I am extremely torn about what to do. I don’t want to call the authorities on my community, but I feel there needs to be some kind of accountability for the flagrant disregard of rules and profound disrespect of others, not to mention that this restaurant has created a potential virus vector. What would be an ethical analysis of this situation? Name Withheld
You witnessed a potential superspreader event, and if you leave things as they are, another one could appear every day at this restaurant for the foreseeable future. Diners there may end up causing sickness and death elsewhere through their indifference to the rules. In these circumstances, reporting what you’ve seen might save lives.
There can be reasons not to bring down the full weight of the law on people, especially those with whom you have a connection: Maybe the law is irrational or enforced with too heavy a hand. But here the rules are rational, and you offer no reason to think the enforcement will be inappropriate. Meanwhile, the restaurant can still serve its patrons with its takeout service. Current projections have us entering March with over half a million Covid-19 deaths. We need to take all reasonable measures to slow the spread.
Like many single people during the pandemic, I and my sibling, both in our early 30s, have been living on and off with our two baby-boomer parents in the home we grew up in. All four of us are quite close, and our relationships are good: We talk frequently, go on walks, play games and have dinner together often. The only significant cause of tension is a disagreement about the obligation we adult children have to be “friendly” to our parents. Among other things, this includes making sure to tell them when we are leaving the house, though they grudgingly accept not being told where we are going. When I tell them that I would like to be able to leave without notifying them, or refuse on principle to report on my sibling’s whereabouts, they become upset.
The house is much too small to afford any degree of privacy. I fully believe that as a guest, I have a duty to do whatever my parents ask of me; but on the other hand, I wonder if my obligations might in some ways be more like those of a roommate. My parents insist that they want to make me as comfortable as possible. After discussing the matter, it seems as if I’m either going to act in a way that hurts their feelings or just give in and accept my own feeling that I’m under surveillance. Which should it be? Name Withheld
Your parents, apparently, say it’s a matter of being “friendly”; you say it’s a matter of being “under surveillance.” Neither description strikes me as right. Your parents may enjoy having you around, but they’re doing you a favor in letting you stay with them during the pandemic. They’ve agreed, even if reluctantly, that you needn’t say where you’re off to. (I agree that would be intrusive.) But is it really such a burden to tell someone whose house you’re living in when you’re going out for a while? This isn’t a matter of being friendly; it’s a matter of acceding to a request they have a right to make of guests, even if those guests are their children.
I agree that it’s not your job to report on your sibling’s movements; hosts don’t have the right to oblige guests to regulate the behavior of other guests. But because the house is small and everyone is presumably able to find out who’s in and out, the information your parents are asking for is only something they’ll most likely learn anyway. To say “I’m going out for a few hours” isn’t the same as submitting to surveillance. Besides, I wonder whether this isn’t more a matter of anxiety alleviation than control. Old habits die hard; parents can worry when their children disappear without notice.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)