From time to time, I like to read The Ethicist in the Sunday New York Times, not so much for the answers but for the snooty banality of the questions:
Last weekend, our dear friends left half a bottle of an expensive port at our vacation home in the Hamptons. However, they have since departed on a long holiday to Bilbao, and we fear that the port will not maintain its character by the time they return. Are we ethically obliged to send it to them, or may we enjoy the remains for ourselves?
Bernice Summers, New Canaan, Connecticut
It wouldn’t surprise me if in next week’s edition we saw a letter like this.
Last week, I overheard a confrontation between a player and an umpire at a professional sporting match. I was the lone witness to this verbal exchange, in which several things were said that might be incriminating to either party. I am involved in professional sports myself, and I fear that I might face retribution from the fraternity of players or the brotherhood of umpires if I come forward, depending on my version of events. Am I nevertheless ethically required to do so?
Todd H., Denver, Colorado
I tend to think that the answer to this question is “yes”, particuarly if Todd Helton feels that justice will not be meted out fairly in the Milton Bradley incident unless he comes forward. Certainly, if Helton heard something that could be construed as racist on the part of umpire Mike Winters, he has a quite strong moral obligation to tell his side of the story. To some extent, however, if the accusations that Winters used racist language become any more pronounced — for the time being, first base coach Bobby Meachem only softly made that implication after being prompted by a reporter — Helton would be just as obligated to come forward, because being accused of using racist language is a serious thing these days.
Several years ago I got into a verbal sparring match with a superior while working after hours on a project at my old consulting job. There were no vulgarities exchanged, but it became heated enough that we both complained to senior management by the time that the office re-opened on Monday. Management, naturally, assigned an equal share of blame to each of us, putting us both on a probationary period for a couple of weeks.
It’s natural to compare the Bradley situation to something like this, a normal workplace disagreement in which it just isn’t worth the effort to do anything other than split the difference and give both sides a slap on the wrist. In fact, however, the situation meets a higher threshold because the umpire is not just Bradley’s superior but also literally an arbiter of his fate. Mike Winters is welcome to say whatever he wants under his breath, but if he loses is cool to the point where he actually baits Bradley (racially or otherwise) into a confrontation on the field, one wonders whether he’s really going to be able to refrain from letting his personal opinions get in the way of calling a fair game. We really aren’t all that far removed from a Tim Donaghy territory, in which the integrity of the games is called into question.
None of this makes life any easier on Helton — if he suggests that Winters and umpires can be retributive, he might well face some of that retribution himself. Nevertheless, real ethical dilemmas are never easy, and Helton is obligated to tell his piece.