Today at work, one of my heroin addict patients getting treated in inpatient rehab for heroin addiction managed to smuggle…well, you want to take a wild guess? Yeah, he smuggled in some heroin and got high in the hospital. Another patient saw him do it and told me. I had a long talk with him and took measures to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed in the addict. Anyone who expects heroin addicts to follow rules that result in them getting less heroin is going to be so consistently frustrated that they will eventually lower their standards.
But I am a little disappointed in the patient who told me. Come on, man! Nobody likes a tattletale!
I realize this feeling is totally one hundred percent irrational. The patient was absolutely correct that using heroin in rehab is bad, we enforce our anti-heroin rules fairly and don’t have any draconian punishments when people break them, and most of these people come into rehab at least sorta-voluntarily and agree to the rules. Telling me was absolutely the correct decision.
But I still feel a little disappointed in him.
This feeling is not born of any kind of personal experience. I’ve never had much trouble with authority. I follow most of the important laws, I never got in trouble in school. No one’s ever tattled on me. Although my association with many libertarians provides me with a lot of examples of authority overreaching itself, I’m pretty sure the rule “don’t use heroin in a drug rehab” isn’t one one of those.
As far as I can tell, my only two consistent positions are “disagree with the existence of rules” and “agree with rules and be happy when people help enforce those rules”, and I’m definitely not pushing for the first.
And yet I’m still kind of annoyed with that guy.
Dislike of tattletales seems to be, if not a human universal, at least a human very-common, arising in the absence of obvious social pressure and seeming attractive even to people whose social position ought to naturally turn them against it. My impression from old mobster movies is that even the police had contempt for people who ratted on organized crime, even though those people were obviously doing good for society.
This seems to be a clear case of virtue ethics versus utilitarianism. A rat who betrays the mob is helping society by getting rid of criminals, but he’s also proving himself an untrustworthy person who betrays his friends and who might not be a good choice to associate with. Fine.
But my patient? He never promised anybody he wasn’t going to tell on them. He had no association with the addict besides being a patient in the same hospital as him. If he had any duty at all, it was to his doctors, who were working really hard to help him, and he discharged this duty admirably by helping them enforce their rules.
So in this case I think it is just a flaw in my brain. I am acting as if all my patients had made some kind of implied deal to respect each other’s privacy, and the one tattletale was being a dealbreaker by defecting. But since no such deal was made – and since indeed people in a rehab facility should not expect such a deal – there was no deal-breaking involved.
One cannot say the same for the position endorsed by Leah Libresco, who wrote about a similar episode of tattling in her blog post The Ethicist Endorses Omertà
The NYT‘s Ethicist has taken a very strange approach to wrongdoing in this weekend’s column. A student wrote in to say that ze saw a friend take someone’s car keys and throw them into a lake. The friend offered the letterwriter $50 as an implicit bribe in order to stay quiet. The bribe worked. Later, someone came by looking for his keys, and the letterwriter kept mum. But ze felt queasy about zer choice, and asked the Ethicist for his advice.
Assume that for some reason he can’t just give the guy his $50 back before talking. His only two choices are to keep the money and stay silent, or keep the money and talk. The first choice fails to right a wrong, the second breaks his contract. Which is better?
The Ethicist said the writer was wrong to take the deal, but having taken it, he is compelled to respect it. Leah disagreed, saying that he was wrong to take the bribe, and having realized that he should break his deal and tell the victim everything. She says: “Sticking by an immoral compact wrongs yourself and your accomplice. . . it’s clear that we don’t want people to hew to unethical agreements, simply because breaking promises is bad.”
I’m about halfway between these two positions. One should try one’s hardest to get out of an immoral contract. But if that’s impossible, I think one needs to weigh the moral cost of breaking a promise against the moral cost of carrying out the immoral contract, with a bias towards keeping your word unless it’s totally repugnant.
Let me try to give an example Leah will be especially able to understand.
Suppose that I become a Catholic priest and take confession. I swear not to break the seal of the confessional and not to go tell the secular authorities what I hear.
My first client (I bet there’s a better word for that!) is a child molester who confesses all the child molestation he’s doing. I tell him to stop, and he says unconvincingly that he’ll think about it.
I think “Holy f@#k, I was just expecting people to talk about sleeping in on Sundays, this is way worse than I could have expected”. I decide that my original promise not to tell the secular authorities was immoral, and I go off and tell the secular authorities. They arrest the child molester. Everyone lives happily ever after except that no one confesses things at Church ever again.
Both Leah and myself agree that some sort of a confessional-type institution is useful (even if I as an atheist think of it more in terms of psychiatric confidentiality). But such an institution is impossible without people being able to really mean promises. A credible promise can’t just be “I promise to do this thing unless I later decide it is bad, in which case I won’t”. You have to be able to really trust someone.
As Leah herself very correctly puts it in a different blog post on a different botched Ethicist decision:
The Ethicist is crippling his own ability (and that of anyone suspected to subscribe to his philosophy) to make a promise. A promise is not an indication of present beliefs (“I don’t plan to repeat anything you say in this room”) it is a bind on future action (“I won’t repeat what you say, even if I wish I hadn’t made this promise later”). If he isn’t comfortable making that kind of promise, he has the option to tell patients and others up front, but treating promises as breakable upon reflection dilutes them for him and everyone else.
The covenant marriage movement is meant to counteract this kind of thinking in one sphere. In an age of no-fault divorce, they’re trying to carve out a special niche, clearly differentiated from mainstream marriage, where a change of heart isn’t sufficient justification to break a promise. But there isn’t an equivalent in most other spheres of life. One can say only “I really mean this promise,” and a reader of the Ethicist’s column might reasonably hear a silent “right now” at the end of that phrase.
But now it’s Leah adding the “right now” and The Ethicist enforcing covenants. Leah points out that the Ethicist has changed its mind on this point, but doesn’t explain why, upon being given the opposite position, she continues to disagree.
Promises are useful because they allow beneficial Pareto-optimal deals to be made. If promises are untrustworthy, beneficial deals become impossible and everyone loses out. The principle “Break all promises to respect immoral deals” not only makes immoral deals impossible, but also any moral deals where there is a risk of either participant deciding they are immoral, or even moral deals where one participant can credibly claim to have decided they are immoral and so back out of their obligation punishment-free. This is a pretty big set of deals and so we should not lightly endorse people’s ability to break promises they believe are immoral.
I should probably clarify here that all my promises usually contain an implied “unless following this promise is much more difficult than I could reasonably have expected” and I assume my interlocutor knows this. So if I promise someone to get them milk from the store, and then I go to the store and there’s only one carton of milk and a guy has just taken it and tells me he won’t give it to me, I don’t feel morally obligated to beat him up and steal it from him. If somebody wants a promise from me without the implied “unless” they are welcome to ask me for it. Or in certain cases where it is obvious that is what they want, I will assume it without being asked. And in those sorts of cases if I make it I will keep it, beating-up and all. But I would think much harder before making a promise like that, and I would lawyer its wording the same way I would a wish from a genie with a known mean streak.
Much simpler and perhaps best of all were those ancient promises, where people were like “If ever I betray your trust, then may the ravens of Odin peck out my right eye!” There’s no ambiguity here. You know exactly what’s enforcing the deal – getting your right eye pecked out by ravens. If you later decide your deal was unethical, you are welcome to assuage your conscience by cancelling it, but you should still expect to have your right eye pecked out by ravens. Since the enforcement mechanism is bloodthirsty heavenly birds rather than morality per se, you don’t get these weird questions about whether other, different morality can ride in and free you from it. It’s not even a question of “freeing” so much as of trade-offs. If you want to break your promise for money, you can get the money – but the ravens will peck out your eye. If you want to break your promise for love, you can get the love – but the ravens will peck out your eye. And if you want to break your promise for a greater moral cause, you can get your greater moral cause – but your eye still gets pecked out.
You know exactly where you stand with eye-pecking ravens, which is a hell of a lot better than you can ever say about morality.