When Does Someone Else’s Unethical Behavior Become My Business?

A question for discussion: assuming that not every unethical or immoral action by another person is my business, even if I am a witness to it, is there a principle I can  use to determine when it’s appropriate to say something or intervene when someone else does something unethical?   If so, what is it?  If not, on what basis should I decide whether or not to “do something”?

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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24 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    First, I would say that ethics and morality are different things, so in the context of your query they must be addressed separately. Ethics has to do with proper social social conduct–human interaction with other people, other living creatures, and other living things. That being the case, unethical behavior always has a victim. Moreover, there is pretty good agreement among all people concerning what is ethical and what is not. (As soon as I say that, people will begin to trot out the exceptions that prove the rule; but I stick by what I’ve said.)
    Morality, by contrast, encompasses a much wider spectrum of behaviors, on which there is much room for disagreement among individuals and groups. Some people think it is immoral to smoke cigarettes. Others merely think it’s stupid. Others think it’s fine and dandy. I could go on, but I think I can get general agreement on my contention that there is much disagreement on what is moral and what is not.
    My conclusion, therefore, is that it is never wrong to intervene when unethical behavior is witnessed, so long as the motivation for that intervention is the protection of that behavior’s victim or victims.
    With moral issues, however, one is on very dangerous ground in presuming to intervene, unless the immorality witnessed is of the kind that has victims (of which there are many, to be sure.) And even, then, as in the case of abortion, for instance, if one decides to intervene, one must do so with the realization that one’s actions will run counter to many other peoples’ value systems and expect vigorous push-back in response to one’s actions.

    • I was wondering myself how to distinguish unethical from immoral. Your distinction is as good as any.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Using your framework, Rodak, I assume you would call the police if you noticed a neighbor physically abusing his child, but what, if anything, would you do if you overheard a conversation between a parent and a child in which the parent encouraged the child to bully other children at school. Would this parent’s action classify as unethical in your reading? Would it be any of your business?

      • I know you asked this question of Rodak, but here is where standing, or something like it, might come in.

        I do think it would be unethical for the parent to encourage their child to be a bully. But the next question is, how successful is the intervention likely to be? Standing is a part of that because I assume that a parent who would encourage their child to be a bully might not necessarily be receptive to a rebuke from a stranger.

        Another quality of standing, albeit tangential to the explicit point you’re raising, is that someone with standing is more likely to have a more complete picture of what’s going on. We also have to be careful about what the facts are. We might overhear a conversation between a parent and child and interpret it as the parent encouraging the child to be a bully, but we also might not be hearing the whole story. My father, for example, used to encourage me to fight back against bullies, and someone listening in who heard only part of the conversation might have took what he said to mean I should bully others, which was not his point. Someone with “standing” who was privy to that conversation might have known that I was being bullied in school and would have had a better grasp of the facts. (For the record, although I was sometimes bullied in school, and although there is no excuse for bullying, I was often not completely innocent in those encounters, and in some ways I was also a bully to other kids.)

        The situation gets muddy, of course, because the cost of intervening might not be that high, unless the parent is him-/herself violent: the cost might be simply that the intervenor is embarrassed and accused of being nosy. Also, even if the parent might be defensive, the child will see that not all adults share the parent’s views. And who knows, maybe the parent would be appropriately shamed by the rebuke.

        I’ll add that the situation would change if, say, the parent is encouraging their child to bully another child who is right in front of them and you (or I) are in a position to stop the actual bullying.

        • Rodak says:

          I am taking Kyle’s hypothetical to set up a situation in which I somehow *know* that the child is being told to bully, rather than to defend himself when bullied by others. If it were not so black and white, I would probably adopt a wait-and-see attitude before saying anything to the neighbor. Or, I might try to engage him in conversation to see if I could determine with more certainty where he was coming from. Obviously, when only talk is involved, one has to play it by ear. When an actual act is being committed, things are more cut and dried.

      • Rodak says:

        Yes, I think it would be my business. What immediately comes to mind, is voicing my disapproval to the neighbor (but not in front of his child), and/or contacting the school in question with a warning concerning the possible bad behavior and/or need for special counseling of the child in question.

  2. GordonHide says:

    Well, assuming your moral code of conduct is in tune with that of the society you live in then it is reasonable for you to take whatever action you deem reasonable (and which is also in line with the moral code of conduct of the society in which you live).

    Basically people learn that they are not conforming to that which is expected by the reaction they get from their fellows.

    I guess if your looking for a principle then you should intervene if you calculate that the consequences of your intervention will be for the general good, (including your own).

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I could become quite the busybody intervening on behalf of the general good.

      • GordonHide says:

        Perhaps, but perhaps you underestimate the frequency with which you would do nothing because you cannot calculate the consequences of your intervention with confidence.

  3. I generally use my standing in the situation as a guide about intervention.

    Is my relationship to the situation one that rests on my profession? If so, then the ethical obligations of my profession obligate me to intervene. Is my relationship to the situation premised on a shared participation in some community (eg. church)? Then my obligations as a member of the community prompt me to act. Is someone vulnerable likely to be harmed by the action? In which case my place in society as a moral agent requires me to intervene.

    If the answer to all of the above is “no,” then perhaps the best tack to take is “none of my business.”

    • I like the “standing” idea, although I wouldn’t limit it to professional standing or standing as a member of a community (e.g., a church). I would also say that “standing” ought to (also) mean that the person to whom you are intervening recognizes your moral authority.

      For example, I once made, to a friend, a mean-spirited joke about an ex-girlfriend I had had. He rebuked me, saying I was out of line (and I was). I was sufficiently shamed and, I hope humbled, to realize that I ought not say such things. One of the reasons he could say that was because he had standing (according to me) because he was my friend and I valued his opinion. It wasn’t so much that I wouldn’t be ashamed if a complete stranger had called me out, but a complete stranger might have had less place to call me. At the same time, I believe the stranger would have been right to do so, so perhaps the standard is a non-standard, as far as I’m concerned.

      • Kyle Cupp says:

        Can we distinguish, though, between being right and having a right to do so?

        • Rodak says:

          As I said above, you have the right–if not the duty–to defend a person (or any creature), whom you see being abused.
          It is questionable, however, if you have either the right or the duty to prevent another person from abusing himself; i.e. direct intervention might be a violation of that person’s right to privacy. Some form of empathetic persuasion might be attempted, but if rebuffed that too might arguably need to be abandoned.

        • GordonHide says:

          I’m confused. Strange question. I believe you already know the difference between right meaning duty or freedom to act and right meaning compliant with a moral code of conduct?

        • Kyle,

          I think the answer is yes, although it’s hard to do so. I think Rodak’s rubric is a good starting point. However, and I think he’d agree, things can get messy in practice.

          Maybe it has something to do with respect for others’ will. I know you’re a fan of the LOTR (as am I), so take that as an example.*

          Gandalf can see that the Ring is hurting Bilbo and he warns him of it, but ultimately must convince him to abandon it; he cannot take it by force. Similarly, doesn’t he comment to Frodo that he could only take the Ring from him (Frodo) by breaking his (Frodo’s) will? In other words, there’s a certain autonomy Gandalf has to respect. Of course, this addresses only the means of intervention, not whether Gandalf ought to intervene in the first place. But I would suggest that he has standing because he is Bilbo’s and Frodo’s friend.

          Finally, if we’re talking about the Ring of Power, there’s the obvious (to me) point that there are negative 3rd party externalities to letting someone else have the Ring unchecked, because Sauron will likely get hold of it and take over Middle Earth. But if one is searching for an allegory here (and I realize Tolkien wasn’t keen on claiming his work as an allegory), I suggest one find it in the notion that anyone’s viciousness affects the world entire, even if it concerns a private “vice,” because it feeds and encourages the force of evil in the world. In this sense, we all have an interest in intervening in others’ lives, but I suggest that we as humans are inherently incapable of doing so in a way that is sheerly good, and we have to temper the inevitable and inexorable collateral damage we’ll inflict with the prospects that what we do will work out mostly for the best, all the while trying to keep in mind that it’s not about our power over others, but our charity (caritas) toward others.

          I hope what I write makes sense and is not too self-contradictory. This comment is a lot longer than I had intended it.

          *Forgive me if I’m confusing the movies with the books…I’m not well-enough versed to remember where I got what examples.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Standing is a good guide, one I would use as well, but it is rather relative. I wonder if there’s anything more objective.

  4. One guideline to go by, while not sufficient, might be necessary:

    It’s to keep in mind (or to assume) that we can judge only actions and not the moral worth of people. I guess that judging a certain action to be wrong is in a sense judging any person who performs that action, but we do not know the whole person and cannot judge that person.

    A bit garbled, and not much of a guideline, even if you agree with its premises.

    • GordonHide says:

      This is a good point think. In particular if you start judging people rather than what they do you will quickly get into the murky world of motives which you can only surmise.

  5. KenB says:

    An attempt to formalize, drawing from some responses above:

    Normative questions:
    * To what extent has the “offender” implicitly or explicitly bound herself to the given norm that’s being violated (e.g. by being a member of a normative community holding that norm, by having previously announced that she adheres to it)?
    * To what extent has she implicitly or explicitly entitled you to enforce the norm against her (did she ask you to help her follow it, are you so situated in the normative community that you have the right or obligation to do so)?
    * If for the purposes of the given norm, you’re not entitled to enforce it within the rules of a mutual normative community, then to what extent is the given norm high enough in your own moral hierarchy that you’re willing to enforce it on those who haven’t consented to it (for most people, items in this category would have to involve substantial harm)
    * To what extent do you trust your own judgment in making these assessments?

    Pragmatic questions:
    * To what extent is your intervention likely to be effective in enforcing the norm, both in the short run and the long run?
    * What adverse consequences are possible or likely from your attempt to intervene?
    * To the extent that you feel entitled to act and you think it will ultimately be for the best, do you have the courage or other necessary personal resources to intervene?

  6. BlaiseP says:

    Moral triage:

    1. What power do I have in a given situation to change the outcome?

    2. If I choose to intervene, whose authority do I invoke in this process?

    3. In the absence of mandate or authority to act, to whom might I bring the details of this unethical episode?

    Always start with 3. Get details. Who, what, when and where. Think like a reporter or a prosecutor. Do not answer Why. If you don’t have the muscle and fire power to change the outcome, gather evidence. You’re not law enforcement. You’re a witness. Don’t play Billy Bad Ass in that situation. No individual is a Moral Authority. Your strongest threat in that situation is to quietly inform the perp if he carries through on this, you’re going to tell the story to everyone who will listen.

  7. Rodak says:

    “Can we distinguish, though, between being right and having a right to do so?”

    It’s not a question of “correctness” vs. “license.” It is rather a question of the “obligation created by observed need” vs. “tolerance” — or, to put it more simply, of “duty” vs. “not getting involved.”

  8. Rodak says:

    I would say that, on the whole, it is much, much easier to find good, pragmatic reasons NOT to get involved in a given situation than it is to find reasons to intervene. And that, I would venture further to say, is the reason that we live in kind of world we see around us (or choose NOT to see, as the case may be…?) on a daily basis.