himself a player in the brawl he described in his letter to the Ethicists. He stayed to watch. He volunteered information to the police. He pocketed lost property and used it to try to conspire with one brawler against the other. Afterward, he went to the New York Times. If at this point he feels—or can be made to feel—it's his duty to find out more, why isn't it? Yet none of the Ethicists suggested that as an ethical way forward.

Nobody said it, and I have a feeling nobody thought it. In the words of Amy Bloom, "Butt out." In this world, no one's happy about the level of ignorance of everyone else, but no one encourages strangers to stick their noses into other people's business.

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